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Masc Week (Myth)

Men don’t cry & other myths: confronting outdated ideas of male identity


TextJJ BolaIllustrationCallum Abbott

Poet and writer JJ Bola explores the tropes around being a man via his new book Mask Off

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

Mask Off, a new book by poet and writer JJ Bola, exposes masculinity as a performance that men are socially conditioned into, exploring love and sex, politics, sports, gangs and mental health, Bola unravels masculinity in order to redefine it. 

There are several myths about masculinity that have been passed on to each generation as absolute truths. We have been taught it from a young age, almost without question, and any boy or man who does not fit into these stereotypical notions is virtually exiled from the male clan. It is as if being a man is a sports league that all men are trying to play in – the premier league being the elite league where only a few actually make it and belong – and the rest are in the lower leagues or the sub-divisions – the semi-professionals, the amateurs – while some are not in any league at all.

The idea of being a man and the notions of masculinity that come with it more so resemble a sport that has ever-changing rules, depending on the location it’s played in. Can you imagine if that were actually the case? If you play football in England, the rules are 11-a-side and you kick the ball with your feet, but in America, when you play football (soccer), you’re allowed to use your feet and hands. Move across the globe to Brazil, where you’re only allowed to use your left foot, the goals are smaller, and there are 24 players on each team. In India, the football isn’t actually a football, but a watermelon that you kick around, and in Nigeria, you’re only allowed to use your head.

Manhood, much like masculinity, is not a fixed entity. It is not a square block that fits neatly into a square-shaped hole in a square-shaped world. It is ever-changing, it is fluid, and more importantly, it is and can be anything you want it to be. However, as long as there remain rigid and stereotypical beliefs around masculinity that go unchallenged, men are often unable to subscribe to a masculinity that sits outside of the status quo. The list is endless – particularly as the prevalence of certain myths depends on which part of the world you are in. So, I’ve outlined six prevalent myths around masculinity.

REAL MAN

How often have you heard a phrase that sounded like: ‘A real man takes care of his kids’, or ‘A real man doesn’t cheat on his partner’ or ‘A real man pays for everything’ or anything else that starts with ‘real man’ (or ‘real men’) and then continues with a set of stipulations for a particular act? There is no such thing as a ‘real man’. The phrase itself is actually based on patriarchal ideals that reinforce how men are expected to be. And in many cases, the context in which the phrase is used often says very little that is positive about manhood or being a man. Consider ‘a real man takes care of his kids’. This is what you are supposed to do as a parent regardless of gender. The fact that only a ‘real man’ takes care of his kids inherently implies that the rest of men, generally, do not take care of their children, and so what does that have to say about men? The phrase ‘real man’ takes us back to the elite football league that men are supposed to play in: that only the ‘real men’ belong there. The idea of ‘real men’ being the providers or breadwinners is also based on material or financial circumstances, and fails to account for social disadvantages and exclusion. These stereotypes work to reinforce limited notions of what a man can and cannot be: they are used in a number of contexts and can put a lot of pressure on men.

MEN ARE TRASH

In recent years, this phrase came alive on the Internet, across social media, sparking a much-needed conversation on male privilege and gender inequality, highlighting the systematic advantages that patriarchy affords men. It isn’t (uniquely) about relationships or dating, although it is often reduced to that. Some retort this by saying ‘choose better men’ or deny its validity by the now infamous phrase ‘not all men!’ The ‘trash’ element does, understandably, trigger a defensive stance, which often comes from the misunderstanding that it is a personal attack on an individual, rather than a comment on the collective oppression of women. However, the defensiveness is also because people often become defensive when they are not ready to acknowledge the hurt they have caused in someone else’s life. In many cases, the ‘trashness’ is simply a reference to men’s abuse of their privilege, which occurs daily in society, whether men are aware of it or not. I was also taken aback when I first heard this phrase: it came across as bitter and even angry, but when I listened beyond the initial reaction or visceral emotion that it provoked, I understood that it told us more about societal issues around gender than it did about a particular man.

