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(Male) Identity Crisis

Illustrated by Anna Sudit
Taking place at London's South Bank Centre this weekend (27th to 29th November) is the second annual 'Being A Man' festival. The event “addresses the challenges and pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century” over three days of talks and discussions, performances and workshops, ranging from “Jihad”, to “Being a Father, to “Men Behind Bars”.

When you consider that in the United Kingdom today, the number of men who commit suicide is nearly four times higher than women, and that almost a third of men would be too embarrassed to seek help for a mental health problem – discussing masculinity seems not just pertinent but urgent.

Recently I have worked in the offices of men’s magazines, also for the men’s fashion pages of a British newspaper, and there is a profound confusion in all of these places about who the male subject is these days.

Is masculine identity in crisis? A recent article in the Sunday Times profiled the online community MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way), which is essentially a support group for disillusioned males that are giving up on relationships with women because, it seems, they are prejudiced against women – and also scared of them. In the article, David Sherratt, an 18-year-old chemistry student from Cardiff University, is quoted as saying, “Hook-up sex is too risky for words. Girls can wake up the next day and claim you raped them. I’m genuinely too scared to go near a woman – just in case... Marriage is like playing Russian roulette with three bullets in the cylinder. I’ve never been interested in having kids since I learnt about the lack of fathers’ rights. The whole system is stacked against men. Our generation has been screwed over by feminism.”

Now this is an extreme and very sad quote, but it’s clear that young men are confused and worried, and unsurprisingly so, because young men as an identity group are portrayed as villains. You only need look at the news: terrorist attacks, gang violence, campus rapes, high school massacres, many instances of homophobia and transphobia – crimes mostly committed by ‘young men’. While these heinous acts are committed by individuals, it’s still ‘young men’ that come off as troubled, because these are the actions of troubled people.

The last few years has seen “lad culture” shake the public consciousness. While there’s been a renewed interested in feminism within mainstream culture, with role models like Lena Dunham, Caitlin Moran and Amy Schumer calling out sexist doublestandards, there has also been (what could be described as) the backlash: movements like “Meninism”, sites like “Lad Bible” and err, Dapper Laughs. The idea that straight white men are responsible for sexism – something we understand to be true, because we (as a group) actually are mostly responsible – is quite a depressing albatross to carry around our necks.

When I was a boy I was constantly implored to prove my masculinity – to play rugby even though it was obviously freezing-cold and unpleasant, to cut off my greasy hair even though I liked it long, to avoid anything that could be considered feminine even though I would have loved nothing more than to spend the afternoon playing with a Barbie Doll – whereas today as a man I’m constantly encouraged to disprove that and to reject conventional masculinity and, truly, that conjures up a deep mess of confusion.

So where are our positive role models? Justin Bieber? Jeremy Corbyn? Cristiano Ronaldo? Hard to tell. Even the most “powerful” man in the country, the Prime Minister, is widely thought of as that tubby old chap that once fooled around with a dead pig. In a recent survey, 27% of men said that they don’t have a male role model. And it becomes especially poignant when you consider that of the 2 million single parents in the UK, 91% are single mums. That’s a lot of kids without their fathers around.

One day we ‘young men’ will ourselves be dads, and it’s at times difficult to imagine how we’ll pull it off. We are a generation mired in debt, struggling with rent, unable to imagine buying a house; how could we ever support a family!

Perhaps this is why our concerns seem to be more immediate: think of the dating app Tinder, where a vast user-base of men chases, thirstily, after a much smaller user-base of women, or Grindr, or Happen. And what are we supposed to look like in our profile pictures? According to GQ magazine we should be smiling, showing off our hobbies, or holding a dog. However, many of us clearly think we just should be topless and totally ripped. More and more men desire to somehow transform themselves into sex objects, to tan and wax and sculpt themselves into outlandishly muscular bodies, and of course this causes problems too – only this summer, a much-reported study presented to the American Psychological Association found that men’s overuse of protein powders (often in lieu of actual food) should be considered a serious new eating disorder.

Sigmund Freud once said that men, to a large extent, are defined by their pursuit of women (or other men, or both, but basically somebody to have sex with.) Because of this we don’t want to feel rejected by women – bad enough to be rejected in a flirtatious Facebook chat, even worse to be fundamentally rejected as an entire gender.

I believe that most of us want to become better men, really – that’s almost all I talk about with my closest friends, as together we float across a never-ending lagoon of angst and alcohol, neurosis and self-loathing, sexual frustration and lust.

The male struggle is overwhelmingly personal not public, it’s mostly hidden, at the best of times discussed between friends.

One only needs look at Young Thug, a violent gangster rapper – whose videos are watched by millions – that threatens to assassinate mall cops and wears Gucci womenswear and call his guns “dicks” – to understand how much confusion abounds. I might be wrong, but I believe that now is a more-traumatising-moment-than-ever to turn from boy to man.