Masculinity - Owen Sheers

Provocation Piece

Owen Sheers

author, poet and playwright

Owen Sheers is an author, poet and playwright. You can find out more about him here

The Men You’ll Meet – Reforming Masculinity a poem by Owen Sheers

So, my daughters, one recently born,
the other still in the womb,
why is it, when asked what I’d like to reform,
my first thought was to address that reform to you?

Well, for me to reform means the future;
how we might mould it with imagination
into a better shape for all –
although I must admit, since I became your father,
it’s become more specific – for you, my children,
my two girls who will grow into women.

And maybe that’s why, when I cast a reforming eye
about our world, our lives,
viewing it through your bodies, your minds,
I kept seeing, at the root of so many of the ills that threaten you –
injustice, oppression, pollution and violence
– people like me, men.

I looked harder, and listened too –
put my ear to how we are, what we do,
tried to discern the undercurrents of our nurture,
the inherited habits and behaviors
which day by day it’s so easy to forget are there.
And when I did, I heard others who’d seen the same,
and who were already having this conversation
of cause and concern about what we teach and learn
when it comes to ideas of what is ‘to be a man.’

But I also saw this talk was, in the scheme of things, new,
still forming, a recent debate despite the age of the issue,
and its spread about our globe.
Which at first seemed odd – I mean the discussion about
what women might be, could be,
has been running for generations.
For decades women have been embracing change,
in themselves and society, as a path towards a fairer future.
As a sex and a gender they’ve looked forward, see?
And in doing so unlocked the parts of themselves
kept from them by society.
But men, well, we’ve hardly been doing the same.
But then isn’t that always the way?
Attention is paid most by those paying the highest price,
and for men, living in our systems of patriarchal domination,
well, this has rarely, if ever, been them.

The white male, and his equivalent in other cultures,
have made their worlds to fit them,
so they might reap its rewards most easily.
What are considered masculine traits
are more highly-prized, advantages of life more accessible,
their assumed superiority unquestioned in plain sight,
so hey, why talk about what might be wrong or unhealthy about masculinity –
if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

But maybe that’s why those conversations I heard
when I put my ear to how we are,
about men and who we might be, have finally begun.
Because our traditional ideas of being a man are just that,
broken – outdated, unhelpful and harmful – and not just to women and the poor,
but to everyone, including, I’d say, the majority of men.

Which is why I hope I’d be standing here now,
saying the same, if I didn’t have daughters, but sons.
Because regardless of sex we need to talk, we really do, for once,
about what men might become –
take a lead from feminism and imagine what might they be,
and how might we, as a species, come, some day,
to equate a more positive charge with masculinity?

So, as you can see, what began as a pretty selfish view,
how to make the world better for my children, you,
and therefore for me, has grown somewhat,
to encompass the world, just, it has to be said,
as a certain variety of traditional, rouge, brittle, toxic,
call it what you will, masculinity has.

But if we’re going to make progress, make no mistake,
both are going to have be addressed at once –
the intimate and the universal, the personal and the global –
how men are one-to-one, with each other and with women and children,
but also how the idea of a man sits across our cultures, religions, nations.
Because neither can happen alone. The personal informs the political, the do-mestic the public, and visa versa – a spiral of influence that tightens over time.
So it’s that spiral we need to slow, unwind – the way what we
teach about gender becomes who we are, until it feels like nature, the normal –
when really, mostly, it’s not. It’s nurture.

Which is why this tightening spiral can be our solution too –
What did Larkin say? ‘Man hands on misery to man,
it deepens like an ocean shelf’?
Well, yes, but an ocean shelf slopes the other way too,
and we have to believe that instead of a deepening,
a shallowing of inherited pain is also in our power,
that what we pass on is what we become,
for good as well as bad,
otherwise how else is progress made?

So that’s my stall, my daughters. The dominant perceptions
of masculinity, across the globe and cultures, is harming us all.
Men, women, girls, boys, humans, animals, flora and fauna.
But until recently, this hasn’t been addressed. Why?
Because those same patriarchal ideas inform the systems we live in
until those perceptions aren’t seen as choices at all, but just how things are –
like the air, or the tides, or the shedding of leaves from a tree.

But to let that be? In the face of the evidence I’ve seen?
Well, that doesn’t seem fair, or wise, or good enough to me.


Before I continue, let’s get some things clear –
what I am, and am not talking about here.

Firstly, I know there are many kinds of men, and most, I hope
want to be good. And there is a degree of nuance in our being –
gay, straight, somewhere in-between, the geek, the muso,
the sportsman, the stay-at-home dad. But in general,
across the world, the ‘rules’ of being a man still, well, rule.
As a recent Samaritans report has put it,
men still compare themselves, when it comes to masculinity,
to a ‘gold standard’ which prizes, above all, power, control,
invincibility.’ So much of their being is taken up
with trying to prove their value and worth, not through
being who they are, but through what they do.
We expect boys to be boisterous rather than bookish,
fathers to be earners more than carers,
and for boys and men to be less attuned, emotionally,
than girls or women.

