I asked some of my friends what masculinity means to them and their answers were, predictably, amusing.
Without skipping a beat, Tom replied: “How many heavy things you can hold in your hands.”
Not to be outdone, Perry came through a few minutes later: “Pretending to dummy pass an item when you’re passing something to another man in the office.”
Mick’s was largely unprintable but started with a well-worn truism: “Not asking too many questions about your mates’ mental wellbeing.”
These were jokes, but they are also instructive.
We don’t need to look far to find these tragicomic representations of manhood reflected back at us as serious propositions. Kleenex has marketed “man size” tissues; in the United States, the laundry brand Bounce developed fabric softener sheets “for men and people who smell like them”; and, for a brief period, the yoghurt brand Powerful was labelled as “brogurt” for its positioning as a protein-enhanced super treat for men.
If a man wishes to bathe but not appear gay in doing so, he may wish to purchase a bath bomb shaped like a hand grenade and soak with a “hero’s explosive rush of black pepper and rosemary”. There are bronuts and bread for men, mancandles and cotton buds from Q-tips sold as the “men’s ultimate multi-tool” so that cleaning one’s ears cannot be mistaken for both having and enjoying penetrative sex with another man.
Mancan developed a wine in a can, under the pretence that “we believe wine is for drinking, not pairing”. The tagline is a brusque, efficient: “Shut up and drink.”
Remember, if you’re a bloke and you talk, then you are probably a woman.
Some of these products were too damn stupid to last very long, but the rest are still out there. They press on precisely because there is a market for them, of men so bound up in gender stereotypes that it would be unfathomable to use a soap product every day while having to yell “not a homo” at the shower head as it washes over you.
For me, this messaging started at school. Everyone and everything that was out of favour in high school was “gay”, with remarks ranging in severity from “that’s so gay” to “you’re a fucken gay cunt”. I was never the target of this stuff, but I didn’t need to be to be affected by it. I knew what not to be – and that meant presenting as straight as possible. That meant being a man even when I scarcely knew what that was.
This is not a problem peculiar to the gay kids in school. All the other boys were performing the same routine and some of them had come from broken homes, like me, or had fathers who hit them. Others had dads who never touched them, not even to hug them, and I wondered what that must do to a boy. I remember one night in year 8, when I stayed over at a boy’s house. I’m going to call him Greg, but that’s not his real name.
On that Saturday, Greg’s dad questioned him about not putting the bins out earlier in the week. When Greg attempted to explain himself, his dad punched him right in the head for talking back. I was just standing there, mouth agape. It wasn’t a gentle tap in jest or mock anger; it was a bone-thudding whack. Greg was straight. But I knew in that moment that even that wasn’t going to be enough to protect him. He, too, would have to be a man. And what better place to learn masculinity than at the end of your father’s fist?
In his debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the poet Ocean Vuong writes about the prickly passion between Vietnamese-American “Little Dog” and a whitebread, all-American ball of anger and hurt called Trevor. There is no finer book, and his assessment of the trap of masculinity was a punch in the gut for me:
In his backyard, an empty dirt field beside a freeway overpass, I watched Trevor aim his .32 Winchester at a row of paint cans lined on an old park bench. I did not know then what I know now: to be an American boy, and then an American boy with a gun, is to move from one end of a cage to another.
Here’s what I think Vuong means when he speaks of a cage. It is not one put there by women or people with different-coloured skin, nor those with a galaxy of sexualities. The cage belongs to all men, put there by all the men that came before us, and blaming others for its existence can never free us from it.
Men, we need to get our own house in order.
What we deny ourselves in this strange, sad affair is love. Not the emaciated, sclerotic substitute we’ve been taught to accept, but actual, real love.
An analysis of two decades’ worth of data by researchers from Duke University and the University of Arizona and published in the American Sociological Review in 2006 found that white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends of anyone in the United States.
Between 1985 and 2004, the “discussion network” for most people shrank from almost three people to slightly more than two. Most of the time these were a person’s spouse or parents. This is particularly significant for men as they age.
You will have witnessed this in your own circles. The number of confidantes a married woman may have as she grows older will shrink, as it does for us all, but typically these will always include some other women or men outside of the marriage and her immediate family.
Straight married men, and I’m speaking broadly here, just do not know how to hold on to their mates. As the researchers note, they rely more and more on their wives for emotional support, despite deriving less satisfaction from these relationships than they do from their friends.
A 2014 study released by Beyond Blue in Australia suggests that one-quarter of all men in their middle age – that is aged 30 to 65 years old – “have no one outside their immediate family whom they can rely on”.
It might never be said in these terms, but many men know this one thing better than they know themselves: it is weak to ask for help. Even calling a friend and asking them to catch up is an act draped in the silent oppression of gender “norms”.
Is it gay, and therefore “woman-like”, to ask a mate out for a drink? Is it gay to have good mental health?
For a particular subset of men, the corner pub or local and national sport are the only acceptable outlets for socialising, and even in those contexts it is generally forbidden to speak of personal troubles or loneliness. As one friend put it to me: “You go there so you don’t have to talk about it.”
You see this kind of thinking in pockets everywhere, but never so densely as among the working class and the working poor. These are the people I know best. Men who have shaped me, for better or worse, have typically come from these hard-knock backgrounds where their hands and backs were put to work and the work served a purpose and that purpose was unyielding in its purity – to have wife and child.
Whether it was a significant minority or even a majority of fathers over the last century, we’ll never know, but I think it safe to say many of them never knew enough themselves to teach their own sons that the needs of a family may yet stretch beyond food and shelter.
Those things are important, absolutely, but it would have been just as helpful to advise all sons who wished to be fathers: if you’re going to focus on, and even demand, the antiquated role of being the provider, than you’d best learn a thing or two about the provision of emotional and intellectual support, too.
In other words, you’d bloody well better learn how to love.
My Year of Living Vulnerably is out now through HarperCollins. Rick Morton will join Guardian Australia’s book club at 1pm on Friday 19 March, in partnership with Australia at Home. If you have a question for him and would like to join the chat, pre-register by clicking this link
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au