What does it mean to be a man? And what does it mean to “man up”?
On the surface these might sound very similar, but they are actually two very different ideas, says Dr Michael Kimmel, Professor of Gender Studies and Sociology at Stony Brook University. While traditional notions of being a good man have existed in culture for centuries, and centre around honour and responsibility, “manning up” is imbued with toxic traits. Don’t cry. Don’t express your emotions. Be aggressive, even violent. And never allow yourself to be compared to a girl.
“A lot of work has been put into bifurcating gender and giving us stereotypes,” says Jennifer Siebel Newsom, director of the documentary The Mask You Live In. “We’re all born with empathy, but it is then socialised out of boys.” Her film explores the destructive impact of conforming to a highly limited model of masculinity on the mental health of young men.
In the UK, the most common cause of death in men under the age of 30 is suicide. Boys are taught from an early age, by their fathers, films, and ads, that boys don’t cry and that talking about your feelings is for wimps. This results in an entire generation of men that lack the tools to cope with pain, anger and depression. “Manning up” can literally kill.
Newsom and Kimmel joined actor/model Shaun Ross in a Cannes Lions panel entitled ‘Modern Masculinity: The Dramatic Shift and the New Normal,’ to discuss what can be done to address this crisis. One key takeaway; the advertising industry has a major role to play in engaging men in this conversation, and reshaping traditional cultural perceptions of manhood.
“I think a lot of brands need to open up their minds,” says Ross. “None of us are the same.” Ross worked with AXE on its recent ‘Find Your Magic’ campaign, which lifted the brand out of the boys locker room and sent the refreshing message that there are many ways to be a man; be hairy or smooth, be flamboyant or shy, be straight or queer, but most importantly, be yourself.
“By ‘manning up,’ you’re being asked to betray your ethics,” says Kimmel. “If you’re an asshole, be an asshole. Don’t try to be something you’re not. We want authenticity.”
As Ross puts it, brands have the power to control what people see. Just as women’s self-esteem is influenced by the way that their bodies have been represented and commoditised in ads (something which is only now beginning to change), brands have an unbelievable amount of sway when it comes to what men and boys internalise.
“Corporations have a tremendous opportunity to right this wrong,” says Newsom. “Because we create culture, we can recreate culture.”