/ 22 November 2021

Men carry the burden of society’s expectation of masculinity

Graphic Gender Website 1000px
(John McCann/M&G)

Our conversations related to gender reflect and emphasise the negative effect of gender on society — especially that of men and masculinity in society. Studies are conducted to understand the roots and triggers of men’s social conduct — or misconduct. Without doubt, men are often guilty of causing social ills but we often do not acknowledge and recognise the pressures on men. In most instances, the focus is on their conduct. Less attention is given to interrogating and reflecting on how masculine notions are formed and subsequently practised, and the influence of social settings on these processes.

Masculinity is not a static entity – it is flexible, evolving, and adapts to different contexts. But there is a struggle between upholding the traditional practices of masculinity and the desire for modern and liberal expressions of masculinity. The concept of “traditional” masculinity is frequently used when investigating the construction and practices of masculinity. This concept is often understood as the opposite of the modern representation of masculinity. It refers to attributes such as independence, self-sufficiency, heterosexuality, physical toughness, and emotional restrictedness. 

These attributes highlight the ideas of masculinity embedded in traditional ideology, rules and norms. 

These expectations present problems for men. They are less likely to express their feelings; they are not expected to do so. Men may not be as expressive as women and the signs of mental illness are not the same as those of women. Although we expect men to “man up” and demonstrate strength when confronted with difficulties, we are not aware of the damage this may cause to their mental and emotional well-being. 

According to the World Health Organisation, South African men are more than four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Of more than 6 000 cases of suicide, 5 138 were men, which translates to 21.8 per 100 000. 

Men’s socioeconomic and sociopolitical positions influence how they view and practise their masculinity. Although Statistics South Africa reported that 32.4% of men are unemployed (compared with 36.8% of unemployed women), men living in poverty are stressed because they are unable to live up to their and others’ ideas of “successful masculinity”. To a large extent, men are still expected to assume the role of financial provider. Failure to adhere to these expectations may result in one’s masculine traits not being recognised or acknowledged. In some cases, men are considered “less of a man” because they cannot fulfill the expectation of financial provision. This affects their interaction and relationships with other men, women, and children.

Apart from the societal expectations, we need to pay attention to the socialisation process in the family. A family is a training ground where members are taught about desirable and undesirable behaviour and expectations of others. Men and women are socialised to internalise and accept toxic gender roles, one being the use of violence. Violent behaviour is often associated with normal “boyish” behaviour, therefore, it is expected of a boy child to resort to violence. It is expected of a boy child to retaliate or fight back when facing conflict. Consequently violence is viewed as a measure to correct behaviour associated with disobedience or challenging masculine authority. 

The Mail & Guardian reported in 2020 that one in five women in South Africa experienced violence at a partner’s hands. South Africa has witnessed an increase in gang rapes, most of the first-time rape offenders being teenage boys (SafeSpace, 2021). Teenage boys are not only members of society but also members of the family. This does not imply that parents are responsible for the acts of their children. But it demonstrates the need to interrogate and challenge the socialisation process as far as gender roles and expectations are concerned. 

There are men in society who have invested efforts to transform the masculine scripts and to cultivate positive male attributes. These are men who strive to be good citizens, husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. The efforts invested by these individual men tend to be disregarded because the focus is always on unpacking and reflecting the toxic actions and attributes of men.

International Men’s Day

 International Men’s Day recognises the positive contribution of men to their world, families and communities. The day aims to create awareness about the well-being of men. Society often disregards male pain and focuses on male privilege so it is important to recognise and acknowledge male pain.

 This recognition does not suggest the struggle and oppression of women should be disregarded. With the 2021 slogan being “Better relations between men and women”, I am reminded of the third wave of feminist scholars who pointed out that society is experiencing a crisis embedded in patriarchal masculinity rather than masculinity itself. There is a need to sensitise men and women to the dangers of patriarchy, particularly for men. It is also important to encourage men to construct their own identities that are different from those prescribed by patriarchy. 

Although most men might not be oppressed by sexism in ways women are, we need to pay much closer attention to how men suffer the consequences of sexism. It is worth recognising that men do not derive the common benefits from sexist oppression because they do not hold a common social position. 

It is also important to acknowledge the role of individual men in changing the masculine narrative. May we recognise such individuals in our homes, workplaces and communities.