A Response to Grayson Perry’s “The Descent of Man”

By Ruth Ankers

Perry says:

“Somewhere in every man’s head there is a governor, an unconscious inner voice sending instructions through the intercom. The department of masculinity is there to maintain standards. He takes ideas and images and assembles them into the model of a perfect man. The governor sits there constantly checking that his man is living up to this ideal, If the man fails, he is made to feel unworthy, he may hate himself, he may take it out on others”

Greyson Perry believes we need to “sack” this governor that it is time men should be their own governors, and I agree.

Feminism has been in the limelight for a long time now, we have been re-evaluating and challenging society’s approach to women for what seems like decades and that’s great. But after reading Perrys book I began to think; Is it only men’s attitude towards women we need to change or in fact do we need to be working on men’s attitudes towards THEMSELVES too?

There is undoubtedly an invisible pressure on men to perform, to be successful within society, in work, in family life, in social circles. Success is rewarded with respect. But “success” is simply a construction of what the “department of masculinity” sees being success. We need to work on that. Greyson Perry suggests we should be “rewarding men for not succeeding in their drive for dominance” I know; wow; that’s a statement and a half. But in essence, I think I agree. In order to be respected and valued men should not have to be deemed as “successful why not just “prosperous”; to be living a fulfilling life, to be kind, to be open, and to be honest? We need to rewire the way we think to see that these things are also successes, not just making lots of money or being head of the office.

Perry thinks masculinity is not biological rather it is something which we have developed culturally. It’s difficult to say for sure and I’m reticent to speak on behalf of “mankind”, so instead I will speak for myself and say that I can recognise that there is a different between my biological tendencies and my gender. There are certain things about my body which I am aware make me a woman, other than that, I really don’t see that there is much of a difference, certainly not a difference which is big enough to cause a divide between people or worse a divide within MYSELF.

I have a huge amount of respect for men who are intelligent enough to see that. Perhaps then it is as much my responsibility as it is any mans to begin this “revolution” which Perry talks about. The revolution starts with men “negotiating a new deal on masculinity”. So other than joining Grayson on his protest to get men on board what else can I do to encourage this movement starts to gain motion?

I need YOUR help. To take the pressure off, to commend those men who choose to say “no” instead of “yes” and to praise men who can see that they too have the freedom and support to be who they are, rather than who society says they HAVE to be.

Equality is freedom for all, we may be closer to that, but we’re not there yet. We need to keep our minds open and fight for what we know is right and fair.

I salute the men of the future.

In fact, many of them are already my friends.

Continue reading “A Response to Grayson Perry’s “The Descent of Man””

Fatherhood: Parenting, Not Babysitting

By Noa Sasson-Brooks

I sat down behind an old lady in a synagogue last Wednesday afternoon. She turned around, recognised me, and said “Have you abandoned your children?”

I thought this was odd, but I decided she probably meant no harm and replied, with a non-threatening chuckle to emphasise that I had taken no offence, “No, they’re with their father.”

For some reason I said their father rather than my husband, even though he is both. He had taken the girls home at 4pm to give them dinner, bathe them and put them to bed, giving me the final few hours of Yom Kippur to spend in prayer without having to worry. A pleasant situation for me, not something so interesting I thought I would write a blog post about.

The lady, who I think is probably in her late 60s or early 70s, laughed as well and responded “Well some would think that amounts to the same thing!”

That threw me a bit. Yes, some men don’t make good fathers, some women don’t make good mothers, there are a lot of roles a lot of people don’t necessarily fit. A strange assumption to make about my children’s father.

“Not in my family.” I said, and I thought of all the fathers I know. My husband. My own father. My father-in-law. The fathers I know in the circle of friends I’ve made since becoming a parent. The fathers I observe in the playground, on the bus, in cafes. Not one of those men take an approach to parenting that looks anything like abandonment.

Also in my circle of ‘parent friends’ are single mums. Of my childhood friends, several had divorced parents with varying levels of contact with their fathers. Many of my extended family members have been touched by divorce and again, that has resulted in a variety of different paternal relationships, and I am not saying that all fathers in my experience are paragons of good parenting. In fact, I am hugely angered by society’s double standard that any small parenting responsibility undertaken by a father is met with disproportionate praise, compared to the extreme scrutiny and harsh judgement mothers encounter for every little slip-up, every decision made (like the really fun one of being a stay-at-home mum versus going to work…surprise! There’s no right answer. You lose every time).

But this double standard is the other side — or maybe even the same side — of the same coin which the old lady in synagogue was using. The ingrained societal belief that men are incapable of performing basic childcare or household chores. Look no further than your local card vendor for a card on Father’s Day for evidence of this. Dad can’t cook, dad can’t clean, he doesn’t even know where the washing machine is; don’t let dad dress them or they’ll look like wizards trying to dress as Muggles; it’s great when dad’s in charge of dinner because we just get chips and mum still has to do the washing up….you know the kind of thing I mean. It’s all part of society’s toxic masculinity and I’m sick of it.
And a lot of people I know are sick of it, and society is changing. I encounter more and more dads who work part-time to share childcare responsibilities, or even take significant time off work when the mother goes back to work after maternity leave (because childcare costs are colossal), and when I go out and about in my local area in the day time, mid-week, I see a lot of dads with buggies or baby carriers or small children. They don’t do it to be congratulated or win dad of the year, they do it because they love their children. This is my reality. This is a lot of people’s reality. But clearly, it’s not enough.

Mental Health and Gender: Have We Been Failing Men?

By Lucy Campbell and Megan Carter

Originally delivered as the winning speech at the Young Local Authority of the Year 2016 public speaking competition by the representatives of Kent Council on Thursday 19th February 2016.

