“The Fastest Supercars on Earth!” “The Best Diving Watches Ever!” “How to Get the James Bond Style!” “50 Ways To Make Your Girl Orgasm!” “How To Be An Alpha At Work!” “How To Make Your Supercar Orgasm!” Okay, I made that last one up. But we’re all familiar with the stories traditional men’s magazines have put out since they began printing in the Sixties.
It’s all about luxury, sex and money, with a little bit of violence in there for grit and good measure. They’ve always been about being James Bond and are very much in accord with traditional men’s advertising, too. After all, the two industries prop each other up.
Tired archetypes fulfil a certain ideal of manliness
This is the vision of men that has always existed in the mass media: the strong, emotionless, cool loner male seen everywhere, from the Marlboro Man to Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, the Cadbury’s Milk Tray ads to Jack Reacher.
These tired archetypes fulfil a certain ideal of manliness: the breadwinner, the stoic, the aggressor, the alpha. If you can’t fulfil that, then you’re weak, you need to “man up” and “grow a pair”. And remember, boys don’t cry.
What’s interesting is that at various points in history, different types of men were the heroes, such as the Romantic poets who achieved great fame with their highly emotional work. “In the 18th century, there was a real emphasis on tenderness and open emotion,” Dr Laura King, a historian specialising in gender and family from the University of Leeds, told me.
It is not an immutable fact that men should be strong silent warriors
“Fathers were valued for their roles in the home and the relationships with their children. It was important to be caring. Assumptions about fathers being the breadwinners and mothers staying at home only really started from the 1950s onwards.”
These historical variations, along with cross-cultural examples from around the world, such as the state-supported, stay-at-home ‘latte pappas’ of Scandinavia, who take equal share of childcare and rate higher on happiness indexes as a result, show that it is not an immutable fact that men should be strong silent warriors – or any particular way at all, really. However, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the way men are depicted in our media. Plainly, there is a baffling lag. So, that’s why I founded The Book of Man.
I wanted to push the boundaries that exist for men
I wanted to dismantle stereotypes and push at social and cultural boundaries that restrict men, in the same way feminism has for women for decades. It struck me as bizarre that, while women were fighting for rights, equality and profound change in a rapidly evolving technological world, men appeared content to be stuck in the past. Even if it was killing them.
Which it is. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK. Suicide prevention charity, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), puts the fact that 75% of all suicides are male down to them being unwilling to reach out for help. Men are less likely to admit when something is wrong, and more likely to have drink and drugs problems – self-destructive tendencies tied up in macho display – which creates real danger.
After a career in men’s magazines, I fell into trouble when I lost my job
“The key issue is that men don’t perceive what they’re experiencing as being something you can complain about or challenge,” Simon Gunning, the CEO of CALM told me. “At CALM, we highlight the need for a perception change. Not the bollocks of ‘hey that’s just life’, which steers men towards isolation, self-medication, and even the violent end of suicide. That’s what we want to prevent, by challenging the self-perception of who you are and what you can be.”
For me personally, after a career spent in men’s magazines (writing many of the features I outlined at the start), I fell into trouble when I lost my editor job and found myself unemployed. I have suffered with mental health issues throughout my life, but never, ever, had I talked about it. When I found myself in a dark place, I had no clue how to reach out to anyone, find help or read things that could help me know I wasn’t alone.
When we launched in 2018, we chimed with the times and made a splash
It was then that I realised there was something of a gap in the market. What if I put together a magazine – digital, because the glory days of print were over – that turned the traditional offering on its head and looked all the things we weren’t meant to write about. Like emotions, mental health problems, relationships (not just sex), how to be a good dad and the fact boys do cry…
It was a revelation to me – and, thankfully, to others – and we made a splash when The Book of Man launched in 2018. What was interesting (and lucky) was how much we chimed with the times. As I was finalising the site, the Harvey Weinstein revelations came out and suddenly everyone was talking about toxic masculinity. It convinced me to double down. With male behaviour under such scrutiny, it was obvious that men needed some support to understand that outrage – rather than fear it – and to see that changes in male behaviour were for the good of men, too.
In other words, the prevalent harassment of women was just another part of the traditional expectation of being a man, the same expectation that was also leading many into suicide.
We’ve held events and run podcasts with the likes of Professor Green
Change was afoot. And since then, we have grown the site, held events, run podcasts and had a range of well-known contributors from Professor Green to Jason Fox to Freddie Flintoff. While it’s been amazing to see famous figures revealing their own struggles, the most valuable thing for me has been the reader stories we print.
Every day, I have emails with heartfelt stories attached, about issues like PTSD, grief, how a father deals with their child having cancer or, on a lighter note, how they are raising money for good causes. It feels like we are at a point where men are getting the message that change is good for everyone – and that we are all in this together.
The Book of Man is just one small part of a wider movement: the way we all live and work is changing and we’re beginning to approach the world with different eyes. That’s the reason I’m optimistic about the future.
Man to Man is a new SOLO series exploring male friendship and modern masculinity, delivered by different voices, including founder of The Book of Man, Martin Robinson.
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Images: Courtesy of Martin Robinson