What does it mean to be a man, in 2016? As we watch the self-proclaimed “alpha-males”, Donald Trump, Mike Pence and Stephen Bannon, take control of the world’s most powerful political platform, do we need to ask whether masculinity is still fragile? The way the world looks on first glance right now, you could argue, doesn’t exactly make a strong case for advocating even more men’s rights.
But scratch under the surface and there are some troubling factors. Traditional constructs of masculinity – being emotionless, hyper-sexual, sporting, strong physically and mentally, never, ever crying – might wield a disproportionate amount of power globally, but they also still hold men back – and, by upholding the opposing stereotype, women, too. To combat these stereotypes, International Men’s Day, which will be celebrated on Saturday, was set up in 1992 with the aim of promoting gender equality. In 2016, it’s a much more complicated issue.
In 2016, what is supposed to be a day questioning oppressive traditional masculinity is incredibly divisive. It’s argued that the day shouldn’t exist in the first place because gender inequality tends to negatively impact more women than men, while others appear to use the day as an excuse to bash feminism and state that women “have it better” than men.
There is, undeniably, a loud discussion about men’s place in the world, from the “Alt Right” (an ultra-right-wing movement that exists on 4chan pages and is excited about “Making America Great Again” ) to Grayson Perry’s thoughtful Channel 4 series on masculinity.
And, for a third year, the Being A Man (BAM) festival will return to London’s Southbank Centre later this month. Set up by Jude Kelly, the festival – which features talks, cultural activities, plays, performances and discussion groups dealing with masculinity and what it means to be a man – draws men from all backgrounds, with some 1,200 guests attending in 2015.
“You've got a situation where the world acknowledges that all societies have a disproportionate amount of power resting in the man,” she explains. “And that obviously produces for men as well as women all kinds of issues about what masculinity is supposed to look like. These issues can be very destructive to men – the high levels of violence, suicides, inability to feel you can play your proper role as a father.”
As ever, this is an issue of light and shade – what International Men’s Day should teach us is that it’s possible to support men without being anti-feminist or anti-women
The day, says Kelly, is supposed to give men the same chance that women have “to actively decide to talk about the role that was given to them – what ‘female’ or ‘male’ is supposed to mean as opposed to the masses of variety of things it could mean.”
But the anger felt by some men is palpable, and where balanced and important discussion should be, all too often there’s conflicting and aggressive – even misogynistic – rhetoric in its place. How do you square it with this supposedly balanced discussion that IMD promotes? Kelly likens the reaction to the aristocracy losing control – the power must be distributed more evenly, even if they’re not losing anything they’re going to feel insecure by the change in mood. Whether you feel that it’s worth appeasing the insecurity of the more powerful group is down to personal taste. However, it’s clear that some men clearly feel deeply wounded.
“The fact there's so much resistance to International Men’s Day shows precisely how much we need it,” says men’s rights activist Peter Lloyd when I ask whether the day should exist at all. “It may be 2016, but there are still pressing gender inequality issues which society won't address because they affect men. Our culture asserts everybody is equal, but acts as if women are more equal than men - which is Orwellian. International Men’s Day forces the agenda and encourages positive change. If feminists truly were about equality then International Men’s Day wouldn't need to exist, but because it only focuses on getting women a good deal, we've been forced to mobilise ourselves.”
Lloyd, who describes himself as a “suffragent”, adds that men suffer a life-expectancy gap “because the NHS pump millions into women's health - but virtually nothing into men's”.
There are undoubtedly problems with men’s health, such as a huge mental health crisis facing young men, and the fact that men are more likely than women to die from cancer in part because they’re less likely to talk about symptoms.
Lloyd goes on to say – and I’m not sure if it’s a dig at me directly, as a millennial left-leaning feminist, or if I’m just completely self-obsessed – that these problems are “not like the complaints of young feminists who are preoccupied with trigger warnings and so-called man-spreading.”
For balance, it’s worth noting that while women do traditionally live longer than men, the gap is closing and it’s recently been found that wealthy men actually live longer than wealthy women. As for the lack of focus on men’s health, this does not show the whole picture. The NHS is certainly not perfect when it comes to treating women either – for example take the lack of care for post-natal mental healthcare or the fact that women taking the contraceptive pill are more likely to be depressed. The idea of a bucolic scene in every gynaecologist’s room is utterly wrong and the notion that women are prioritised above men in the healthcare system is a false one.
Professor Binna Kandola, who co-founded business psychologists Pearn Kandola which examines bias and unconscious motivations in the workplace, argues that men’s interests are constantly overstated. “I’ve seen very little to suggest that the concept of International Men’s Day isn’t completely ridiculous and nothing more than a form of modern sexism. I have a suspicion that it has been designed by people who object to women achieving diversity as, for our society, men’s achievements are celebrated all the time – every day is International Men’s Day!”
International Women’s Day is needed, he argues, because women and women’s achievements are undervalued. “When you consider the facts and recognise that, for example, 80 per cent of women’s art is not on display and that we largely celebrate the artistic achievements of men, it’s obvious that more work needs to be done for women rather than their male counterparts.”
As ever, this is an issue of light and shade – what International Men’s Day should teach us is that it’s possible to support men without being anti-feminist or anti-women. We deserve equality, we just don’t know how to achieve it yet.