Which brings me to sex and gender, which,
and it’s so important to hammer this home,
aren’t the same thing at all.
Sex, you see, is about the chromosome. Biological fact. You both have XX,
while boys have XY, and along with those pairs,
you more estrogen, they, testosterone.
Because of this, our hardware, as many will jump to tell you,
isn’t wired exactly the same, and I see how that could be true, I really do.
I have a punch bag hanging in our barn. Sometimes, when frustrated, angry,
I like to hit it, again and again. And then, I feel better.
Your mother, however, doesn’t need to do the same.
If she’s having those emotions she’ll go somewhere quiet, alone,
or speak to her own mother on the phone.

All that said, at the same time, I know many women out there
who’d rather ease their frustration by hitting the bag,
and many men who’d do the same by going somewhere quiet, alone,
like your mum. And this is what the surveys, the studies now show –
that in infant males and females, there’s much more overlap than difference,
that yes, those chromosomes govern us to a certain extent,
but that extent is more limited than we like to think, and so no reason
to justify unfair treatment, or to cut down on choices for one group or another,
just because slightly more men hit the bag,
and slightly more women want to talk to their mother.

Because whatever our ‘hardware’, it’s our software that runs us
and that, well that isn’t written by genes but experience,
by example, in the pressures, both overt and subtle,
that tell us, from early in the cradle,
what it is to be not male or female, but a man or a woman.

Gender, you see, by definition, is a myth-made beast –
created upon a sketch of biological difference, yes,
but then fleshed out and given movement, action
with the stories, habits and often prejudice
that most benefits those holding the reins and the power.

To put it simply, sex, a biological category, is what we are,
and gender, a cultural category, is what we feel, think or are told
a man or woman should be –
what are the attributes of masculine or feminine,
what the expectations, behaviour, duties, rights and roles.

Chromosomes don’t change, but thoughts and feelings do,
which means that ideas and perceptions of gender can too, and often have.
Not long ago, for your great, great, great grandmother,
having a womb meant she couldn’t vote, take part in politics
or expect to ever do the same jobs as a man.
Now, both of you, exactly the same kind of biological female,
aren’t the same kind of woman – because you can.
The playing field is still far from level, and God knows there’s loads
more to be done, but in terms of imagining themselves
out of culture’s constraining version of their gender,
then there’s no doubt, it’s men nil and women one.

Although of course, that’s another problem –
that ‘versus’ trap into which I’ve just fallen.
The way in which, from early on, boys and girls
are routinely viewed in opposition, :troublesome v compliant,
active v passive, loud v quiet.

Of course, masculinity’s been fluid too,
flexing over the ages and time – two hundred years ago
the power suit was a wig, tights and high heels,
while for the Spartans to be a ‘real man’
meant sleeping with one was part of the deal.
But since the agricultural revolution, well, there’s been barely any change.
Perhaps in parenting we’ve made the greatest strides,
(although no where near enough again)
but the baseline of what it means to be a man,
that’s pretty much remained the same:
Aggression, competitive, a provider who’s protective,
emotionally – past the age of three, distant/reticent at best,
illiterate at worst – strong, brave and hard.
A father but not a carer. A hunter in modern dress,
bringing home the bacon, the higher wage, a human of rational
certainty. Powerful, an accumulator of wealth, tribal of instinct,
but stoically independent, if he needs to be.

American social scientists, in the 70s,
came up with four ‘rules’ of western masculinity –
‘No sissy stuff’, be ‘a big wheel’, a ‘sturdy oak’
and ‘give ‘em hell’.
Now, five decades on, for most of the globe,
these markers haven’t moved. Which is pretty crap,
I mean, I don’t want the men you’ll meet
to be restricted by these rules, I want them
to be informed by and have more options than that.

In fighting against discrimination over the same five decades
women have managed to move into more traditionally ‘male’ roles,
which, let me stress, has been only for the good.
And the pressure for that movement is being kept up,
as it should – encouraging girls to study STEM, play rugby,
aim for the boardroom, the oval office, the director’s chair, the moon –
to question what society has told them makes a woman.

But where’s the equivalent movement for boys?
The encouragement to broaden the bandwidth of what it means to be a man?
To study the arts, be a full-time father, to value communication over anger?
There are groups, attempts on a local scale, but on a global, it isn’t there
and as a result the options of what being a girl can mean
are much broader than those for a boy, firstly because of feminism,
but also, it has to be said, because society still values the ‘manly’
attributes the girls acquire over the feminine trait instead.

