• Samuel Leighton-Dore is the author of 'How To Be A Big Strong Man'. (Supplied)
Australian men aren't happy. Here's why I think that is.
By
Samuel Leighton-Dore

1 Aug 2019 - 12:20 PM  UPDATED 1 Aug 2019 - 4:13 PM

It’s hard to know when I first started caring so much about what other men think of me. I can make an educated guess, though. It was probably around the time I started being bullied by boys.

Still, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the bullying began. Perhaps it was when my school bag was hauled onto the train tracks, flattened by the train I was supposed to be catching home.

Drag queen and pop culture philosopher Trixie Mattel says that all shame is learned - and in my case, it was learned early on in life. It became attached to my body, my lisp, my mannerisms, my taste in music. I’d work hard to hide the cover of whichever Enid Blyton book I was reading at lunch time (The Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair chronicles weren't what boys my age should be reading, not while Goosebumps existed). During lunchtime, I’d remove the earphones from my Discman to ensure that others couldn’t hear I was listening to a Kylie Minogue CD, which I played on repeat until it scratched and skipped tracks indiscriminately.

When your formative years are spent second-guessing and ultimately disguising each and every developing taste, interest or passion, it's hard to flourish. As a boy, this can be particularly tough given the strict rules of masculinity boys are taught to abide by from the moment thy're popped into a blue onesie as a baby, assigned a football team and told to be a "big boy".

So, yes. I cared about what other boys thought of me. I cared because, from the moment I started primary school, other boys told me I was somehow wrong for being who I was. To a five-year-old's mind, there were more of them than there was me. Who was I to argue?

It was the depression resulting from these early years of bullying at the hands of other boys that lead to me overdose when I was 16 - falling just short of becoming another male suicide statistic.

So, when I talk about toxic masculinity and people online accuse me of being anti-man, I can't help but laugh. After all, I'm a boy who used to be violently bullied by boys, who grew into a man who loves and sleeps with men. I've got spades of well-rounded lived experiences of masculinity.

These days, when you mention ‘toxic masculinity’ in an open-plan office or at a family barbecue, it’s hard not to notice the ears prick up; the side glances and grimaces of men - even self-described progressive men - faced with taking accountability for a problem they don’t feel party to.

A dramatic increase of coverage in the mainstream media has seen the ideas of ‘toxic’ or ‘fragile’ masculinity rendered somewhat meaningless; presented by well-paid talking heads as leftist propaganda slogans used to turn your sons gay and force solid-bloke rugby players to wear nail polish. This year alone, conversations around toxic masculinity have been irresponsibly conflated with gender neutrality, political discourse around transgender and intersex issues, and, I’d venture a guess, an underlying fear of change.

However, discussions on toxic masculinity should be anything but divisive. In fact, if you think about it, they really should be unifying.

However, discussions on toxic masculinity should be anything but divisive. In fact, if you think about it, they really should be unifying.

When confronted with the well-documented crisis of violence against women in Australia, so-called Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) are often quick to cite the awful rate of suicide in men. It’s kind of become their go-to battle cry, a rebuttal, evidence that men, not women, are the one’s suffering.

Why not both?

The truth is, men and women are suffering as a result of toxic masculinity. Men are killing women and men are killing themselves. There are no winners at the hands of an emotionally unhealthy man. Nobody comes out on top when a father, brother or son is unable to express or process their difficult emotions and seek help. When sadness, frustration and shame give way to anger, isolation, substance abuse and violence, society as a whole loses out, which is precisely why brainstorming possible solutions should be embraced by all genders, across the political spectrum, urgently and with gusto.

But, of course, that would be far too reasonable.

When I first set out to write and illustrate my forthcoming book How To Be A Big Strong Man, my main goal was to take an uncomfortable subject and make it not only ‘palatable’ (I put ‘palatable’ in quotations here because so much of the vital work in this area, like that by Clementine Ford and Jess Hill, is immensely confronting and challenging and needs to be) but celebratory of an alternative, healthier vision for masculinity. My hope was to navigate the usual knee-jerk defensiveness, to make it clear that masculinity - when free of projections, expectations and limitations - can be a beautiful and non-restrictive thing.

Despite the fear-mongering, literally *nobody* is trying to tell men that they can’t continue to play football, watch the WWE, and down knock-off schooeys of Great Northern with the boys. It’s just about giving men the freedom to make these choices for themselves without feeling pressured from a young age to do so — and allowing other men to express their masculinity in whichever healthy, non-violent ways they see fit. It’s about having men understand the inherent strength of vulnerability and asking for help, be it from a loved one of mental health professional. It’s about revering emotional well-being over stone-faced stoicism.

In the first Legally Blonde movie, Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) famously states: “Exercise gives you endorphins; endorphins make you happy, happy people just don’t shoot their husbands!”

Exercise aside, I reckon a similar argument could be applied to Australian men. Men aren't happy. If they were, we quite simply wouldn't have epidemics of violence against women and male suicide. So, assuming that a large enough percentage of men aren't happy with things as they are, wouldn't it be in the best interest of men to raise their hands and work towards a solution together?

Fighting for a new brand of masculinity isn’t political and it’s certainly not misandry. In fact, ‘traditional masculinity’ has been described as a ‘quiet crisis’ by the American Psychological Association since way back in 2012.

The APA reports: “Traits of so-called 'traditional masculinity', like suppressing emotions and masking distress, often start early in life and have been linked to less willingness by boys and men to seek help, more risk-taking and aggression — possibly harming themselves and those with whom they interact."

"Crying at something that moves you to joy or sadness is just as manly as chopping down a tree or punching out a bad guy."

With the growing public profiles of men like Nick Offerman, who proudly advocates open crying ("Crying at something that moves you to joy or sadness is just as manly as chopping down a tree or punching out a bad guy"), and Osher Günsberg, who speaks openly of his experiences with addiction and mental illness, there’s no shortage of case studies for ‘masculine’ presenting men who express their masculinity in healthy ways.

However, it’s the ongoing unwillingness of many men to engage with the issue that keeps us trapped in the seemingly unending and entirely unhelpful discourse.

As I write in How To Be A Big Strong Man: "Toxic masculinity might be best explained as two men locking each other in the same tiny cage and then freaking out at anyone who walks by and looks at them funny. When we hold onto any concept too tightly - particularly something so tied to our identity, like gender - we lose all flexibility. This stiffness leaves us unequipped to not only accept other people, but to accept and express ourselves."

Let's open the cage.

Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Samuel Leighton-Dore is a writer and visual artist based on the Gold Coast. He writes for SBS Pride and his new book How To Be A Big Strong Man is available in Australia now.

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