Sexism and the idea of gender roles is something I’m really passionate about. I consider myself to be a newbie feminist, and there’s a lot I’m still learning about, but one thing I’ve noticed in my reading is how most books (that I’ve read) tend to touch on how sexism affects men and boys, but they don’t really go into much detail about it. When I heard about Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity by Jack Urwin* and the launch for the book, I knew this was the book I had been waiting for, and eagerly booked myself a ticket for the event.
The Man Up launch happened on Friday evening at Waterstones Piccadilly. Jack Urwin was in conversation with Laura Jane Williams, author of Becoming and the lady behind Superlatively Rude (who was also a major draw to this event for me, I just love her!), and Joel Beckman, the General Manager of Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a charity whose aim is to prevent male suicide. The three discussed the topics covered in the book, and how this idea that men have to be “masculine” is detrimental to their mental health. It was such an incredibly fascinating event, so I thought I’d highlight some of the major points made at the event.
Urwin discussed how the book came about; he didn’t deal so well with his grief after his father died when he was 9, and by his late teens/early twenties, he was suffering from depression. It took him a while to admit to himself that there was a problem. He wrote an article for Vice in 2014, A Stiff Upper Lip Is Killing British Men, about how men not opening up and talking about their problems can leadtos erious problems, and it went viral (do read that article, it’s brilliant. Read it, then come back for this post). Feminist author Laurie Penny loved the article, told Urwin he should write a book on the subject, and put him in contact with her agent.
76% of the people who commit suicide in the UK are men – a statistic given to us by Beckman, and the potential consequence of the issues Urwin covers in his book.
Williams asked what the definition of masculinity was, and Urwin responded that there’s no fixed definition; we all have ideas of what’s “manly”, what constitutes men being men. He said these ideas are picked up from our fathers; men raise boys in their own image. He commented that the only people men really listen to are other men, and are encouraged to emulate their dads. Men take after the males in their lives.
The conversation moved on from men’s fathers to men being fathers themselves. Urwin said he’s seen hands-on fathers, but that they are still abnormal. Mothers are still encouraged to be the ones who stay at home with their children. There’s more maternity leave for women than paternity leave for men, and so it’s not financially viable for men to be fathers.
The topic of language came up, and Beckman told us how “stigma” and “mental illness” can be alienating to men, and so CALM attempts to talk to men on their level. Urwin agreed with how to talk to men, and told us how he wrote the article in a young masculine voice, and that’s why it reached so many men, where an older academic voice might not have.
Still on the subject or reaching men rather than putting them off, Beckerman told us how the CALM website is consciously designed to look like a social network, forum or magazine, a site where men can feel comfortable to post. It’s purposely designed to not look like a charity website. He went on to say that it’s not just mental illness that leads to male suicide. The other issues that CALM talks to men about include relationship break ups, stress at work, money troubles and family troubles.
Urwin added that it’s because of men’s inability to talk about the small problems, they get snowed under; the problem men have is that the problems build up, and can become something bigger. Beckerman agreed, telling us men don’t want to talk about things, don’t feel they need to, but they also don’t want to worry others.
This led on to a conversation about wages. Urwin told us that men earning less than their wives can feel emasculated, like they’re a failures men. The idea that men should be the breadwinners is an ideal of masculinity, but it’s outdated, because women also work now – it’s no longer necessary for men to be the breadwinners, but there’s still this idea that they should be.
Williams then asked what could women do to help the men in their lives open up more and talk about their problems. Urwin believes women are already doing it. He said there’s an incredible burden on women, as the only people men feel they can talk to tends to be their immediate partners – and most relationships are heterosexual. Women are already doing a great job, that they’re already picking up the pieces. Urwin believes it’s men talking to men that’s needed.
Beckman added that women should try and think about ways to prompt men to talk about their feelings, without asking them, “Why don’t you talk about your feelings?”, which can have the opposite affect. He also said women can look at how they bring up their children; boys are going to be brought up in a certain way, with stereotypes and gender roles – there are certain toys for boys, there are certain activities boys should be doing. He says there needs to be male role models that young men can look up to and aspire to be.
Urwin mentioned that some feminists feel there’s no place for this conversation because of the privilege of men, but that it’s women that are most affected by the pressure on men, because they deal with the fallout.
