Thursday, May 1, 2014

Man Up: The Words That Benefit No One

In primary school:

"Stop being such a girl."

In high school:

“He’s gone soft”, "Suck it up princess", “What a pussy.”

On Saturday night:

"Don't be a weak cunt", "She must be on her rags", "You blokes have all gone fucking soft."

Whether male or female, 18 years old or 50 – at some point in our lives, we have all been told to man up, grow a pair, suck it up, or stop being a pussy. These terms comprise the unofficial score card by which so many of our actions and behaviors are judged. They begin in the playground, weave their way through school culture, and define the language we take with us - out into the world.

These words - these insults - come from somewhere deep within our culture. From the pub to the sporting field, in our media and our social circles - at every turn, our language reinforces the notion that men are tough, emotionally baron, endlessly resilient. Women are submissive and nurturing. They are highly emotional, and deeply sensitive. Women have feelings. Men have balls.

(Courtesy Brendan Riley, Flickr)

Some argue this language is just an extension of biology; that men and women have separate and distinct characteristics, particularly where emotions are involved. This is the natural order, and challenging notions of gender roles would be challenging nature itself. 

The reality, of course, is that we have created these roles and rules for ourselves. Every time we perpetuate these rigid notions of gender - either overtly, or through casual language - we are reinforcing a system which hasn't benefited any of us for a very, very long time.

We know now, for example, that a belief in rigid gender roles are a contributing factor in men's violence against women. Domestic violence is far more prevalent in relationships where one or both partners enforce narrow definitions of their gendered responsibilities, particularly where child rearing is involved (Hattery, A., Smith, E. (2012). The Social Dynamics of Family Violence).

One in three women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Whilst we see a growing awareness around how this language and these beliefs benefit men and disempower women; there is another side. It's a side where men are suffering, and they are suffering profoundly. If we believe that 'having balls' is the ultimate affirmation of courage and success, and being a ‘pussy’ is the exact opposite, we are buying into a language and a system which continues to not only hurt women, but men too. The male fixation with avoiding ‘feminine' characteristics is literally killing us.

In 2012, approximately 2500 Australians committed suicide. 1900 of them were men.

Not only are suicide rates amongst men nearly four times higher than women, men are also falling behind women when it comes to work and career. A recent study showed that women are succeeding in positions and industries traditionally seen as the 'male domain.' By contrast, men are showing little, if any growth into traditionally 'female' spheres of employment:

These notions of rigid gender roles are nothing new. Female leaders and feminists have been exploring and challenging them for decades. But so often when men hear the term ‘gender’ - or even worse, feminism - we either tune out, or feel we are under threat – as though at any moment, our tenuous grasp on masculinity could be taken away from us. But looking at the data, we realise this version of masculinity - with its balls and its hard cocks and all the language we use to perpetuate it - has been hurting men for as long as we've been subscribing to it. 

Masculinity, as we currently define and embrace it, is letting a staggering number of men down.

Feminism has seen women start to redefine their place in society. It has subverted the expectations thrust upon them, and given them the ideas and tools to challenge their role in the world. The male response to this movement has been mostly to ignore it, argue with it, or insult the incredible women who lead and embrace it. All the while creating nothing new for ourselves. 

At times, it feels that men would rather do anything than examine their own masculinity.

When we embrace gender stereotypes, nobody wins. Women are demoted as submissive and emotionally unstable, whilst men have balls and stoicism and are immune to emotion. Of course, neither is capital T true – we have entirely imposed these restrictions on ourselves.

Shifting this culture, one so deeply entrenched, is a profoundly large task. But there are things we can do. We can connect the casual language to the outcome. We can challenge people when they perpetuate these standards through their language, their behavior and their actions. 

Every time we’re out with our mates, we can choose language which doesn’t refer to soft cocks and manning up. We can choose language that doesn’t equate sensitivity with being a pussy or ‘being a weak cunt.’ We can challenge other men when they tell someone to ‘grow a set.’  We can decide what sort of future we want for men. Because this isn’t about ‘softing it’ or being a girl. It is about questioning why nearly three quarters of Australian suicides are men.  It is about questioning why one in three women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. It is about respecting women, and respecting ourselves.

We need to start being honest. These standards are ridiculous. If we let our language define masculinity as simply 'not being a women' - we will continue to view women as second rate citizens, and continue to view manhood as the challenge of avoiding 'feminine' qualities at all costs. This is a language which benefits no one, built on a culture which is hurting all of us. 


  1. Nice one. I can think of so much from this, and you could write another 5 blogs on it I'm sure, but an interesting word that comes to mind when reading this about gender and language is "cunt." The most rude "swear word" we have, is to do with female genitals. Dick, cock, balls, no biggie.
    Look forward to reading more on the blog Alex.

    1. Thanks Kate. You're dead right - and moreover, words like dick and cock are often delivered in a spirit of playfulness, free from the punch that being called a pussy or a cunt is intended to deliver. Man-jina is another good example - though I can't entirely believe I just typed that word.

  2. Awesome article Alex - I know we've had many discussions on this topic and you write your thoughts so clearly. Look forward to reading more!

    1. Thank you Ms. Read! I miss our lunches for this and so many more reasons. It just won't be the same without you this year. x

  3. Thanks, Alex...great article. I'll get in touch and hope we can meet up at some stage.

    1. Cheers Josh! Would be great to hear from you.