By Steve Biddulph
Even today you can see it. Different parts of the world produce different types of men. A Dubliner is different to a Londoner, let alone someone from the other side of the globe. And within a country or city there are many versions too, the corporate, the artistic, the nurturing, the dangerous.
We can call these “masculinities” – acknowledging that alongside personal choices, there are package deals in how to walk inside a male skin. Each culture passes on its ideal of what manhood looks like, but that can quickly become out of sync with the needs of the time and place. We are at such a time now.
How to be a man matters because we are having terrible problems with masculinity, from a world-endangering US President to the mass shootings and terror incidents across the world, and back home to Barnaby Joyce and our cricket team. Newspapers only need one headline: More Trouble with Men.
I’ve spend a lifetime on this problem and I think we know how to solve it, though that’s not to diminish the scale of the task.
In our society, masculinity is handed down to boys in a bizarre and dysfunctional way. Six generations ago, as the industrial way of life swept the world, two things changed. Men were pulled away from family and community, into workplaces that pretty much ate up their lives. And wars became industrial in scale, so that almost every second generation were caught up in distant conflicts that if they survived, turned them into hollow-eyed wrecks with massive emotional damage that we now know as PTSD.
We’d always had problems with maleness, but in these last two centuries, it has all come to a head on a personal level that most readers will recognise from their own childhoods.
Manhood has to be transmitted and taught, by both women and men. But researching for my book Raising Boys in the 1990’s, I found that the time fathers spent with children in conversation or play averaged less than 8 minutes a day. Girls survived this with some diminished self worth, but boys were hammered because they simply did not see enough of how to be a man; the interior world of male feeling was blocked to them.
A typical Australian working man was like a log of wood, except when he blazed out in violent rage, drank himself into a stupor, or displayed a coldness that made sons feel that they never measured up.
The average boy matured on the outside, a tender little boy’s body turned into a big adult one, but we were not given the software of how to do manhood from the inside. As a young man, I felt an enormous hole inside me every waking second, and the men I’ve talked to in hundreds of seminars say the same. We had no idea how to do male, but we had to do it nonetheless.
So to deal with this, every day, we clamped on a mask, and hoped no-one would see past it. Teenage boys are the ones who first find and choose these masks, often for life. So it’s no accident that they have problem lives. Nine times more likely to go to prison. Many times more likely to assault or harm.
In Australia there four or five standard masks. The tough guy. The cool dude. The hard working go-getter. The funny guy that everyone loves who is actually dangerously depressed. (And often alcohol dependent- a whole topic for another time.)
Even gay males can find themselves trapped in a “type”. The masks do a terrible thing to young men – they isolate even as they protect. They have mates but no true friends. Their parents feel them slipping away. When they become adults, the women and children in their lives get no sense of connection, and soon their families start to fall apart.
Hopefully as we undergo changes for men comparable to what women continue to experience through feminism, breaking out of the old straitjackets, we will see boys developing into diverse, rich and above all, authentic selves.
This is especially true when it comes to the ability to show emotion, be close, be warm and alive. Parents today are determined that their sons be able to cry, be vulnerable, and see women as friends not enemies. Today’s fathers are spending treble the amount of time with their children, and the signs are good for a proper passing on of healthy maleness to our sons, and self esteem to our daughters.
The revolution we are seeing in sexual identity is widening the spectrum of how to be oneself so there is more freedom and less pretending. There is such a thing as healthy and life-affirming masculinity, and it takes many forms. At this pivotal time, its never been more needed, or more possible. A new kind of boyhood and manhood is happening, and not a moment too soon.
Steve Biddulph’s new book Raising Boys in the 21st Century will be released this month.