equality-1245576_640What does it mean to be a man in today’s society? The age-old ‘nature versus nurture’ debate rages on, as does to what extent we all can (or want to) overcome any of the predisposition or (pre-)programming that exists from either source. Some of what’s out there may be generalisation but, even then, I  quite often find ‘nuggets’ that might hold true.

Last week I watched ‘Grayson Perry: All Man’ – broadcast on Channel 4 last month – like many other people, I tend to get a bit behind with watching what I’ve recorded, so I’ve only just got around to it. I’ve seen some of Perry’s documentaries before – I particularly liked the series he did on class a few years ago. I find him gentle, thoughtful and perceptive, so I was interested to see what he came up with here. As he did in the series on class, in each of these programmes he produced some fabulous artwork to illustrate his findings. The series has expired now on catch up but some clips are still available on You Tube.

In the first programme he spent time in the North East of the UK reflecting on the changing role of men previously hailed as “..hard on the outside and soft on the inside…”,  “…Strong, stoical providers, the bedrock of their families and communities. Men who seemed as hewn from steel and brick as the world they’d built…”. Following the decline of our heavy industries, Perry wonders how well that way of being works for their sons and grandsons now. There’s a very sad part where he talks to the mother and friends of a thirty-year old man called Dan who killed himself in November 2013. It seems he hadn’t talked to anyone about how he was feeling, and none of them had any inkling.

Perry says “…sometimes I think men don’t even know when they are sad …. it’s something we learn … how to notice our own feelings … they’re not encouraged to notice how they’re feeling…” He recalls that he, himself, didn’t see a man cry until he was in his forties.

The cage fighters he met talked about fighting being a part of growing up and having honed their skills since. I was intrigued by the way in which a lot of them had used fighting as adults to work through their own issues, to achieve a sense of balance in their lives, and to enable them to show a more sensitive side in other areas.

The second programme had Perry accompanying the police on a dawn raid looking for drug dealers. What came through very clearly in this one was an emphasis on hierarchy and rank in the gang culture, and a pressure to be dominant.

The last one focused on our financial services industry in the City of London. I was fascinated by the different interpretations from the people Perry spoke to regarding the degree to which ‘masculine’ behaviours and values still exist/pervade. I admit I tend to lean towards the women’s analysis that some of the ‘maleness’ has been toned down and veiled but that it’s still there – and, as Perry points out, the design of the buildings, lobbies and offices seems to bear that out.

Perry ends with the thought: “… men have got to start looking into the future … feminists have been doing this for decades saying ‘women can be this, should do this, take the opportunity’ … men have got to stop looking over their shoulder at the olden days ‘when men were men’ … we’ve got to start looking forward to what can men be … what should men be … because this is important. We’ve got to learn to be flexible and change. Because in the end that’s the only way that we’re going to make a better world and going to be happier…”  

On BBC Breakfast last Friday I saw an interview with documentary filmmaker, broadcaster and journalist Tim Samuels about his e-book: ‘Who Stole my Spear?’ – the title of which I take to be a nod to the book: ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ by Dr Spencer Johnson (a particular favourite of mine). I bought it straight away, read it over the following few days and found it interesting, humorous and thought-provoking. Amongst other things, he talks about male physicality and aggression, the importance of spending time with other men – 1:1 and in groups – and the rites of passage that exist, or are created, to mark the transformation of boys into men.

A strong theme that came through for me in both the book and the TV programmes, is the high rate of male suicide and how difficult it can be for some (or many?) men to firstly identify, and then to talk about, their feelings. This isn’t always just about what men expect of themselves and each other, though – I remember, in one of Brené Brown’s books, she said that some of the men she’d spoke to about vulnerability said that it was the women in their lives who wouldn’t allow them to be anything other than the traditional strong, manly, one.

On this point I’ll just mention  ‘Alright Mate’, a campaign that Grassroots launched last month to raise awareness about male suicide rates and the services available to those in need. It focuses on encouraging male friends to look out for each other, and to have open and direct conversations. If you read Samuels’ book, you’ll see he’s developed a kind of shorthand with his friends for them to let each other know how they’re feeling – I rather liked this, too.

I also liked his ‘weekly spears’ and can envisage some of my male clients reading the book and building some of these activities into a ‘mindapples‘ type approach so that they can acknowledge and nourish their fundamental maleness as a key part of keeping themselves mentally and emotionally healthy. Channelling the need for tough physical activity and competition seems to be an important part of this.

Of course, confusion over roles and behaviour isn’t just a male preserve – it applies to women, too. Progress made by the feminist movement in my own lifetime has meant that women’s lives have changed a lot in some respects, and less in others. Speaking from my own experience, I have found that women who work in male-dominated industries or who are the person within a family or a relationship who tends to be seen as ‘the strong one’ can experience very similar issues to some men. Side-by-side with the men who might be acting according to their stereotype I think there are women today resisting theirs – doing their best to embrace their (relatively new-found) freedom and opportunities with beliefs such as: ‘I’ll be seen as weak and not taken seriously if anyone sees me cry’ or ‘I need to behave like the men I work with if I want to succeed’.

In Samuels’ book there are several points where he acknowledges similarities, as well as differences, between the experiences of men and women today. He discusses topics such as being single, dating, attitudes towards sex and fidelity – and what it’s like for someone whose friends have moved on to coupledom and becoming parents, while they haven’t, and how they might feel somewhat adrift as a result.

It seems to me that a lot of us reach a point in our lives (or perhaps several points) when we question what we think is expected of us and are prompted to make changes towards something that feels better, and more healthy. Underlying all this is whether we’re in touch with, or ignoring, our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, being out of touch (consciously or unconsciously) can be a temporary thing – enabling us to ‘power through’ a difficult time – but it can also develop into a way of life which means that we’re actually disconnected. Thoughts and feelings are a key part of being human and require attention. Learning to notice them – tuning into them from time to time – can help us understand what’s really going on for us, give us space to breathe, make better decisions, be better friends, partners, parents – and enable us to enjoy life much more.