Let start off with a couple of disclaimers. As a feminist, I want to stress that this discussion isn’t a whataboutery attempt of downplaying the necessary struggle for gender equality. As a white, English speaking, heterosexual male this is also not a whataboutery attempt at avoiding to accept my life is enhanced by privilege. This discussion is important because any societal system that negatively affects members of the population is worthy of discussion. If not just to understand the mentally of others, but to encourage the improvement of the short life we all get to live.
I don’t know who this is aimed at. It might make no difference, or the smallest of differences. The intention is not self glorification, or pretentious mansplaining. It’s a waffle of thoughts that I, as a white, heterosexual male who is not and never has been an alpha male have had throughout my life, and hopefully a suggestion on how society can navigate this discussion going forwards.
Being a man is, in many ways, simple. To look good we just have to keep our hair short and put on a plain white tshirt. Kick and ball and cheer when England score. Have a beer after work. That simplicity is absolutely fine. Having masculine qualities is absolutely fine. It is the continuation of that mentality with a weak counter narrative which grows into toxic masculinity. We are encouraged to grow a pair, to bottle up emotion. We are limited in the sports we are allowed to follow. We are expected to be brave by the same definition a Greek hero would slip into. Our rooms, our faces and our film tastes should reflect our lack of femininity. Romantic films suggest even in the face of rejection we need to continue to pursue the women we like.
These themes are best analysed in the way generations of patriarchy suggest we should interact with women we like. Being dominant during sex means only we decide what we should or shouldn’t do - consent is understood in the simplest way imaginable. Take just the other day, a man gropes a barmaid before getting tackled and arrested for it, and the comments to the article justify the action because the way the woman was dressed meant she was asking for it. Asking to have sex without a condom, being rejected, then asking the same question again. Suggesting to do anal, rejected, then suggesting the same thing again. Of course, these examples are reliant on their context, and if trust is established and you are aware based on what has been explicitly advised beforehand, ‘stop it’ can be playful, or it can be serious. It’s another result of a weak counter narrative to toxic masculinity that some people are not aware how the above example is not in any way confusing. Without in any way defending the indefensible, if all a man has heard in his life is that he is the supreme decider of what their partner means when they say anything, while primarily blaming him and condemning his awful actions, we need to stop ignoring pointing fingers towards the system that encourages him to think that way.
The way men talk to men is indicative of the system. The drive to write this piece came from a next to nothing incident at the gym this morning - two walking stereotypes of alpha-maleness were being rude to somebody who had politely told them he was in fact using the bench they had just sat on. The tone, the physical way they stationed themselves to appear intimidating, the explanatory manner in which they explained how the gym goer should have put a towel on the bench seemed to be justified by the fact that they were huge and the guy was skinny. That this was the animal kingdom and they were the alphas. Even if things are changing, there are qualities about these men which we are actually told to look up to. Dominant, strong-willed, physically imposing. Though most people would describe these two men as dicks, in another conversation the above qualities would be used in the form of ‘I like my man to be a man’.
That system is everywhere. In my own way I have grown up with it around me. My parents never forced me into any activities or hobbies society deemed normal for my gender. I got Power Ranger megazord toys for Christmas as well as a Polly pocket Beauty and the Beast castle set. My dad was a passionate football fanatic but never pushed me into joining him with it. It would take 14 years for me to start to enjoy it on my own terms. This meant I grew up happy, with friends from all different backgrounds. As I moved up the years of Primary school I was mostly friends with girls as I gravitated away from boys who didn’t share the same interests as me. I also didn’t like my hair short so had neck-length hair for most of my childhood. I loved acting, Greek mythology, musicals, Disney, reading, tennis and art. Nothing seemed weird about these hobbies - why would it seem weird to do things you liked? I stayed away from most sports because, simply, I didn’t enjoy how physical it would get. I was referred to as gay at times in the playground but this never felt like bullying, probably because I was prepubescent and my uncle was gay - so this just didn’t feel like an insult.
Everything got examined differently when I moved into secondary school. While gay was used as an playful observation at primary school it was now used as more of an insult. In what became a constant soap drama of heterosexual relationships, if you were not closely similar to a masculine archetype you were deemed gay. I was one of a few guys at school who didn’t fit this type for a variety of reasons, and therefore was defined by my peers. The irony was this was not always sinister. I was told on three occasions by close girl friends that they knew I was gay and that that wasn’t a problem. While there is a different space to discuss the complexities of sexuality, going through puberty usually means you have the best idea out of anyone who and what you are attracted to, and while glossing over the details of male puberty, I never truly had a doubt of my heterosexuality.
