Why Embracing Feminism Could Help Solve The Issue Of Men’s Mental Health
After experiencing being the only male taking ‘understanding gender in the contemporary world’, a gender studies module at the University of Edinburgh, Antony Haslam makes the case that “gender issues must be the concern of everyone: men; women; and non-binary alike. ”
Art caption: "What a wonderfully complex thing! this simple seeming unity- the self! (...) some queer long-forgotten sensation of vein and muscle, of a feeling of vast hopeless effort, the effort of a man near drowning in darkness." H. G. Wells, The Sleeper Awakes (p.21)
Enrolling in Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World, an undergraduate Gender Studies module at the University of Edinburgh, as a bloke, and discovering the abysmal turnout by men, ought not to have been a surprise to me.
Although data on gender identity isn’t recorded on enrolment, there is a general trend that more women than men tend to take these types of courses. Despite the best efforts of course convenors, there is a wider perception that Gender Studies (and feminism) equals ‘women’. So, when I first looked at my Gender Studies tutorial group (digitally, of course- HybridTeaching™) and realised that I, a man, was the anomaly; I felt compelled to make the case that gender issues must be the concern of everyone: men; women; and non-binary alike.
We need to start conversations in which guys aside their masculinity; this toxic mindset is a key reason so many of us are frightened (yes, frightened) to openly embrace feminism and gender issues. There is, however, undeniably a challenge presented. Being outnumbered on a gender-imbalanced course does make you second guess the validity of your opinion. Do I really have the same right to comment on gender inequality as the women and the non-binary individuals on the course? I don’t know if I can answer this correctly, and I can’t speak on behalf of my peers, however, it has certainly been my experience that what I’ve had to say has been welcomed. Also, I wish to be clear that I am not painting myself as oppressed by this; I am merely presenting what I see as the potential challenges in getting more men engaging with Gender Studies.
Studying gender and recognising the privileges afforded by my maleness doesn’t make me (or you) a militant, ‘man-hating’ feminist. Rather, it has allowed me to recognise that gender issues affect men, too. I want to make the case that we need more of us engaging with these issues, to help us to break down the stereotype that the concealment of emotions is part and parcel of being a ‘man’. It is this, our attempt to be ‘men’, that translates into the tragedy of male suicide in the UK.
Therefore, the first question we must ask is: “Why should men be concerned with learning about gender inequality?” Well, in life, we needn’t be directly affected by an oppressive force to feel a deep sense of anger or discomfort at the injustice. For example, as a white student living in Edinburgh, I am not directly affected by violence at the hands of the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Yet, I still feel a gross sense of injustice that not a single SARS officer has been prosecuted for human rights violations, torture or extra-judicial execution, despite countless documented incidences (1). This idea that we can (and should) support social causes, even if we aren’t explicitly affected, is no different with gender issues. As a man, I would have continued to happily earn my salary after Equal Pay Day (which, last year, happened to fall on November 14th). Equal Pay Day represents the point when women effectively stop earning their salaries, while their male colleagues continue to do so, because of the wage gap. Despite not personally suffering in the situation, I still feel it is a gross injustice that women spent the last 48 days of last year essentially working for free.
Despite progressive legislation, the gender pay gap and ‘motherhood penalty’ (the reality that women’s careers suffer for having and raising a child) are real inequalities that still exist. These are inequalities that everyone should be opposed to, regardless of how you identify. A University of Bristol study found that fewer than a third of women return to full time employment (or their self-employed status) after having a baby, compared to over 90% of men (2).
Being opposed to such inequalities does make you a feminist, and this really shouldn’t be something that scares men. Despite the images that the media love to portray of feminists as aggressive, feminism isn’t anti-men. Realising that the title ‘feminist’ isn’t something to fear and isn’t something that undermines your masculinity should represent an empowering first step towards engaging with gender issues and overcoming our toxic tendencies..
Having more men embrace feminism and engage with gender issues isn’t solely about increasing male enrolment in Gender Studies at university. It could simply mean more men engaging with relevant literature and discussing feminism and gender issues more readily. These changes provide a great starting point for more men to realise that gender issues affect us, too. Masculinities are an important part of Gender Studies and a greater understanding of how they work would be hugely beneficial for all men.
The key issue with masculinity, for many guys, is the toxic idea that real men don’t cry; we ‘tough it out’. We keep a brave face on the exterior, trying our utmost to project the image that we don’t suffer with mental struggles. But we do. Everyone does. It is this perception, that the ‘masculine ideal’ is a man who doesn’t display his emotions, which is extremely harmful. Men often won’t have an open and frank conversation about how they really feel with their friends, for fear that this public display of emotion may undermine their masculinity and result in castigation by the Gods of ‘lad culture’.
It is this suppressing of natural emotions which is so detrimental to our mental health. I therefore see conforming to this toxic ideal as a key cause of the tragic reality that men in the UK are three times more likely to take their own lives than women (3). Critically engaging with gender issues will help men to challenge the status quo of masculinity and explore why this desire to feel strong, in control and ‘manly’ has had precisely the opposite effect; crippling one in every eight men with mental health problems and making suicide the leading cause of death for men under fifty in the UK (4).
So, what now? I want to see more men picking up feminist literature. I want you to stop fearing what other guys might think of you as you read Feminism is for Everybody (5) on the train. As I’ve already argued, feminism isn’t exclusionary of men and reading feminist authors’ work isn’t emasculating. Fact.
We need more men to realise that our gender doesn’t have to mean abstaining from compassion, and it certainly doesn’t mean we have to conceal our emotions and tears in public. My personal call is to see more young men signing up for gender modules. It is my hope that this will help us all to break the stigma around men’s mental health.
So, I leave you with the simple message: read something feminist and make sure to look after your own and others’ mental health. With this in mind, the following may be of use for anyone who wishes to further engage with some of the topics I’ve discussed:
General information on GenderED (the cross-university hub for gender and sexualities studies at the University of Edinburgh): http://www.iash.ed.ac.uk/gendered
Searchable database of gender & sexuality courses at the University: http://www.iash.ed.ac.uk/gendered/courses
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). A leading stand against suicide and a great general resource: https://www.thecalmzone.net/
More information regarding the link between masculinity performance and male mental health issues: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/men-and-mental-health
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’- a thought provoking talk covering many of the same ideas that I have suggested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc
A simple myth-busting guide to feminism that clarifies some key ideas and is aptly named “A Beginner’s Guide To Feminism”: https://oxwomin.wordpress.com/2017/11/08/a-beginners-guide-to-feminism/
A short transcript of an interview with Kimberlé Crenshaw which begins to introduce the nuances and complexities of feminism, including intersectionality theory: https://www.law.columbia.edu/news/archive/kimberle-crenshaw-intersectionality-more-two-decades-later
Antony is a second year Geography student at the University of Edinburgh.