Entrenched prescriptions on how boys and girls should behave contribute to the mental health problem men face today. Seemingly innocuous phrases such as “man up” or “don’t cry like a girl”, alongside lad culture and its ruthless mockery of any sign of weakness, and persistent pressures on men to be the providers of families, highlight the degree to which outdated expectations of men still affect our modern society today. Gaining awareness of how historical gender stereotypes still influence our behaviour today, will help us to gradually deconstruct these unspoken rules in the future. A study of gender in history highlights how characteristics which are traditionally attributed to the masculine have tended to be celebrated as the exemplary modes of behaviour in society. ‘Manly’ traits of strength and even-headedness have often been favoured over “feminine” demonstrations of vulnerability and sadness. For example, British Victorian society used the idea of women as inherently emotional as evidence of the fact that they did not belong in the public sphere of politics and work.
Although we no longer portray these gendered features as biologically-determined, we nevertheless continue to expect men to act in a more self-controlled and rational manner than their female counterparts. Figures such as Donald Trump highlight the mobilising impact that the powerful, angry man still has in our modern society. Conversely, an American news presenter who sent out an apology after she started crying while reporting on immigrant children at the border epitomizes the shame that we still feel towards overt expressions of sadness or weakness.
How many of our politicians, male or female, do we see openly admitting to struggling, being unsure, or feeling inadequate? We live in a culture where admitting our own insecurities and imperfections is deemed both unacceptable and humiliating. This stubborn insistence on the idea that showing vulnerability is somehow negative, is fuelling a culture in which mental health is seen as a taboo for everyone, but in particular for men.
Research professor Brené Brown has spent years researching the power of vulnerability, which she argues is the vital ingredient in human connections. While people tend to want to portray themselves in the most positive light possible, Brown has shown how it is in fact our weaknesses which bring us closer together. By showing that expressions of emotions are in fact a healthy and vital part of our mental health, she has helped to further emphasize how much our views on this subject our coloured by historical tropes.
Expectations that men should somehow be less sensitive and better at managing their feelings are not only false, they are also dangerous. By rejecting historical legacies of men as these unbreakable leaders and breadwinners, we will learn to stop assuming that they are somehow more resilient than girls. Improving male mental health rests on our conscious rejection of these out-dated views, and our shared readiness to muster the courage to be vulnerable in front of others.