But another theme was emerging as I grew older. I was not successful with meeting girls and progressing into intimacy. In fact, it was after I graduated that I first even kissed a woman. Oddly enough during school this didn’t panic me so much, but I noticed how it definitely became a reason others used to justify their definitions of my sexuality. The panic started to set in when I started university. Not being a toxen macho guy physically was one thing (I was extremely skinny, had horrific hair management and fashion sense), but I found it harder and harder to get started. To say I felt pressure is belittling it in the extreme. Some others will know the feeling when having a night with friends and playing drinking games or other games like ‘never have I ever’. Even at 18 years old you were expected to have had sex, and you didn’t dare admit you hadn’t. The result was either avoiding such gatherings or lying, which became painfully easy as time went on. It might seem ridiculous to portray myself as a victim when I admit to lying and portraying myself falsely to my friends and acquaintances, but to explain how someone can deal with anxieties without admitting to lying to make life easier is often disingenuous. Simply put, the structures established by society forced even my good friends into unintentionally making me feel uncomfortable. Though I have a few close friends who I was able to be completely open with, it still felt like a secret which carried a ridiculous amount of weight I shouldn’t have had to carry. You start to overcompenstate your own masculinity to the level you feel like you should reach.
As time moved on, as I dealt with being independent following my Dad’s death, living abroad and working on my self confidence, I managed to successfully enter into some more 'masculine' arenas without trying to conform to their entirety (though many times I did just that). Things like flirting on dating apps and going to the gym. Incredibly, due to this or due to my circles being older and more mature, the pressure relaxed. People stopped making assumptions and stopped asking certain questions about my sexuality. While maintaining what was described as my ‘feminine qualities’ by my peers - such as my comfort with discussing my vulnerabilities, my enjoyment of singing, of being good with kids, of being an attentive listener to my friend’s problems and even on a few occasions my ‘long eyelashes’ - I found adulthood more forgiving to complex identities.
Which brings me to today. Perhaps due to having my first sexual experience later than the average guy, or to have a childhood devoid of gender definition, or the fact that I have always maintained that as easier as it would seem to be a alpha male, I like the person I am - I have found the transition into adulthood uncomplicated and surprisingly natural. I enjoy aspects of myself which are masculine by definition, as much as I enjoy feeling completely comfortable in expressing my emotions. My dating life is completely frank about this mix, and it has allowed me to relax on dates without resorting to distortions of myself. This is naturally not everybody’s type and I am in a good place of completely understanding this. Some women like someone more traditionally masculine. Some are put off by emotions. And this is, once again, absolutely fine.
My issue, having grown up constantly fighting against the expectation of being a man, is noticing when others reach adulthood and have not been exposed to the possibility of countering that one narrative. This is relevant mostly because suicide is the mostly likely cause of death for adult males in the UK. Reported cases of domestic abuse are still at soaring levels - not even counting unreported cases. With the BlackLivesMatter and the MeeToo movements have come a backlash of white men who don’t understand a society where their masculine privilege is at risk, and so turn to figures such as Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson for comfort.
I believe, that what we understand about what being a man is, is very much a personal journey, and something which - like everything else throughout history - is going to be affected by the progressiveness of society. For one example, I believe that within a few years it will be considered normal for fathers to take extensive paid paternity leave to be with their child allowing the mother to go back to work. With this will be a (at times reluctant) acceptance that the breadwinner could be either parent, and your gender won’t be affected by expecting this. As a society becomes more open to difference, we will start normalising new definitions of manliness. The success of Netflix’s Queer Eye for example has shown how grooming and self improvement and being vulnerable are not obstacles to being a man.
There will always be a backlash. Resistance to change - especially to such a monumental change to the fabric of society such as the breakdown of male superiority - is inevitable. That resistance will take place across all genders, all sexualities, all nationalities and cultures. The end game is not to try and change people. I never would want to go back and make myself into an archetype. The end game is to raise the profile of counter narratives. In this specific discussion, the end game is to encourage parents, teachers, society (including both men and women) that while their preference is their right, there are so many different understandings of being a man than just strict alpha qualities. Being a loving father can be a man. Being a good listener can be a man. Being brave enough to come out to your parents can be a man. Being aware enough to accept privilege can be a man. It is possible to be dominant and rough in bed while still being intimate and receptive. It’s possible to like shooting video games and romantic comedies.
Being a man is very much like being a human, we are individuals, and there is no need to suppress identity. There is no need to conform when it doesn’t feel right. Your penis doesn’t disappear when you open up. Bicep size can show many things, but not the strength of character. Though it might seem troublesome and confusing to replace the idea we have of men with a gap-fill for you to define yourself, I believe, and have long believed, that we’ll be better men for doing so, for figuring it out, and jotting it down.