However much we might wish otherwise, our society and lives are populated by traditional stereotypes and the roles we assume people fill. These are complex and interlinked – the stereotype that such traditional views might have us expect from, for example, a straight white man, differ from a Black woman, which will differ again from a gay Asian man. But these stereotypes and prejudices have not popped up by random chance or indifferent observation. They are a part of societal systems, used to justify keeping certain people in certain positions or treating them differently. Among these is the patriarchy, the social system that causes such widespread discrimination and strife, including several recent and serious incidents across the UK. The patriarchy’s effect on women is relatively well-documented in mainstream media and discussions, but what of its impact on men?
The patriarchy, Google tells us, is a social system in which men hold most power and positions of authority in society. But more than that, this system has allowed men to disproportionately abuse these positions through harassment, sexism, or general incompetence. The patriarchy is in this way both shorthand for and explainer of why men so often get away with bad behaviour, having it laughed off, subject to second chances, diminished in its significance, or even faced with outright refusal to believe that the behaviour took place at all.
Beyond that, the patriarchy is a system that maintains its power through the use of gender and stereotypes: women are unsuited to positions of influence because they are emotional, empathetic and expressive and thus more suited to home-making, while men are naturally better leaders because of their cold logic, strength, and focus. It should go without saying that this is nonsense – women can be well suited to power and leadership, just as men can be ill-suited to it. But how far have we really scoured out these patriarchal roots?
Although clearly women suffer most from the effects of the patriarchy and men are generally empowered by it, it remains essential to recognise the impact, including the negative impact, of the patriarchy on men, too. It teaches men to be inexpressive and emotionally closed, to see vulnerability as humiliation and to reject any attributes that could be seen as feminine. A man who has learned this idea of manhood may not feel able to express himself when struggling and will often traditionally resort to less healthy “masculine” coping mechanisms. He may not ask for help when he is feeling low or having mental health issues. And he may end up choosing to use this interpretation of manhood to justify toxic or even abusive behaviour. There is nothing inevitable about this, nor the unfortunate implications for male mental health, nor is there anything necessary about the disproportionately high rate of male suicide that in part results.
Conversely, there is no inevitability to men being the majority of rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault, nor are they born with such instincts hard-wired into them. The patriarchal masculinity to which men are exposed has an enormous impact here (though no level of impact mitigates a man’s choice to commit these acts) that is important to understand. It does not teach them to handle rejection or vulnerability, nor to express what they feel and process those feelings in a healthy way. More than this, the traditional view of masculinity suggests that men can reasonably make consent secondary to traditional, gender-stereotyped ideas of romance. This underlying mentality allows men to justify their decisions to overlook consent and is often learned from patriarchal surroundings.
Depictions of romance, for example, frequently glorify “romantic persistence” and uncontrollable romantic passion, make unrequited love seem poetic and classical, and not uncommonly give their female characters hidden romantic feelings or “winnable” affections. These phenomena together reveal a culture telling men that no woman’s love is unachievable, regardless of her refusals, if he can only find the right way to “woo” her. In reality, this behaviour is generally annoying, creepy, or even threatening to the person on the receiving end of it.
When you consider it like this, it is no wonder society has so much trouble with male behaviour. In a way (which, crucially, partly explains but does not justify such behaviour), the men elevated to positions of power and control over society by patriarchal gender stereotypes are also trapped by them. As the underprivileged party in patriarchal societies, women have fought hard – and continue to fight—to free themselves from the stereotypes and traditional expectations that restrict and harm them. Men (in particular straight men), being the more comfortable beneficiaries in these same societies, have not made similar efforts for themselves. The result is a society in which disrespect and abuses of women by men are increasingly recognised as such, but in which the onus for solutions continues to be put on women – or at least, it is not put on the majority of men.
Because of this way of thinking, proposed solutions too often assume that these acts are committed by anonymous and terrifying evil men skulking around on poorly lit streets in urban areas, awaiting solitary women in revealing clothing. But the men who do these things are not anonymous and, with some exceptions, do not generally wander around looking for random women upon whom to prey. They are mostly men who, by whatever means, circumvent the consent of women they know in a familiar setting. Solutions operating on these flawed assumptions – better street lighting, more police, or urging women to change their behaviour – may sometimes have an impact (though frankly, often counterproductive). Still, they do not address the underlying problem.
This underlying problem, at its heart, is an ideology ubiquitously telling men that to show any femininity – by expressing emotion or humility or contrition, by crying, by avoiding physicality or violence – is to degrade and humiliate themselves. This is partly rooted in misogyny, suggesting that any given man is more important than any given woman; for a man to embrace his femininity is therefore not just playing the wrong role but also inherently self-demeaning and absurd.
So although media portrayals of women remain more commonly problematic, it is also essential to recognise this way that men are expected – even encouraged – to behave. Consider Piers Morgan publicly mocking Daniel Craig for carrying his baby. Consider Harry Styles being relentlessly ridiculed for wearing “women’s clothing”, with some right-wing pundits even warning of the dangers of “loss of masculinity”. And consider the copious media portrayals of sensitive, expressive, or emotional men at whom we are meant to laugh. These damaging and self-reinforcing assumptions about masculinity are so deeply ingrained that they very often pass without comment.
Solving this – not just blindly attacking the symptoms – will require us to free men from the strictures of the patriarchy, for their own sake and for the sake of the women who also continue to suffer by it. This task cannot be ignored if we are to resolve the problems enumerated here and ensure that everyone has their right to live in and express their whole identity. It requires us to acknowledge the dangerous patriarchal stereotypes and values that we have learned and accepted, reject them for ourselves, and then work to dismantle them everywhere. It asks us to embrace feminism, to embrace the idea that men’s and women’s social and cultural freedoms inextricably linked, and to recognise that neither group can be truly free of the patriarchy’s grip without the concurrent liberty of the other.
I know this is not an easy suggestion nor, in many ways, a terribly neat one. It is even in some ways counter-intuitive, with men framed not just as the problem but the key to the solution, as the most eager enforcers of patriarchy but also as trapped by it. Taking this path will require hard work, intense self-reflection, and long-term cultural change, but the rewards will be great, and it is the only path that can take us where we truly need to go.
A society beyond patriarchy, with the most toxic aspects of masculinity expunged, is today difficult to imagine, but it is nevertheless a profoundly hopeful vision. It requires a belief that the status quo is not immovable and heralds the possibility of a society in which no identity is inexorably fixed or presumed. At the end of the day, every person’s identity is unique, a complex and intricate weave of traits and experiences and expression, with no two individuals’ strands – be they race, class, disability, or, yes, masculinity – intersecting in quite the same way. If we can stop teaching men to conform to an archaic and often toxic set of societal values and prejudices, we will be one crucial step closer to a safer, healthier, better society. One step closer to a society that can celebrate the infinite variety of individuality for the wonder that it is.