“Boys quickly learn that expressing emotions, particularly displays of vulnerability such as crying, are weaknesses. By the time they transition from boyhood through their adolescence to manhood, they suppress emotion internally without even realising it”

MAN UP

This phrase is often used as an emotional silencing tool, particularly towards boys in their childhood. Consider the following scenario: a young boy is playing outside and falls over, grazes his knee and begins to cry. He runs over to his parent who – quite often unknowing of the harmful effects it may have – tells them to ‘man up’, often followed by claims that boys are meant to be strong and so on. Boys quickly learn that expressing emotions, particularly displays of vulnerability such as crying, are weaknesses. And they internalise this, so that by the time they transition from boyhood through their adolescence to manhood, they suppress emotion internally without even realising it.

‘THAT’S GAY’

This phrase is almost exclusively used when men share a form of (non-sexual) intimacy, express feelings or bonds in a way that goes beyond the hypermasculine expectations. It could be something simple like saying ‘I love you.’ Or two men hugging or holding hands. Whatever the expression, when it’s between two men and brings them closer, it’s usually perceived in this way. There is also the issue of men saying ‘no homo’ or ‘pause’, for the same reasons as above, instead of outwardly saying ‘that’s gay.’ For example, men may say to one another: ‘You look really good today, no homo.’ It’s an insidious homophobic comment. Although it’s generally used in jest, it nonetheless perpetuates a deep-rooted, toxic expression of masculinity: that if men care about one another, compliment one another, or show affection for one another, it needs to be qualified with the assertion that they are straight.

MEN DON’T CRY

This is virtually an extension of ‘man up’ that young boys carry through to adulthood. I can recall the first time, as a young boy, that I saw my father cry. It left me in shock. I had been told to be strong and not to cry all my childhood, and the one person who I saw as the ultimate source of strength was in tears in front of me. So, rather than figuring it was okay to cry, the conclusion I came to, as I grew into my adolescent years, was to make sure that I was strong enough – even stronger than my father – that no one would ever see me cry; no one would ever see my weaknesses. It took a long time to unlearn this thinking. I cry comfortably now, and in any space: after seeing a play at the theatre, during a concert, after losing a game of basketball or when I’m on my own. I even sneak a cheeky cry while chopping onions to cook, so I can get all my cries out at once. After several conversations, I realised that many of my adult male friends still do not feel comfortable with this level of vulnerability. I have male friends who say they have not cried in years, or they did not cry at all during a tragic moment; when a loved one passed or during a break up of a relationship, etc. Crying is also not reserved for negative moments alone; it can be an expression of lamenting and sadness, but it can equally deeply express overwhelming joy and happiness – don’t you love it when you see a man cry on his wedding day – and both are perfectly valid.

MEN ARE STRONGER THAN WOMEN 

There is a video on YouTube, ‘Labour Pain Simulator on 2 Men’, where two men go to a doctor to have electrodes simulation on their abdomens to simulate the pain of labour for one hour. At first, the men are very nonchalant; one of them even says, ‘as you know women exaggerate everything.’ By the end of the process, they are both writhing in pain, unable to handle the simulated contractions. One man at the end calls his mother a superhero and hilariously apologises for putting her through this pain all those years ago. So often our views about strength, both physical and emotional, are linked to gender. There are of course biological differences between men and women, however, an absolutist approach to what those differences mean and how they play out in reality, are often rigid and flawed. Men are not by default stronger than women. Strength is a differential quality, often based on the situation (and not who can do the most press ups, lift the heaviest thing, hit the hardest or take the most hits). And arguably, the greatest strength of them all is emotional strength, rather than the physical; having the resilience to endure and overcome, and the capacity to recover quickly from adversity. If this is how we saw strength, would we be able to redefine who is stronger?

There are many more examples of this kind of narrow-minded, limited thinking, which is actually used to reinforce a stereo- typical perspective of what a man should and shouldn’t be. This varies and differs depending on culture, location, and era – which only goes to show that masculinity is not fixed. Outward expressions of masculinity, including stereotypes of it, do not exist in a vacuum, but rather exist within society. By the time we as men become aware of some of these performed expectations, we will have already spent many years living up to it in one way or another through what we are told is ‘normal’, making it that much harder to unlearn.

Mask Off is one of two new books from Pluto Press’s Outspoken series and is available for pre-order now

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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