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"Can’t cry, can’t show affection, can’t ask for help, can’t cope: these are recurring themes of manhood". Photo: Getty

If I had a dollar for each time a man in my life had expressed some sort of reticence about showing emotion or vulnerability, I would be writing this article from my solid-gold castle atop a mountain of VVS diamonds.

Can’t cry, can’t show affection, can’t ask for help, can’t cope: these are recurring themes of manhood, at least according to what I’ve seen in the men I’ve known and loved, and I’m sure you’ve heard (or said, if you are male) similar things many times.

See, while we might think that in the supposedly enlightened 21st century the pressure to Be A Man has lessened somewhat, if the struggles that men (particularly young men and boys) are going through when it comes to societal expectations of masculinity are any indication, very little has changed.  

Harry O'Brien.

Harry O'Brien. Photo: Scott Barbour

Documentarian Jennifer Siebel Newsom - who previously helmed the excellent Miss Representation - aims to explore and explode the myths of modern manhood with her feature documentary, The Mask You Live In, which she is currently raising finishing funds for on Kickstarter.

Of the catalyst for the project, she says,

“At a young age, boys learn that to express compassion or empathy is to show weakness. They hear confusing messages that force them to repress their emotions, establish hierarchies, and constantly prove their masculinity. They often feel compelled to abide by a rigid code of conduct that affects their relationships, narrows their definition of success and, in some cases, leads to acts of violence resulting in what many researchers call a ‘boy crisis’. Our society’s failure to recognize and care for the social and emotional well-being of our boys contributes to a nation of young men who navigate adversity and conflict with an incomplete emotional skill set. Whether boys and later men have chosen to resist or conform to this masculine norm, there is loneliness, anxiety, and pain.”

While the focus of The Mask You Live In is men and boys in the USA, there’s no doubt that what Siebel Newsom is exploring affects men all over the world. The film’s funding has surpassed its original goal of $80,000, and with just over a week to go, I hope the film doubles its funding target, as this is a discussion that needs to be had worldwide. 

Some armchair commentators have expressed surprise (and some, contempt) at the fact that a feminist filmmaker is making a documentary about men.

But the things being discussed in The Mask You Live In are, in fact, life or death issues.

Locally, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women and suicide is the leading cause of death in men aged between 15 and 44 [...] men are less likely to get the help they need, with other ABS data showing only 27 per cent of men seek professional help, compared to 40 per cent of women. In many cases men turn to drugs or alcohol instead of getting assistance, this is especially so with men under 25”.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but here goes once more for old time’s sake: masculinity is a feminist issue. The model of masculinity that insists that men are not allowed to feel or show emotion is a patriarchal construct. And isn’t the patriarchy what we all banded together to fight in the first place?

This problem of masculinity has been around about as long as feminism, but perhaps because of the pressure on men to grin and bear it, is only just bubbling to the surface (or rather more correctly, reaching a boiling point) now. Watching the project video for The Mask You Live In, I couldn’t help but think about how much the 1950s stuffed everything up for everyone.

As Alecia Simmonds' great piece on male affection earlier this year put it,

“Post-1950, emotional suppression became crucial to the maintenance of patriarchal power. Of course this is not in all areas of life. Men were and are still allowed to weep, hug, caress, and touch each other’s bottoms while fighting in war or playing violent sport. This may be because these are such unquestionably masculine activities from which women have been firmly excluded.”

But even within masculine activities, to show genuine vulnerability is still to find oneself an outlier; look at the shock many expressed when Collingwood AFL player Harry O’Brien revealed the depths of his mental and emotional woes last month. The most pressing issue, to some commentators, seemed to be “Yeah but when will he be back on field kicking goals again?”

Continued hysterical media coverage of “metrosexuals” or men’s beauty products; sniggering morning TV reports about famous men who cry in public; blogs that make fun of feminised or effeminate-looking men; casual dismissal of emotions - all these things, while they may seem like throwaway issues, are symptoms of a patriarchal model of masculinity that hurts pretty much everybody.

SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath told the ABC recently,

“There are notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man that prevent them from getting help. There's a belief that the very idea of being a man is that you deal with stuff and you don't reach out or connect. Untreated, the problem snowballs. The combination of that and the notion of having to deal with it alone, is the reason behind high suicide rates."

The crisis of manhood, if you like, will affect both men and women; as psychologist Dr Niobe Way says in the project video, “If we’re in a culture that doesn’t value caring, doesn’t value relationships, doesn’t value empathy, you are going to have boys and girls, men and women, go crazy.”

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Mensline:  1300 78 99 78

Kids helpline:  1800 55 1800