Redefining masculinity

Welcome to the world of the Alpha Male. Socially powerful, physically strong, he is a figure of dominance and is in control of his actions and emotions. He is probably attractive, he is probably aggressive. He is Batman. He is Will Smith. He’s you, when you play Grand Theft Auto.

Also, introducing, the Beta Male. He is almost incapable of everything. He rarely attempts to achieve, and when he does, he fails. He is worthless. He survives through a mixture of luck, and a capable mother or wife. He is Homer Simpson. He is Al Bundy. He might be the you who’s playing Grand Theft Auto.

Both are versions of masculinity. Both are choices given to young men and boys to emulate. Although sometimes directly influential, their real power lies in their ability to promote the notion that violence is acceptable for men, and that slobbing around is somehow in our genes. Boys will be boys. It’s okay, just by being men, we can get away with this shit.

The portrayal of the alpha male sends the message that power is the answer to life’s trials, and handily, the beta male provides a safety net, in that it’s possible to grow into the affable slacker. You must be in control, but if that doesn’t work, don’t bother trying and let someone else do the work.

And so this is how men should act in society, how they should treat each other, as well as how they should treat women and children. This is what is reaffirmed every hour of every day. The media is not responsible for violent behaviour in men, but they portray it as a normal expression of masculinity, influencing both the expectations of society, and boy’s development.

Boys like to run with stories – they put themselves into the role of their heroes. The fact that most heroes are either alpha or beta only compounds the idea that being sensitive or emotional are not desirable traits.

Some historians argue that this media portrayal of men stems back to the Vietnam War when the image of the all American hero was put under threat. It was important for culture to hold onto the identity of the strong masculine figure. It appears that we actually do need superheroes.

I don’t want to rid the media of these icons. I don’t want Batman to sit down and admit that he’s stressed and could do with some help. And I don’t want the slackers to put on a suit and find a job. But masculinity is rich, diverse. No male has to be a type to be accepted as a member of society. The best way for anyone to reach their full potential is to simply be themselves.

I recently wrote an article for FHM on the way that the NHS treat men with mental health concerns. I argued that it could be useful for service providers to use the media image of the strong male when looking at helping men to come forward. Having problems does not make you weak, and it could be beneficial to flip the strong being silent image on its head. By portraying men who seek help as being brave and in line with the image of the masculine alpha male, perhaps more would feel confidence in seeking help.

The experience was positive, but even in my attempts to address what I consider to be a shortcoming in the NHS, I was relying on arguably outdated stereotyping. Every time I hear that a magazine or TV show is covering men’s mental health, I have a mixed reaction. It is something close to my heart, and I am a writer – so I am pleased that it is not brushed under the carpet as it once was.

However, there is a part of me that can’t help but feel some disappointment that there is a need to address these issues as special cases. Articles come and go, quotas are filled. Don’t get me wrong, an editor’s interest in mental health is a wholly positive thing. But surely we should be getting to the stage whereby it is discussed with as much frequency and normality as other topics.

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