When we talk about feminism, we’re talking about a lot of things. We’re talking about women, of course; of their oppression and how we can fight to have them seen in equal stead to men in every which way. We’re also talking about men, which sadly is something most people either don’t know or deny like it’s going out of fashion. “Feminism is for women,” they say. “It’s something that opposes men, that fights against what I am as a man”. Now’s the time to let out all your “Not all men!” cries before continuing to read.
Jose Maria Martinelli’s robust documentary Men Cry: a Critique of Traditional Masculinity interrogates the character, nature, and consequences of what we recognise as masculinity. Strong and direct, Martinelli considers both how the domineering alpha male character has evolved into the restricting gender role it remains to be today, and how this subjugates both men and women. Traditional masculinity is why, Martinelli tells us, so many men experience mental health issues, suffer high incidences of male-on-male violence, are more likely to go to prison, and have higher suicide rates. In short, traditional masculinity is why we need feminism.
Martinelli does not tell us anything we don’t already know — that the way we raise boys is problematic — but strikes us, hard, with his unapologetic veracity. Delivering his critique against a full spectrum of cultural and social pressure, he draws out just how strong the cause-and-effect ties are between these accepted gender norms, and damaging social consequence. Boys don’t cry, boys aren’t seen as weak. Boys will be boys.
Before the screening, Martinelli stands before the crowd and says a few words. His film, he tells us, seeks to “make the world a better place”. It pushes us to question whether “masculinity is good, or [whether] masculinity is bad”. He apologises for his simple English but I don’t think this could have been put better.
The film’s knowledge nuggets, delivered by intellectuals, activists, men’s health campaigners, feminists, and a neuroscientist, are ultimately meant to lead us to the conclusion that masculinity as we know it is bad. We learn of the complex power structures inherent within masculinity that shape a boy’s trajectory into adulthood. We learn how certain truths are accepted as innately ‘the way they are’, and left unchallenged to manifest in dangerous ways. I try to imagine, as a woman, what it would be like to grow up thinking that emotions were something that didn’t apply to you.
Let me say this: examining the problems with masculinity and men’s issues does not erase or belittle the oppression experienced by women historically and every day. We learn, for instance, that women do on average 17 hours of housework outside their jobs, versus men’s measly 3. We know the statistics and facts about sexual and physical violence towards women around the world. We live and breathe sexual pressure to appear conventionally good-looking; objects of sex to gawk at and feel entitled to. The problem with masculinity is why all of these other problems exist. Talking about it creates a weak point in the patriarchy’s armour, and gives us the opportunity to untangle these problems from their root.
Men Cry shines in showing us just how innate these ideas of masculinity are. As subjects talk, scenes from old cartoons such as Superman and Popeye play in the background: sometimes we see short clips from these, and other old films as Martinelli cuts between interviewees. It’s direct and clever, and frames what is being said within the inescapable context of popular culture. Superman rescues Lois Lane and smashes something with his fist to save the day. Olive Oyl dreams of her wedding day, Betty Boop teases cartoon males with her dancing and skimpy outfit. The frumpy wife of one of these males emerges with a weapon and chases her husband away.
All of these narratives feed a single and rigid set of understandings of what girls do, and what boys do. And now, against the power of the film’s candid intellect, we see them for what they are in ways more immediate than before.
Now, a question: if we have increasing proof that this type of masculinity is damaging, for men and women, why does it continue to dominate? Why doesn’t the dominant group exert their power to change it?
For another, subscribing to masculinity comes imbued with a very specific, thorny kind of fear. Fear of being seen as weak, fear of not providing enough; fear, essentially of being seen as feminine. And because males are and have been the dominant group, they have never really had to stop and examine, collectively, whether or not masculinity works. For all its issues, being male also comes with a glowing set of adjectives, like ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’. If you grew up all your life learning that these accolades belonged to you, how would you act when that entitlement was threatened? I am not offering an excuse for oppressive male behaviour, but am trying to break down the why’s and how’s so that we can dissolve them.
As women and feminists, we know that traditional femininity doesn’t work because we’ve lived it’s restricting flaws all our lives. We’ve been judged for them, held accountable for them, been pressured to make certain decisions because of them. Being male in itself is not a source of oppression. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This fear characterises femininity as the enemy. Something opposite in a binary sense. It pushes many to adopt typically manly characteristics and traits; it feeds urges to act in ways that validate one’s place as ‘one of the boys’. For instance, an Australian study found that when a group of men believed they were telling sexist jokes to men, and then women, they were most concerned how the other men would react to them. These jokes then were found to have a ‘male bonding’ function. Lad chat exists to impress other men.
Men are not blameless in making these jokes and exerting power and control over women. This film does not provide an excuse, but uncovers the beginnings of an explanation. A lot needs to change in the way we raise boys, but above all, we need to erase the fear. The fear of what will happen if they aren’t manly enough. The fear of emotion. The fear of not being accepted by the other, powerful males. The fear of ridicule. The fear of losing. The fear of rejection. The fear of violence.
So, how do we start? How do we hold men culpable for their oppressive beliefs and behaviours, while simultaneously juggling an understanding of the forces that have shaped them into these caricatures?
The saying goes that the first step is admitting you’ve got a problem. Men, you have a problem. A big, raging problem. Look at it in the face and think about the kind of person you want to be. Parents, you have a problem but also a different responsibility. Look at yourselves and decide what kind of people you want your children to be. Will you force them into a rigid gender role, because of your own fear? What kind of person will that create? How will they treat other people? What sort of world are people like that going to make?
Men Cry forces us to ask questions, and films that succeed in doing that need to keep being made. They need to be watched, discussed, developed on. As best put by the film itself: traditional masculinity isn’t working. And men need to be making individual, conscious, and perhaps gradual choices to question and reject it. As women, we need to keep pushing for these conversations to happen.
Men Cry: a Critique of Traditional Masculinity showed at the Water Poet, London, on Friday July 15.