Allow me to speak freely for a moment, and share something that’s felt off for a long time.
I’ve been followed by mental health issues since I was around 16 years old. This is a shadow that has taken many forms: crushing social anxiety, bleak numbness, depression, despair. Mental health is currently a hot cause area for progressives, so, being relatively leftist myself, to deal with my feelings I was equipped with the standard-issue script for male mental health: that men are taught toxic masculine standards by the patriarchy, like that it’s weak to show emotions—and to be healthier, men need to learn it’s ok to open up and talk instead of bottling up their feelings.
This is the only way progressivism has for understanding any gendered way men struggle with mental health. I think there’s an element that’s true, but something about it always felt hollow. It didn’t seem to explain what was happening to me.
Now I understand why. I’m coming to learn that pretty much all of the emotional suppression I’ve absorbed has come not from “traditional” masculinity or patriarchy at all, but directly from progressives.
It starts with a weird smell coming from the framing itself. Ok, men need to feel more open to discuss their feelings, and not to downplay them as weakness. But look, they are taught against this by the patriarchy. On the subject of their woes, they are immediately faced with their vast structural advantage, and that advantage is somehow the cause of their suffering. This is a strange dynamic, no? Secondly, when men do express their pain, people can barely stop themselves from dissecting and comparing it against the structural oppression felt by women. Laurie Penny writes that while she “[does] not intend for a moment to minimise [your] suffering,” she wants you to “understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege,” and to “imagine what it’s like to have all the problems you had and then putting up with structural misogyny on top of that.”* But wait, we just said men suffer under the patriarchy—doesn’t that make men, well, structurally hurt too? Oh, this is all too confusing. Suffice it to say that so far, “make it easier for men to talk about their feelings” is a complete mission failure for Team Progressive.
(* Of course, comparing like with like-plus-misogyny is a meaningless exercise anyway. I can just as easily tell Laurie to imagine a man with a worse life than hers, even with her structural misogyny. This of course helps in no way to understand or solve either person’s problems.)
To really understand the attitude to male mental health, we should look at the most mentally ill men; if it’s a serious concern, we’d expect to see compassion for those people. But no, that’s not what I see at all for one of the stand-outs of poor male mental health: the incel. Incels and associated stereotypes are so clearly extremely isolated, have very poor self-image, might be depressed or anxious, and in general obviously suffering greatly. But in my experience they are rarely given any sympathy at all; quite the opposite: they are bullied, blamed, and alienated further.
You don’t need to be much like them to be affected by this. Lots of men I know have told me they could have ended up down that road, but managed to avoid it. This isn’t some alien threat: your friends, brothers, and partners see the abuse that broken men can receive, and some of them relate to it. We see what will happen to us if our mental health slips too far, or if we let these feelings show. We don’t have a safe way to process this.
Clearly hating someone for their suffering is wrong, so various ingrained myths exist to justify it.
First, indirection. It’s not depressed men who are bullied, but only those who are entitled, or spiteful towards women. This is plainly false. There is a whole catalog of shaming for loneliness or male-coded activities: no bitches?; “male living spaces”; body or fashion flaws (e.g. the fedora-wearing neckbeard); “Redditors”; lots of hobbies like video games (stereotypes about “gamers”), collectibles; low social status or wealth, like “basement-dweller”; etc.
If a man feels affected by any of this, he is often further shamed for being insecure.
Have you noticed, when a product is marketed in an unnecessarily gendered way, that the blame shifts depending on the gender? That a pink pen made “for women” is (and this is, of course, true) the work of idiotic cynical marketing people trying insultingly to pander to what they imagine women want? But when they make yogurt “for men” it is suddenly about how hilarious and fragile masculinity is — how men can’t eat yogurt unless their poor widdle bwains can be sure it doesn’t make them gay? #MasculinitySoFragile is aimed, with smug malice, at men—not marketers.
– Jennifer Coates
He concludes that not only can he not afford to appear weak, he also can’t appear like he’s trying too hard to be strong. There is no way to escape this spiral of shame other than, yep, faking strength more convincingly. Remember, this is while being told it’s the patriarchy which expects him to not show weakness.
Secondly, they have their needs downplayed or erased.
They are called entitled. I understand that some men feel owed a lot by women, and I agree this is harmful, but there’s more to this. The great thing about “entitled” is that it sounds like an objective description, when it’s actually a subjective value judgement meaning “I don’t think you deserve what you’re asking for.” Calling men entitled who lack in intimacy, attention, and belonging, is to say that they don’t deserve those things—that a human being doesn’t deserve personal connection, a core psychological desire. Isn’t that messed up? Lots of the time I see “entitled” thrown around, it’s just someone hoping others will acknowledge the fact that having unmet needs really sucks. Can we bring ourselves to do that?
I think when we talk about those issues, we shouldn’t be afraid to say that actually we should want a society where everyone CAN and SHOULD legitimately expect healthy relationships, love, sex, families etc.