The conversation moved on to what men can do, and Beckman brought up that men struggle with how to be a good friend without not being a “man”. He told us about an app CALM are currently developing called the Wing Man App, which will enable men to ask questions about how to help their friends, to ask things like, “My friend is drinking ten pints a day, how can I help him?”
Urwin commented how this was such a good idea, because men have never learnt to have in depth conversations like women do, that they never know what to say to friends who have problems.
Beckerman told us how actually having these conversations, to open up can be humiliating for men, but equally, it can be humiliating to back out of a suicide attempt. Urwin agreed, saying that there’s this idea that if you fail at committing suicide, it’s something to be ashamed of. Beckerman continued to say that men just need to be able to talk more, that this needs to be more equalised. Men need to be more sensitive and to learn to talk about things, the same way women now have more access to things.
Urwin continued with this idea, “Women have proved they are capable of doing anything men can do, now it’s men’s turn to prove they can do anything women can do.”
Williams asked about the internet, and if it’s a help or a hindrence. Urwin believes the internet has created a community for outsiders, who previously had no-one to talk to. He said we now have access to voices from all over the world, marginalised voices. He said even if you can’t open up to your friends, there are probably people out there who are willing to listen to what you have to say.
Beckman told us that in May alone, there were 7,000 calls to the CALM helpline, and that since it started, there has been phenomenal use of CALM’s webchat service. He told us how it gives men access to something like a helpline without having to pick up the phone. The medium of using the internet is different to speaking on the phone, and it’s getting more people to talk.
Urwin said it’s down to the power of the written word. It’s hard to talk about what you’ve been through, but it’s more cathartic to write it, and edit it, and say what you want to say. It’s the detachment of writing; it’s slightly less real, and gives people the power to get their voice heard, which is the most important thing.
Questions were then opened up to the audience. One woman asked if the audience – which was mostly made up on women – was representative of the support and attention Man Up has received. Urwin answered that it’s a myth that feminists and women don’t care about men, and don’t care about masculinity. Remarking on the audience, he said there’s clearly a skew of more women, and it is indicative of the support the book has received.
A man in the audience then asked if Man Up was potentially a redundant white male view. Urwin agreed with the point made, saying that he wrote from his experience, that Man Up isn’t comprehensive, and is definitely a white male view. He said how we talk about masculinity is different in various cultures, and didn’t think he could talk about other cultures in Man Up as a white man. He definitely recommends looking for other views and experiences on the topic. He also said this conversation on modern masculinity is only really starting to kick off now. Beckman agreed that other cultures will have different views of masculinity, but added that male suicides are, by far, greater than female suicides in every country, except China.
Another question was asked about Urwin and Beckman’s male role models. Urwin mentioned one of his important male role models was his mother’s partner, Keith. He is sensitive but still embodies the very traditional idea of what’s masculine. We don’t have to lose the positive ideals of masculinity while adopting more sensitive ones. He also mentioned Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, as good role model. Urwin discussed how he calls himself a feminist, embodies traditional ideals of masculinity, but also cares about women. He said Trudeau has his problems, but is a positive role model for men to look up to.
Beckman told us how Professor Green is the patron for CALM, and he was in a documentary for BBC 3 last year, Professor Green: Suicide and Me, in which he really opens up. He said the feedback of the documentary has been amazing.
A woman asked if there was more that could be done in schools to tackle the problem. Urwin said that there needs to be conversations about mental health on the curriculum, the same as we need conversations on sexual education. He said to look at how many people have mental illnesses, and at how little it’s talked about at school. A lot of kids aren’t from a background where things are talked about at home, and so those conversations need to be happening at school. He also commented on the government putting importance on exam results; kids are under so much pressure, which is leading to an increase of mental illness in students. There needs to be counselling available for those stressed from exams.
And then the event finished, and it was time to get books signed. It was such an absolutely fascinating discussion, and I was nodding along to a lot of it throughout. I’m really excited to dive in to Man Up; it’s going to give me a lot to think about.
N.B. I decided to go to the launch event off my own back, and paid for my ticket. However, I was sent a proof of Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity by Jack Urwin from Icon Books for review purposes, which I will be reviewing in the next few weeks.