Reimagining manhood after ABC's Man Up

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Recently the ABC premiered Man Up, a three-part factual program aiming to 'kick-start a national conversation about Aussie male suicide'. The series cites that suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15 to 44, with three Australian men dying by suicide for every one woman.

Artwork by Chris JohnstonPresented by radio personality Gus Worland, Man Up challenges the 'Aussie bloke' propensity to avoid expressing emotion, which has been denigrated culturally as a sign of weakness. This tendency is ultimately unhealthy: spoken about or not, mental illness can brew amid reticence — a saddening reality, when reaching out to loved ones can help address men's problems.

Even the historically glorified trait of independence can be destructive: Professor Jane Pirkis has found that 'self-reliant' men are 34 per cent more likely to experience suicidal ideation.

The series has already been written about authoritatively — by a psychiatrist and a queer journalist, no less — so I won't cover the same ground. Instead, responding to the showrunners' suggestion that 'tackling male suicide mean[s] having to change what it means to be a man', I'm delving into the origins, expressions and possible transformations of the concept.

Interestingly, the existence of 'hegemonic masculinity' — the societally idealised masculine identity which men are (usually oppressively) measured against — was posited in the 1980s by researchers studying inequality in Australian schools and men in Australian politics. It seems Australia has always been a hotbed for examinations of masculinity, machismo and how both manifest.

Yet Western masculinity as a whole is rooted in Enlightenment ideas regarding rationality's superiority over emotion, an ostensibly feminine aspect of human psychology tied to Mother (note the terminology) Nature. This schema, in turn, is descended from the two pillars of Western civilisation: Ancient Greek philosophy, which espouses the 'taming' of so-called animal drives; and Judeo-Christianity, which preaches humanity's 'dominion' over the natural world.

In the early 20th century, the Frankfurt School — building on the work of sociologists Georg Simmel and Max Weber — explored the West's alignment of manhood with labour. Along with the institutionalisation of men as 'breadwinners' came large-scale shifts whereby many men identified themselves, not by what they thought and felt, but rather what they could do.

This sort of instrumentalist thinking persists, channelled in the widespread Australian response to psychological problems: 'man up and get over it', as though the production of capital should take priority over the welfare of those who work for it.

 

"For millennia, we've associated 'masculine' with 'strong'. Now, we must also start celebrating men for the strength involved in opening up and unlearning destructive ideas that have become culturally ingrained."

 

 

Indeed, Man Up reveals that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than from work-related accidents. And a 2016 study discovered that young Indigenous Australian men are globally the most vulnerable to suicide, with 'hopelessness' (in part due to systemic difficulties finding employment) cited as a key catalyst. Elsewhere, this is perhaps reflected in how affluent, industrialised nations like South Korea, Japan and Finland have some of the highest suicide rates globally.

What's often disregarded, of course, is emotional labour. I'm not just referring to the problematic gendering of the term or partners bearing the load of reticent men's unspoken problems; it's also about the work required to confront mental health issues in the first place. In a compelling essay built around contemporary neuropsychology's 'attachment theory', cultural theorist Nora Samaran advocates for a 'nurturance culture' in which men are encouraged to embrace vulnerability and our instinctual need for connection. This process hinges on men becoming unshackled from the 'codes of masculinity' that overvalue 'nonemotionality, strength, independence' — something Man Up also espouses.

Samaran's call-to-arms is potent; the pitfalls of misplaced masculinity are everywhere. Last year, I dated a guy who, after failing university, pretended to still be attending class for two whole semesters in fear of telling his parents the truth. A male friend also recently recounted that, in Australia, he found it much easier to meet men for hook-ups than to make friends.

My own experiences align with this, too. After sending me to live in Australia, my father tasked my then brother-in-law (a true-blue, sport-playing, Holden-driving 'bloke') with teaching me to 'be a man'. He failed, but here was evidence of hegemonic masculinity's perpetuation. My father and I were born into a masculine culture that, unlike Australia's stoicism, is characterised by braggadocious chest-puffing (see, by way of example, current president Rodrigo Duterte). Nevertheless, underpinning both Australia's and the Philippines' conceptions of masculinity is the masking of vulnerability: emotions hide behind silence and bravado.

Fortunately, hegemony is inherently in constant contestation. Masculinity may currently prize reticence and independence, but we also have the ability to redefine what it means to 'be a man'. Such a process entails continually envisaging how things could be better — Pirkis' research has revealed that shows like Man Up have demonstrable impact (71 per cent of the men she studied reported more comfort seeking help after viewing). The work of real-world initiatives like the Black Dog Institute, beyondblue, Mates4Mates and Movember significantly reinforces this. Lifeline has even proposed a national summit to combat the issue of suicide.

For millennia, we've associated 'masculine' with 'strong'. Now, we must also start celebrating men for the strength involved in opening up and unlearning destructive ideas that have become culturally ingrained.