Trigger Warning: Suicide

Around 75% of all successfully committed suicides in the UK are male. This is not a new statistic – for thirty years men have been up to three times more likely to kill themselves. It has become our country’s leading cause of death for men under 50, with 13 male suicides every day. It’s a problem many feel strongly about, but there is a strange reluctance to address this as the feminist issue it is.

How we discuss gender has become strangely polarised – our treatment of men and our treatment of women is always considered separately, as if these behaviours existed in isolation. Over the last century, feminism has encouraged women to challenge traditional gender roles and improve their quality of life; but men have been largely uninvolved in these discussions. Despite campaigns like the UN’s ‘He for She’ trying to widen the debate, men’s lives are still governed tightly by gender norms. As feminism pushes for intersectionality – recognising the needs and rights of BME, LGBT and less affluent women – where men fall in this discussion is still uncertain.

It is important to note that patriarchy is not a dichotomy of men against women. For some men to have authority, there is a clear model of what a ‘good man’ is, and men who fail to live up to this standard are also punished and held in check. These are ‘unconventional’ men – homosexuals, househusbands, the androgynous, disabled, etc. The masculinity of these unconventional men has always been put on trial. This can have profound implications on their mental health, as their gender means they are expected to remain emotionally resilient, physically strong, and capable providers.

Let’s begin with emotional resilience. From our foundation years, we use gendered language to discuss mental wellbeing. We tell boys that ‘big boys don’t cry’ and to ‘man up’. We tell them which behaviours are ‘girly’ and that to show emotions is to be feminine. The British obsession with the stiff upper lip can have lifelong consequences for how men express themselves and use support networks. Half as many men share their concerns with family as women and two thirds as many share with friends. Retired men are at greater risk, as the loss of work relationships can leave them socially isolated. Even medical support is overlooked, as men visit the doctor 20% less than women. Consequently, men often turn to destructive alternatives, being three times more likely to become drug or alcohol dependent. Furthermore men are twice as likely to react angrily to distress. 50% of suicidal men have been in trouble with the police, leading mental health workers to question if we mistake male mental illness for anger. It could be that diagnosis and treatment is tailored better towards women. Men’s Health Forum, National Mental Health Development Unit and Movember Foundation have all concluded men respond positively to ‘shoulder to shoulder’ rather than ‘face to face’ therapies, as they feature peer support and ownership of a problem. Maybe this is why (despite representing most of the UK’s suicides) men make up only 38% of NHS ‘talking therapy’ referrals.

Clearly a perceived tenant of masculinity is concealing weakness – and this plays out emotionally and physically. Whilst many have not followed through in practice, we have become increasingly conscious of the language we use to describe women. However there is not the same self-awareness for men (and indeed some deliberately seek to objectify men’s bodies in order to even the odds). Aidan’s Turner performance in Poldark was infamous – for being topless and muscular. Men’s bodies are scrutinised, with clear notions of what is attractive and manly. Words like ‘dadbod’ mock the average man’s figure, and Dove has never launched an ‘every man is beautiful’ campaign. Is it surprising some men still equate muscles with manliness, regardless of the costs? Once a problem within professional athletes, UK steroid abuse now excels heroin users. NICE believes that 59,000 people took steroids last year; most users were male, with a young average age. There is a growing phenomenon of men, obsessively pushing their bodies to create the perfect gym selfie and have their appearance validated by others. But men also experience other forms of body dysmorphia. In 2014 the Royal College of Practitioners indicated a 66% increase in men treated for eating disorders in the last decade. But society regards these disorders, with their anxieties, concerns about appearance and need for control, as inherently feminine, locking men out of discussions and treatments. It is telling that society is willing to diminish the significance of this mental illness due to the strong associations with young girls – and risk harming everyone in the process.

Evidently many expect men to act emotionally and physically strong – and this is exacerbated by the persisting belief that they must be ‘providers’. Men are still judged by their capacity to support their families and more often than women their employment forms an irrevocable part of their identity and self-worth. Research reveals one in seven men may develop depression within 6 months of being made redundant and unemployment may treble a man’s suicide risk. Following the 2008 economic downturn, thousands of men were left without work or unable to support themselves – they had failed at being ‘good men’. But being a provider is not just financial – particularly for fathers. Just as women are pressured to balance career with family, men are expected to be increasingly involved with their children whilst working. Transitioning to fatherhood is filled with additional financial pressures, emotional moments, changed relationships with partners and less sleep and the Medical Research Council has observed the rise of Parental Postpartum Depression (PPPD); 3% of fathers had been depressed in the first year of their child’s life, 10% by the fourth year, 16% by the eighth and 21% by 12th. Yet little is done to address PPPD, despite the obvious benefits of cross-gender support for new parents fighting depression. And if we need anymore evidence about the importance of this provider role –the highest suicide rate is for divorced men, who have faced changes to their support systems, finances, and access to their children.

No doubt some will take this argument to mean that ‘women have gone too far’; others will say we’re ignoring the persisting issues women face within society. But equality is not a competition and compassion is not finite. It is possible to acknowledge that both genders are stigmatised and we can combat them together. This is a feminist issue – men ‘must’ be resilient, strong and providers, because women ‘must’ be emotional, weak and cared for. For many men who cannot fulfil how they ‘must be’, poor mental health is a consequence of these rigid gender expectations. There are a number of steps which can be taken to reduce the rate of male suicide; awareness of the prevalence, collaborating with local health boards to recognise the needs of vulnerable men, supporting charities with recovery programmes. But what is resoundingly evident is that men will continue to take their lives at a staggering rate, unless society recognises that men can be more than stoic, muscle bound heads of house – there is no right way to be a man.