By: Natalia Sobrino-Saeb
“Manhood is created in culture” (Kimmel 1994, 119). Men learn what it means to be a man – behaviors and expectations – in the society they live in by comparing themselves with others. Especially women.
Being a man is traditionally seen as that which is opposite to women. And since femininity is associated with the role of the gentle caretaker, the fear of being feminine pushes men into avoiding any connection with these characteristics (Goodey 1997). What then, is a ‘man’? While this very much differs per context, there are some characteristics that repeat themselves in societies across the world: strength, success, capability, reliability and control (Kimmel 1994). Being afraid or showing vulnerability for example are not among these characteristics, and so many men feel uncomfortable or even ashamed to exhibit these traits (Kimmel 1994).
These gendered behavioral patterns begin with socialization during childhood. Studies have shown that mothers are more likely to discuss emotional states with their daughters, while being more likely to discuss the causes and consequences of the feelings with their sons (McLean and Anderson 2009). Boys are thus encouraged to resort to problem-solving as a reaction to threats, and to gain control over their emotions. This controlling approach can help men keep a hold of their responses and prevent fear, while women are guided more towards dependence on external factors (McLean and Anderson 2009). By feeling as though they must constantly be in control and ready to face possible threats, men are made to become – and then desire to be – the protector, strong and unafraid (McLean and Anderson 2009).
Why does Repression happen?
Boys are scared of becoming an ‘atypical male’ – in other words, falling outside the mold society has created for them – so they do what they can to stay within the standard of what a man is thought to be. Even if it means repressing all fear. This is a process that happens with age, where men’s fear is unlearned as they grow older (Goodey 1997). In a study in England for example, researchers found that at age 11 boys showed more fear in public spaces than girls. At age 12 however, this dynamic had flipped (Goodey 1997).
Parenting plays an important role in the perpetuation of such gender stereotypes. Parents are the first people to teach us how to act in public. They limit their children in what they are allowed to do outside, but also aim to allow enough freedom for kids to learn the street skills necessary to be able to handle themselves in public spaces (Valentine 1997). The socialization process is inherently gendered however, be this due to parent’s own experiences with gender stereotypes or children’s contacts with the outside world. What boys and girls are allowed to do often differs, for example in how much freedom children are given. Boys can go further away from home for longer periods compared to girls, thereby creating the ‘fearless male/fearful female’ stereotype (Valentine 1997).
Boys are not immune to the fears that arise in public spaces. But the way we raise them makes immunity to fear the seemingly desirable option.
Consequences on Men’s Mental Health and Access to Services
As a consequence of these gendered expectations, many men feel hesitant to share their fears. They are scared of being ridiculed or to lose their status as ‘a man’ (Addis and Mahalik 2003). When they do have fears, they are scared to show vulnerability and if they do, they believe it must be in specific contexts. As a consequence, when facing problems like depression, substance abuse or stressful life events, men are less likely to seek help for these problems than women (Addis and Mahalik 2003).
This silence and reluctance to reach out for support can be incredibly damaging for one’s mental health. Instead, many men resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drug use, further putting their mental health at risk (MHF 2020).
No Vulnerability for Men
Masculinity requires men to constantly be in control and to have power. This means containing their emotions and constantly trying to prove themselves (Goodey 1997; Day, Stump and Carreon 2003). In most societies, fear and vulnerability in men are equated to weakness. Men are thus set up to dear the expression of fear, and the grow to do what they can to avoid it (Marsh 2016).
Not only does this have grave consequences for men’s mental health, their physical wellbeing is also put at risk. In the Netherlands in 2019 for example, 76 men were murdered compared to 43 women (NL Times 2019). It is thus vital the we open an ear to men’s anxieties and worries, to hear the other side of the story so that we open up the space for fear in public not just for women, but for men as well.
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Day, K., C. Stump and D. Carreon (2003). “Confrontation and loss of control: Masculinity and men’s fear in public space.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 23(3), 311-322.
Goodey, J. (1997). “Boys don’t cry: Masculinities, fear of crime and fearlessness.” British Journal of Criminology 37(3), 401-418.
Kimmel, M. S. (1994). “Masculinity as Homphobia.” In Brod, H. and M. Kaufman (Eds.) (1994). Theorizing masculinities (Vol. 5). Sage Publications.
Marsh, S. (2016). “’As boys, we are told to be brave’: Men on masculinity and mental health.” The Guardian. At https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/24/as-boys-we-are-told-to-be-brave-men-on-masculinity-and-mental-health.
MHF (2020). “Men and mental health.” Mental Health Foundation. At https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/m/men-and-mental-health.
McLean, C. P. and E. R. Anderson (2009). “Brave men and timid women? A review of the gender differences in fear and anxiety.” Clinical psychology review 29(6), 496-505.
NL Times (2019). “Murders in Netherlands down by a quarter.” NL Times. At https://nltimes.nl/2019/09/26/murders-netherlands-quarter.
Valentine, G. (1997). “’My son’s a bit dizzy.’ ‘my wife’s a bit soft’: Gender, children and cultures of parenting.” Gender, Place & Culture 4(1), 37-62.