Empathy corrosion, masculinity and mental health / Will Snelling

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As the world spirals from one crisis to another, there is one issue that sometimes gets lost in the torrent: the deepening crisis in male mental health. In Britain, suicide is the largest cause of death in men under 45; in the US, the figures are similarly disturbing, where an opioid epidemic is disproportionately killing men. Some conservatives argue that the root of declining male mental health is the erosion of traditional masculine values among millennials, who are too worried about ‘social justice fighting’ when they should be injecting a pint of lager while playing contact sports, or something. But in recent decades of slow progress and tentative legislation towards blowing away the cobwebs of patriarchy, the archaic alpha ideal still pervades, and is sustained by misogynistic narratives in cinema and advertising (see: those awful Lynx ads), and, worst of all, the easy availability of violent pornography, a bleak kind of empathy-corrosive. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to conclude that a society that fuels a laddish, chauvinistic image of manhood is a key contributor to ills such as high rate of male suicide and on-campus sexual assault.

Rewinding to the 1970s, when Thatcher rose up the political ranks, she made a point of underplaying her femininity by claiming that she was more proud to be the first Prime Minister with a science degree than the first female PM, and purposefully making her entire cabinet male. A recent example is the recent Wonder Woman film, in which the titular hero acts like any other male superhero would, mostly just interested in punching bad guys very hard. To be sold to the masses, a female superhero must be a male superhero. On the one hand, an overtly sensitive and gentle Wonder Woman would have been patronising, and some argue that Thatcher choosing not to make her gender the centre of her identity was a good thing. But these are both cases where femininity has apparently had to be renounced in order to become ‘marketable’. It’s time that femininity and masculinity were instead seen as equally valuable aspects of a healthy self; why should harsh machismo be the default?

This prevailing narrative undeniably has harmful effects. It isn’t clear why men are more likely to succeed when attempting suicide, however we do know that men are less likely to seek help. The figures we have access to are a bleak sign of the rot that the fear of weakness has brought about in western society. There is nothing inherently wrong or unhealthy about ‘masculine traits’, but no one should have to stick rigidly to an archaic stereotype, which means that pain goes unexpressed and unresolved for fear of ridicule.

When I was younger, I was painfully aware that I didn’t quite fit in with the other, sportier boys, worrying that I possessed some deep flaw that meant I would forever be on the 'outside'. I can now see that being somewhat effeminate is not a curse, or even very unusual. New generations seem to be shedding the rigid attachment to masculine identity. The huge popularity among young people of musicians like Frank Ocean and Tyler the Creator, who tackle male identity in their lyrics, is also a cause for hope. Perhaps Trump is the last gasp from a dying ideal, rather than a grim portent.

Words by Will Snelling

Album artwork from Scum Fuck Flower Boy / Tyler, the Creator