Belfast Telegraph

Stereotyping all men as gormless buffoons won't tackle the issues that leave many feeling hopeless

Despair which leads so many males in today's society to take their own lives must be addressed, writes Gail Walker

So much for International Men's Day, which took place - or didn't - at the weekend. As the old joke goes, 'every day is men's day'. But even though these artificially generated 'days' are just another occasion for people to be encouraged to spend their cash on trinkets, still there is something missing about 'masculinity' in the culture which it is trying to get at.

It is no statistical fluke that suicide is characterised as more likely to be a male phenomenon. Any number of explanations have been offered to account for this, none of them particularly persuasive on their own.

The increasingly globalised marketplace, with a growing number of business casualties, must be playing a part in its impact on what we used to think were the 'traditional' male roles - protector and breadwinner - when no new roles seem to have been identified.

It seemed to be easier to measure the impact the collapse of the old industries of coal mining and shipbuilding had on men and the 'traditional' family than it is nowadays when society is less cohesive and involves a greater variety of breakdown.

On that topic, of course, recent events show that one of the biggest obstacles to a proper appreciation of men's issues such as these are the ghastly behaviours exhibited by 'men in power', usually in the workplace but also, as we know, in domestic settings.

Without getting into the details there, it is clear that 'man' is increasingly seen as a synonym for 'predator' and, well, 'disgusting human being'.

There will of course be all sorts of commentary on the dramatic examples of the behaviour of the Weinsteins and the Spaceys and the astonishing catalogue of allegations, but where it affects most of us isn't among those dramas but in the predicament Uncle Fred and Tim from next door or our own fathers and sons and brothers find themselves in as men in the modern world.

Stereotyping is everywhere. Switch on your TV any old time of year, but especially at Christmas, and you will see shows and adverts which depict men as essentially feckless, useless, mono-tasking and gormless.

The punchline is more or less the same regardless of the product being flogged - 'Men!' - followed by a weary roll of female eyes.

Take just one of many examples, the current Currys PC World advert - 'Ahmed's Run'.

Observe Ahmed - self-respecting Muslim dad in a garish tracksuit in his own living room, complete with Mrs Ahmed who is putting out older daughter's tea while younger daughter sits on the sofa.

All three females sneer at Dad who is test-driving a new fitness checker from his employer in that gormless way only a TV Dad does. 'Men! Hopeless in many, many ethnicities and cultures!'.

It is a portrayal of men as essentially big children. To be lived with, certainly. To be made use of, definitely. To be patronised, absolutely. To be treated as independent adults with their own - to use the current buzzword - 'agency'? Not on your life.

It's a stereotype invented by men, of course. But that doesn't make it any less damaging than the stereotypes inflicted on women.

If your choice of male cultural archetypes is between 'abusing creep' and 'thick buffoon' then there isn't much room for manoeuvre, because the chances are you aren't either a millionaire or a celebrity, which are the only means of escape.

But are 'men' really that two-dimensional? Of course not. No one is. Men do face gender issues. These may not be as mountainous as those women have faced and still face but that doesn't make them any less real.

For example, boys trail behind girls in education.

For a man to draw attention to this shouldn't lead to automatic tarring as an embittered Fathers4Justice loon or a sexist troll. Of course, there is a toll on women for being independent and assertive in the form of 'punishment' assaults, catcalls, crude abuse online, sexist barracking and old-fashioned discrimination.

But there is also a toll on men these days, clear from suicide figures, shorter life expectancy, disproportionate rates of homelessness, the underfunding of specifically male medical problems and an associated much lower public profile for them.

Though campaigns to raise awareness of prostate cancer and the 'Movember' initiative are addressing some chronic issues, men's medical visibility lags far behind that of women.

Perhaps one of the factors is that many men don't find it easy to open up about problems, which is one of the reasons why the Men's Shed initiative has proved so valuable, bringing groups of males together to work on projects and - who knows? - make friends.

It would do no harm to reflect that our society, for all its virtues - and it does encourage us, after all, to expect more from it, from ourselves and from each other - has serious problems. These won't be solved by name-calling, gimmicks or crocodile tears.

The despair which leads so many young men to take their own lives - what else can it be but the absence of hope? - must be tackled.

More seriousness about International Men's Day, or something like it, would be a very welcome start.

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