Boys Don’t Cry? Meet The Men Trying To Redefine Masculinity

Photo Courtesy of Ahmed Nishaath/Unsplash.
Thirty-two-year-old journalist and public speaker Chris Hemmings liked to start the empathy workshops he ran in schools and at universities pre-coronavirus by giving all of the young men in attendance a piece of paper and a pen. On it, anonymously, he would get them to write "a fear, a worry or a concern that nobody in the room knows about and explain why nobody knows about it." At the end of the workshop, he would read them all out. 
"By doing this," Chris, who went to school in Manchester, explains, "I am trying to show that it doesn't matter who wrote it, what matters is that it could be your best friend and you wouldn’t know this about him. So why have you not created an environment where you could have talked about this?" The answer, he laments, is always the same. "They’re afraid of being judged, bullied or having the mick taken out of them for showing their vulnerability."
Chris wasn’t always so good at talking about his feelings, let alone encouraging others to do the same. When he was in his mid 20s, his father passed away in a hospice following a battle with cancer and Chris remembers "feeling proud" that he didn’t cry at the funeral, not even while delivering his eulogy. This, he reflects today, was a symptom of a damaging "lad culture" which prevented him not only from being his true self but from living a fulfilling and authentic life.  
Since that day, Chris has completely altered his life. He left the rugby club at university, changed his friendship group and wrote a book called Be A Man, which was published in 2017 at around the same time as Robert Webb and Grayson Perry’s respective journeys into manhood. "There are," he tells me, "not enough men who are countering the narrative that men don’t show emotion or talk about their feelings, that men need to be fighters, protectors, winners. That we need to be in control all the time."

We risk being lost in a vicious cycle where young men are not taught to be vulnerable. The 'boys don't cry' narrative is still pervasive and it's hurting people.

Chris Hemmings
We hear that there is a 'crisis of masculinity' almost as much as the words 'toxic masculinity' are thrown around as a catch-all term for any behaviour that doesn’t fall under the auspices of feminism. But rarely do we talk about what that actually means. This September, it was reported that the male suicide rate in England and Wales has hit a two-decade high. According to the Office for National Statistics, the rate of 16.9 deaths per 100,000 is the highest it has been since 2000. This stark data confirms that suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK
"We risk being lost in a vicious cycle," Chris reflects, "where young men are not taught to be vulnerable. The ‘boys don’t cry’ narrative is still pervasive and it’s hurting people. And it doesn’t have to be like this. I am always struck when I go into schools and talk to young women that they say boys’ behaviour becomes a problem for them around the age of 13 or 14 so there is something that we are doing to boys as they become young men." 
Something is clearly very wrong. And it’s not only hurting men or causing their loved ones pain. "My aim," Chris says, "is to engage people in a conversation about how certain aspects of masculine expectation can not only damage individual men and boys but also women and girls, too. I want men and boys to think critically about their own behaviour, to recognise that they have the power to help their brothers overcome, among other things, mental health issues, tendencies for violence and the removal of female agency."
He’s right. Beyond your garden-variety sexism or harassment which, according to the UN, the vast majority of women experience during their lifetime, what do most mass shooters and terrorists have in common? They’re almost all men. Between 1982 and 2018, 97% of mass shooters in the US were male. Meanwhile in the UK, between 2001/02 and 2016/17, men made up 91% of terrorism-related arrests, according to Home Office statistics. And as a recent book, Home Grown by Joan Smith, points out, many of them have a history of violence against women. On top of that, last year the campaign group Hope Not Hate reported that a hostility towards feminism is feeding directly into alt-right and far-right movements online. They found that a third of young British people today believe that feminism is marginalising or demonising men and warned that these beliefs were a 'slip road' to other far-right ideas.
Fortunately, Chris isn’t the only one trying to reframe masculinity. The Good Lad Initiative (GLI) is a politically neutral group which was founded in Oxford in 2014. Today, they "specialise in helping men and boys to contribute to improving gender relations" by facilitating workshops in schools, universities and workplaces. 
"One of the main things that we do as an organisation is just start a conversation," the group’s managing director, Daniel Rodney Guinness tells me over the phone. "We bring people in and, hopefully, remove some of the taboos that surround some topics (such as consent or mental health) which they might perceive as hazardous to their social status or sense of masculinity."

I was having a discussion about consent and was asking whether the participants thought that asking for consent was sexy. One of them replied, 'No – it's neutral and necessary. You don't say your fork is tasty when you're eating a good meal. Consent is the same.' I thought that was really cool!

Twenty-two-year-old James is currently a student at the University of Cambridge. He is also GLI’s lead student coordinator there, having become involved after attending a workshop himself with the rugby team in his first year. 
"I found the workshop to be a transformative experience," he tells me. "It was the first time I was given a space to critically reflect on my inherited attitudes from school. Having just arrived at university, it began the process by which I realised I held a range of problematic views that filtered through into my actions."
At the moment, because of the pandemic, GLI’s workshops are taking place online. The topics of discussion, James says, remain as pertinent as ever though. "We ask explorative questions, like 'How do you talk about sex to your friends?' or 'Do you think it's emasculating to admit vulnerability?' and unpack the answers without judgement." His diagnosis of the problems men and boys face is very similar to the conclusions Chris has drawn through his work. "One of the greatest barriers to honest, transformative conversation is the fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing," James says. "It means often people don’t speak at all and don’t ever challenge their own views... The other day, I was having a discussion about consent and was asking whether the participants thought that asking for consent was sexy to them. One of them replied, 'No – it’s neutral and necessary. You don’t say your fork is tasty when you’re eating a good meal. Consent is the same.' I thought that was really cool!"
Is it possible that this work will change long-held attitudes about what it means to be a man? That young men will be able to hold conversations that reshape their own gender in the way that women are currently doing, in various ways, through contemporary feminisms? Does the fact that Donald Trump – a man known to have sexually harassed women, a hyper-masculine caricature who embodies cartoonish brute manliness and flaunts it in shameless, gaudy ways as a badge of honour – lost the US election to Joe Biden offer a glimmer of hope? Could it signal that the needle is moving? 
"Personally, I’m not keen on conceptualising the present day as 'crucial' or a 'tipping point' or even a 'crisis' of masculinity," James says thoughtfully when I put this to him. "There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, cultural change won’t happen overnight – especially when it comes to people’s sense of gendered identity, which is formed over many years and through the influence of many (uncontrollable) factors. Speaking of this as the crucial moment undermines the constant effort that will need to be put in for years and years to come for long-lasting perceptions to change. Secondly, I don’t think this cultural shift is the crisis it’s made out to be. There’s no need for panic. Surely what we want is to broaden this monolithic understanding of masculinity to cover a range of masculinities. You can be masculine and wear makeup. You can be masculine and love talking about your emotions. No one gets left behind in this – least of all those who comfortably subscribe to more traditional models of masculinity. Rather, everyone gets included."
It's savvy of the Good Lad Initiative to be apolitical. After all, surely those who need to join this conversation the most are those who, conventionally, feel the least able to do so. Before we wrap up, James adds: "I think it’s an inspiring thought that you get to choose what 'being a man' means to you – not having society/culture/tradition dictate it."
It remains to be seen whether these ideas will move into the cultural mainstream and, what's more, be enough to counter the bubbling online machismo of the sexist alt-right. But just as there is now a general and growing acceptance among women that there is more than one way to be a woman, let’s hope that, in time, the same will be true of being a man. 
If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series