 


Adolfo AranjuezAdolfo Aranjuez is the editor of Metro, Australia's oldest film and media periodical. He is also the subeditor of Screen Education, a columnist for Right Now, and a freelance writer and speaker.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

 

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Topic tags: Adolfo Aranjuez, masculinity, Man Up, suicide


 

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Existing comments

I have often wondered how the original "Hunters and Gatherers" felt if they came back empty handed. Did they too choose sucide? or send their women out to try and better them while they gathered the side dishes for their meals?
Maria Fatarella | 31 October 2016


Ever since I read "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" I developed a curiosity about the correlation between diet and gender. Over many many years of observation I have reached the conclusion that there is more variety in the characteristics of male humans than there is in their diets. It may not extend from the Alpha male to the Omega but it certainly covers more "types" than those presented in "Man Up". I have known different types of men who have committed suicide. In most cases I know the objective cause that tempted them to see suicide as a solution but I have not a clue why they chose it.
Uncle Pat | 31 October 2016


Great comment Maria Fatarella!
a bloke scared to commit suicide | 31 October 2016


The challenge inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi, ’Know yourself’, is a daunting one. We are made up of trillions of cells, the majority of which are not human cells but bacteria in our intestines, and many of the rest are not concerned with our rational life, but are legacies of our animal ancestors, promoting instinctive and emotional responses to situations. Community attitudes and traditions add to the complexity of balancing our response to life’s problems. In the absence of other guidance, it was once left largely to religion to deal with any inner conflicts, that resulted. . But lately, as businesses increasingly suffer from the impact of ‘unprofessional’ behaviour, books are being written to help resolve these inner tensions. Daniel Goleman’s "Emotional Intelligence" has helped many, and ‘Spiritual Intelligence’ by Zohar and Marshall claims to offer the ultimate guidance to many of our inner conflicts
Robert Liddy | 31 October 2016


"braggadocious chest-puffing (see, by way of example, current president...." Duterte cries. And Trump doesn't drink.
Roy Chen Yee | 31 October 2016


Thanks for the item. I approach some of the quoted figures with caution. I provided industry based workplace counselling including in the construction industry for years and did not see this level of mortality. I dont think this program covered any new ground. Each program seemed to be the same message over and over. There seemed precious little actual listening to these men. Plenty of proclaiming and/or searching for advertising logos and jingles as an "answer". I guess this more describe the "star" than the other persons involved. The Lifeline segment was a problem. It appeared staged, and betrays an organizational approach that demands careful examination. A knowledge of the toxin involved is of scant utility to an relatively unskilled volunteer counsellor. Sadly, for many people clients at their most critical points in their lives are often exposed to people with limited clinical skills.
Ross Edward Bell | 31 October 2016


Adolfo: congratulations and thanks to you for covering 'ManUp' in Eureka Street. Maria Faterella: No, most likely they attacked violently and sometimes killed those who returned with their prey, so as to fed their own dependents. Uncle Pat: you may have speculated on the 'objective cause' of temptation, but you acknowledge knowing nothing of why those men chose suicide. That's because 'men don't talk about stuff like that': that's the vary problem ManUp tries to expose. A bloke scared etc: the jury is still out on whether suicide takes courage or cowardice. It will probably stay out. Robert Liddy: You are so right: Golman's 'Emotional Intelligence' has indeed helped many - including many of my professional peers, including myself. Roy Chen Yee: and your conclusion?? Ross Edward Bell: That was the idea Ross - present the same message as often as you can, as differently as you can, and you might just get through. That's how commercial advertising works, so I'm told. As a clinician myself with some exposure to Lifeline through my career, I assure you their training is up to the job required, and basic knowledge of relevant pharmacology is imperative to the on-phone conversation with someone who has just swallowed a bottle of pills. BTW, I also began my career in EAPs, and recognised both the hazards and the mental health challenges of dominate masculinity in the construction and mining work places especially. Come on people, sure ManUp was not perfect, and I too felt it was a lot about Gus Worland; but surely full marks for someone in the media who dares to have a go at changing one of our most toxic sacred cows 'Manhood'.
Dr Frank Donovan | 05 November 2016


I must confess I avoided the program. A wee snippet was more than enough for me. Blokey, 'Crocodile Dundee' types and Reformed Chauvinists and New Age Aussie Snags are two sides to the same coin. Why can't we take a leaf out of the Scandinavians' book? They appear to be able to be genuinely masculine without being chauvinist. The model's ready made. Do we have to finance this?
Edward Fido | 07 November 2016


Thanks for the insights that help deepen the discussion if Australian manhood.
Joan | 07 November 2016


" Roy Chen Yee: and your conclusion??" When Duterte tells an audience after his trip to Laos that he went to the restroom to cry upon hearing about some of his daughter's children who had died but would have to be carried to term to protect the other siblings (of what would be a multiple birth) in the womb, and when Trump doesn't drink because his elder brother died of alcoholism, might not one surmise that chest puffing for them is an act, and that they might have a Hillary Clintonesque private and public position concerning masculinity, that, in addition to the public posture, they also have a private thoughtfulness that is quite healthy?
Roy Chen Yee | 09 November 2016


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