International Men’s Day panders to a sad stereotype of what it is to be male
PUBLISHED: 14:38 26 November 2019 | UPDATED: 14:38 26 November 2019
Dr Nick Walsh, lecturer in psychology at the University of East Anglia, says International Men’s Day does anything but celebrate the male form
November 19 was International Men's Day. The day "celebrates worldwide the positive value men bring to the world, their families and communities; and highlights positive role models and raise awareness of men's well-being."
For the day, the organisers proposed we hold community events to celebrate the day. It advises people "find outstanding local men who are leading their community or families by example and ought to be celebrated. These are men that are making the world a better place through their integrity, selflessness, responsibility, and care. In a ceremony award these men a Certificates of Appreciation in recognition for their service to the local community, the country or to humanity at large."
But I don't get it. The thing that bothers me is the association of qualities like integrity, selflessness, responsibility and care with being an "outstanding man". I can think of lots of people in general with these qualities, so why limit them to men. These qualities are not male specific, rather they're qualities that make for a 'good person'.
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So I don't get the point of International Men's Day. Maybe this is because I don't understand what it means to 'be a man' and the idea of 'masculinity'. Although not explicit, it seems to me the basic assumption underlying International Men's Day is that there are two and only two categories of people: males and females. This way of dividing people up is known technically as 'the gender binary', has been around for millennia. Doing this makes life simpler, but leads to beliefs that men and women are fundamentally different. It also leads to other ideas like men and women should occupy different roles, or 'separate spheres' in society e.g. roles like bread-winners and homemakers.
Scientific evidence does not support this 'gender binary'. I don't have space to discuss the detail here but there are many challenges from biology, neuroscience and psychology. The statement that men and women are categorically 'psychologically different' is incorrect. Men and women are more similar than different 'psychologically speaking'. On measures where there are differences such as spatial performance, any differences reduce with training.
But there are many costs to believing 'gender stereotypes' that males and females are psychologically different. Gender stereotypes stop us from recognising skills and interests in children, limits opportunities for play (you can't play with that you're a girl); excuses antisocial behaviour (boys will be boys); and potentially restricts emotions children can and should be allowed to feel (boys don't cry); and finally shames children who don't fit them.
This rigid socialisation based on gender stereotypes can lead to 'psychological stunting'. If a boy grows up only thinking that men need to be independent, stoic, self-assured and unemotional, then potentially they are missing out on half of human experience. Same for girls thinking they need to be nurturant, unassertive, and cooperative, in order to become the 1950s housewife ideal. Many men have strong nurturant needs, and women too have strong assertiveness needs. Suppressing these needs by forcing a child to fit into rigid gender stereotypes leads to mental health problems. Evidence links the learning of these stereotypical views to gender-related stress-coping strategies in adulthood. For example, it is a fact that females are more likely to internalise their stress, via greater anxiety and depression, whereas men are more likely to take their life through suicide.
We need to replace these stereotypes with updated ideas that don't psychologically stunt our children and harm their mental health. Rather than viewing ourselves in a binary way as either masculine or feminine - we can instead be a more flexible, fluid, most importantly accurate in how we describe what people are, and can be like. The general aim should be to raise children to become psychologically and physically healthy adults; being outstanding role models as 'people' by living as they wish to be, not because that's what outdated stereotypes dictate.
Follow Nick on Twitter @nickwalsh100
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