For those who question that, ask them this,
a scenario courtesy of Grayson Perry and his book The Descent of Man.
A 6 year old girl, cropped hair, walks down the street wearing jeans,
waving a sword or a gun.
What do you think? Tomboy, right? A little girl, having fun.
A 6 year old boy walks just behind, long hair, wearing a skirt, waving a wand.
What do you think? A sissy? A victim? I mean,
don’t his parents worry how they’ll all have it in for him?

So who’s promoting this narrow definition of man? Well,
just about everyone. Advertising, toy shops, fathers, brothers,
films, games, our language, the internet, schools, sisters, mothers.
‘Boys will be boys’ – when do we say that? Not when they’ve solved a problem,
or painted a picture or helped someone.
More likely when they’ve been too rough,
misbehaved or maybe, even, cut back on their reading?
Because it’s easier that way isn’t it? To give in to the idea that gender is fixed,
so all we can do is roll over and accept it?

At which point you may ask, why not?
You’ve been banging on about this problem of men, Dad,
but what exactly is it?
(at which point can I highlight we’re calling it just that – a problem,
an issue, not a crisis, as the papers often like it.
To say as such, to quote once again from Grayson Perry’s mouth
‘is like saying that racism was in crisis in the American south’)

But back to your question.
Well, daughters, I think there’s more than one issue, but as problems often are,
they’re linked, threaded within masculinity’s narrow definition.
But let’s start with this – imagine yourself an alien, new on the earth –
shouldn’t be too hard for you number two, I mean, your mother’s yet
to give birth – and in one fluid glance you survey our world.
This, in numbers, is part of what you see, just here, in this country.
90% of violent crime is committed by men.
75% of all crime, the same.
95% of prison inmates, men again.
98% of sexual offences are committed by men
45% of women have experienced domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking.
A man brought up in a house where such activity happens
is three to four times more likely to become an abuser himself.
In a survey where teenage girls and boys were asked,
which, of all their fears, was the greatest one,
the girls most common answer was being raped, assaulted or killed.
The boys? Being ridiculed, the subject of laughter.
So, Larkin, perhaps not just man passing on misery to man,
but also creating it for women.
And daughters, now I hope you can see, why with all the world to reform,
I chose people like me.

You cast your alien eyes wide, across the globe.
Every example of systemic oppression you find is designed
and governed by men.
The reckless despoiling of the planet, that too is dominated by them,
as, for that matter, is the doubting of the consequences of the same.
Violent extremism of every religion Christian, Muslim – again – overwhelmingly stoked, devised and crimes in its name committed by men.
The greed-driven, overly-risky financial models that crash
bringing austerity and ruin – Yep you guessed it –
the architects and cultures of these,
also rooted in traditional masculinity.

By now your alien jaw is on the floor. This is extraordinary.
To call a spade a spade, from what you can tell, nearly all this planet’s wrong
is done by 50% of the population, by the half that’s male.
But then, you realise, at least the source is clear, and therefore
also the solution. Surely, you think, opening up your single alien ear,
this must be the talk on everyone’s lips.
‘Look at all this harm that men have done,
but at least we now know it’s done by them,
so hooray, we can roll up our sleeves and sort this thing.’

You listen. Nothing. A few whispers on the wind, the odd lone voice
raising the cry, but on the whole the talk
around issues of identity seems to be about mostly others instead.
Women, as we’ve already said, minorities, races, sexualities,
but men, in the shape of those who have shaped our world?
Nope, the figures are there, plain to see, as are they,
but the debate to tackle them, it’s strangely empty.

You raise your alien eyebrows in surprise,
‘maybe I’ve missed something’ you surmise.
So you look again, but what you see just confuses you more.
Because this issue of men, it seems, is hurting them too,
whether rich or poor. Violence, for example, it’s now clear to you,
is a male disease, but its victims are men as well
as their female partners, daughters, and wives.

In the UK, you learn, men are 80 % of the victims of violent attack,
and 85% of those committing suicide –
and that, death by their own hand, is the single biggest killer,
for males under 45.

You stop to take that in. Surely that, if nothing else,
is a canary in the mine?

But it doesn’t stop there, because men, you see,
despite undoubtedly reaping the advantages of a male-biased system –
in wages, opportunities, power and authority –
are still, beyond violence, being hurt by masculinity.
80% of rough sleepers are men, for one,
or here’s another – four times more likely, as boys,
to suffer with difficulties of behavior or emotion,
and three times more likely to be excluded from school.
Then, on the more granular level that’s harder to measure,
the way a constrained vision of masculinity
can be detrimental to their happiness and well-being,
and of course, their relationships with women.
Long hours in the office, short hours with the family,
increased loneliness, fewer close friends,
a decline in the jobs that once gave them identity.

