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"I'm just going to say it: Sometimes I feel sorry for men."

I feel sorry for men.

It’s an opinion I don’t normally put out there — as a writer, I normally focus on the many challenges faced by women —  but it needs saying.

I feel sorry for men because they, like women, are subject to punishingly inflexible gender roles.

In the western world, at least, those roles require boys from a very young age to act “masculine” according to strict cultural rules that go something like this:

Be dominant.

Be tall, be competitive, virile and violent.

Be heterosexual, obsessed with sports, and unable to express feelings other than anger and excitement.

Be strong. Be stoic. Be sexually dominant. And for God’s sake, don’t cry.

The world we live in trains boys to “perform masculinity” in line with those strict definitions — dubbed the Act Like a Man Box by sexuality expert Charlie Glickman — well before they even know what gender means.

Sure, mothers and fathers and teachers don’t mean to do it, but from the moment boys take their first step in their tiny blue booties, they call boys things like “little man”.

As they grow, those boys’ role models give them fewer hugs and more fist-bumps than their female counterparts. When the boys get older, footy coaches teach them to “man up”. When those little boys mature into young men, careers counsellors and proud parents encourage them to aspire to be lawyers and footballers rather than writers or teachers.

In doing so, each person trains them just a little bit to step inside the Act Like a Man Box — and to never stray outside its safe, stoic, steadfastly macho borders.

“We don’t mean to do it, but from the moment they take their first step in their tiny blue booties, we call boys ‘little man’. As they grow, we give them fewer hugs and more fist-bumps than their female counterparts.”

The effects of enforcing such prescriptive gender roles on men are all too real.

The Good Men Project director Mark Greene points out that society’s discouragement of boy’s affectionate natures ‘murders their beautiful friendships’.

“We keep the loving natures that once came so naturally to us hidden and locked away. This training runs so deep we’re no longer even conscious of it,” Greene says. “And we pass this training on, men and women alike, to generation after generation of bright-eyed, loving little boys.”

Related content: ‘The world is full of men I don’t want my son to grow up to be.

The result of all this is an epidemic of male loneliness.

Cultural gender differences in the expression of emotions — called “feeling rules” by sociologist Arlie Hochschild — mean that men are less likely to express loneliness and seek out support in the same way as women. This has serious mental health repercussions; research shows that between 1999 and 2010 suicide among men, age 50 and over, rose by nearly 50%, and the New York Times reports that “the suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.”

‘We pass this training on, men and women alike, to generation after generation of bright-eyed, loving little boys.’ Image via iStock.
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The Act Like a Man Box is not just harmful to men, either. It promotes the subjugation of anything feminine, and thus — you guessed it — women.

“Since the logic of the box is an either/or, you’re either all the way in or you’re all the way out,” Glickman explains. “The guy at the bottom of the heap is at risk of being cast out. So each guy has to compete with the others in order to not be the one who’s outside the Box.

“The Box is one of main reasons why men harass women on the street and why catcalling and violence tends to escalate when men are in groups.”

Related: Luke Ablett explains why men don’t need to be ‘agressive, tough guys’ all the time.

Since the Box privileges heterosexuality, it also promotes the subjugation of the LGBT+ community, according to Glickman.

“One of the primary reasons that boys and men gay bash and bully queers is that they need to perform masculinity in order to show the world that they’re in the Box,” he says.

“We keep the loving natures that once came so naturally to us hidden and locked away,” Greene argues. Image via iStock.

This strict definition of masculinity also has repercussions for the work-life balance and career progression of both sexes.

Its emphasis on men’s role as dominant breadwinner discourages men from spending more time with their family which in turn, perpetuates the traditional onus on women to take time off work for family.

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“The anxiety among men is: What if people think I’m not ambitious? What if the company thinks I’m not that committed?” Image via iStock.

That’s a notion explored by ABC journalist Annabel Crabb in The Wife Drought, in which she argues that the idea that men should adopt a breadwinner role remains pervasive in Australian society.

The book argues that for women to become equal to men in the workplace, men must become open to taking parental leave and completing equal amounts of housework — and both those things involve overcoming society’s expectations of what it means to be a man (or in Glickman’s terms, to ‘step outside The Box’).

“The problem is not so much a shortage of women to take up senior positions, the shortage is people at home to help make that possible,” Crabb has argued.

“The anxiety among men is: What if people think I’m not ambitious? What if the company thinks I’m not that committed? It’s the exact opposite question to what a woman would be asking herself, which is: What if I go back to work when my baby is two seconds old, and everyone thinks I’m ambitious.”

How to respond to ‘man up’ (post continues after video):

So yes, I feel sorry for men.

Not in the sense that “meninists” do; I hardly think feminists are trying to take over the world (ha — I wish), and anyone who’s read the stats knows that women remain the primary targets of family violence, sex assault, forced marriage, workplace discrimination and a slew of other injustices. So let’s be clear: My interest in deconstructing masculinity in no way overlooks the overwhelming gender privilege men enjoy across the globe.

But if our aim is truly gender equality, we do need to examine the particular expectations and pressures we place on little boys and fully grown men alike.

After all, as long as society grooms every male person to fit perfectly within the rigid, punishing Act Like a Man Box — which is built on the subjugation of all things woman? We all lose.

Related:

Michael Clarke showed boys it’s okay to cry.

Heartbreaking: Boys list what they don’t like about being a male.

“To attain gender equality, we need to focus on men.”

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