Our response to boys saying “I’m an ugly useless piece of shit, no woman would ever want me” is too often “Yes you are, and don’t you DARE blame women for that” & almost never “OMG, how have we ended up in a society where boys grow up feeling like this & what can we do about it?”
At the extreme, they will essentially be told that feeling bad about an unmet need means they shouldn’t have it met; that only people who don’t feel lonely should get to not feel lonely. This is a horribly cruel bind to put someone in. It’s like saying not only are you suffering, that fact you are suffering means you deserve it.
Finally, they are assumed by progressivism to be capable of superhuman levels of change or emotional suppression.
They are expected to perform incredible feats of self-improvement on their own, that any other depressed or anxious person with compassionate support would find miraculous. We’re talking about major, life-altering world-view and self-esteem changes. Will 99% of people ever change in the way an incel is expected to? Frequently I see them just being kicked away and told their problems are easy to solve.
They are expected to shrug off any shame directed at them. If a man feels hurt by an overly-broad statement about men, it is his fault for not performing the appropriate mental gymnastics. He is expected to put other’s feelings above his own, and respect their right to vent. I have heard several times that it’s fine to say variations of ‘men are trash’ because the ones who aren’t ‘trash’ know it’s not about them. I am lost for words at how ignorant this is of how human beings work.
They are expected to take on full responsibility for their problems; if a man suffers in his loneliness, it is his fault (be better), or he is defective (go to therapy). Moreover, they are expected to accept this easily, as if they should casually realise “oh guys, good news, turns out society doesn’t suck, I’m just completely unlovable! Thank god for that!” This is unique to men in progressive culture—it’s very gauche to expect women to change at all to meet a social norm.
And probably most importantly, they are denied the right of frustration altogether. Male frustration and anger are considered extremely dangerous in progressive culture, as if it’s a sign of misogyny which could explode at any moment, or that they’re just a short slippery slope away from being a serial killer.
This is so, so inhumane. Feeling like the world is unfair sometimes and feeling like you were under-valued are completely normal human emotions, and like any, they’re not always rational, but sometimes are expressed and then go away. Pathologising this is cruel and dangerous.
Unfortunately for the clean-room fantasy of therapy some seem to have, sometimes healing isn’t just sitting calmly and talking about your feelings. Patrick Teahan has a lot of good things to say about rage/”truth” work for childhood trauma:
I’d have them hit [a punching bag with a baseball bat] and say stuff like ‘I can’t keep doing this’; ‘you (addressing their parents) set me up to be terrified to make mistakes’; ‘you set me up to pick bad partners’; ‘you set me up to hate myself’; ‘that’s how you treated me’; ‘I’m better than that and I’m going to get out of this.’
This is practice is not designed to make the person comfortable with violence, but to put them in a mindset where they can acknowledge their pain and take responsibility for solving it.
I also think there’s not been much modelling for [men’s] healthy aggression, as well as their gentler side. Healthy aggression is the life force with which we penetrate the world, that powers our mission in life. I think men’s aggression is misconstrued and managed too much – for example, with boys in school. They get blamed for being disruptive when it’s the system that is disrupting them by not allowing space for their healthy aggression and energy.
Many men are intensely scared of expressing their anger. Can you imagine how people would feel about an incel doing Teahan’s truth work about women? But it can be exactly what’s needed. @ElodesNL writes:
…I still carried a ton of pain and repressed anger with me. Only recently, through an anger workshop, was I allowed – and this, given modern society, was the scariest thing I’ve ever done! – to finally express all of this anger directly at women. I broke down in front of them and cried for minutes on end while they, of their own accord, hearing and seeing my pain and accepting it, stood up to come in front of me, and apologized to me for the ways in which they (read: women) had hurt me. It was an extraordinary event, and I think it was immensely healing, and honestly I think it’s something we men need on a far greater scale.
Elodes is one of the most compassionate men I know. But healing can be ugly, and men are given zero leeway in expressing ugly emotions.
Well, there it is. Concern about male mental health is a huge joke. In short, a man immersed in progressive culture is shamed and mocked for his weaknesses; has his emotional needs trivialised and erased; has normal responses to this pathologised and punished; and then, after all that, is told that it’s actually patriarchal culture alone which shames him for being weak, trivialises his needs, and punishes him for his expression.
Somehow, this part of feminism has taken on the exact shape of its sworn enemy.
What I want, maybe more than anything, is a space in culture where men can express themselves fully and feel understood, without fear of judgement or comparison; and crucially, without having someone else’s solution forced onto them. Ignoring the many contradictions, the entire framing of men’s mental health supposes that “being vulnerable” is the magic answer that men simply need to figure out how to do. But no. Men are not a monolith any more than women, and they do not need a blanket diagnosis of all their ills. They need what every other hurting human being in their situation needs: compassion and space to be heard.