What’s odd, you notice, is that the social effects
of stereotyping on girls are well-known, monitored and talked about,
as they should be – eating disorders, sexual harassment,
career progressions cut short, domestic and wages inequality.
But the effects upon boys and men? A lack of close friendships, sexist attitudes, workplace stress, exposure to violence and poorer health – relatively,
these go under the radar of the stereotype effect.

In response, I’m sure some will say, hey this isn’t all down
to the gender roles we project. And of course, there
are other factors too, but I still say the masculinity
we have now doesn’t leave men well equipped
for when that version of manhood has failed for them.
Because think about it. You’re raised to be dominant, competitive,
the bread-winner and a winner in the workplace too. Yet also,
having put the emphasis on power, physical and earning,
and neglected emotional learning, when things go south,
so does the man – humiliated, unable to talk, retreating into the reticence,
risk and violence that’s always been part of their schooling.
The Samaritans again – ‘marriage breakdown is much more likely
to lead to suicide for men than women.’
As Rebecca Asher says in her book Man Up, ‘men who are socially excluded, unqualified and uncared for fare much worse than their female counterparts.’

And for me, that goes to the matter’s heart. If the view of your gender you in-herit
is narrow and built on myths from an age not yours,
when it doesn’t work out and you’re left with no power, status, authority
all of which you’ve been told is what makes you, you,
what do you fall back on? Options is what you need.
Another way to be, to navigate your recovery.
And for ‘traditional man’, as prescribed as he is, they’re few.

So daughters, this alien you’ve been pretending to be,
they’re off now, they’ve seen enough, they’re not sticking around,
but before they go they take a global view of what all this might cost.

Literally, in money, it’s a lot. Male violence in the UK alone
costs around 30 billion a year. So, imagine that multiplied
across the continents and nations.

In lost lives and unlived potential, again as we’ve seen, the cost is too much.
And what about the planet itself? The drivers of climate change – aggressive re-source extraction, profit-driven short-termism and then, in response to the threat, an oddly irrational inaction.
Would the same have happened under the eyes of more balanced men?
Or if the reins of energy were in the hands of women?

Ok, the alien is off. Time to go.
But we, my children, we’re still here. We can’t just observe then run.
I mean the boys of now and the future are the men you’ll meet,
so I’m guessing you’d like something done? All well and good Dad
being so down on the state of men, but if it’s really so bad,
and you’re so smart, then what’s your solution?

Good question.


Well, for starters, this. Have the conversation. And not just the what –
how we talk about it, that in itself would be a great leap forward.
Be enquiring, ambitious, aware of what gender is and is doing, for all.
And where we have it too.
In festivals, great, but also in the media, soaps, pubs, films and,
most importantly I’d say, in school classrooms and halls.
Maybe statutory lessons for boys and girls about
what’s expected of them as men and women,
and why that’s the case and should it be?
Let them discuss those stats I shared with you, and see how they’d
imagine a different way forward, let them talk it through,
not just in terms of what’s gone wrong, but also the benefits, rewards.

As part of this conversation we should have,
the groups already having it now,
like Great Men here in Great Britain, or Men Can Stop Rape
in the United States, should be supported by governments
to expand the work they do now in taking alternative
visions of being a man to boys and young men.
Because new role models should be encouraged everywhere,
at home, in the media and in schools of course too.
Why not a quota or a target for men as teachers from infant
to secondary school? National programmes of male mentoring
and fostering? A concerted effort to put the shoulder
to the wheel to make a better man.

It’s something that already happens, one-to-one.
When asked about a ‘strong man’ in their life,
it’s interesting how many men describe not someone
of physical or commanding power, but rather
a man who’s given them counsel, advice, offered compassion.
Let’s listen to that quiet message.

Which brings me to rites of passage.
Every culture, in every time, has had one for men,
a moment of transition where time is given
to thinking, and acting out, who you want to become.
So where is ours now? There are maybe two of a legal kind,
I’d say, both informal – sport and the army.
For some these can do the trick –
offer a sense of purpose, identity and most importantly,
belonging. But both are based in easy certainty – win, lose,
train, obey, and in all the fundamentals of ‘trad’ man too.
So what happens when they end? I’ve worked with men
conditioned by both, and seen how vulnerable they can be
when the physical, for whatever reason, fails.
Emotionally, these most ‘manly’ of men, can seem like children –
unschooled in the blurred lines of the world, unsure of how to be
or what to do, emerging from landscapes of sexism,
into a more complex world where, often, it’s a women in their lives
who pulls them through.

So what else might we do? To mark and reflect on that moment
of boy to man? I don’t know exactly, but I know we have to –
provide a space for reflection and aspiration, to consider
the values we want to uphold and be. To ask how,
as well as a being a man, might I be me?

Here’s another thing that has to happen.
Absolute equality, at home, work, across society.
Why? Well, if boys see and experience patriarchy,
if they observe an assumed male superiority,
then we can’t even get out of the starting blocks.
Because this is part of the narrow bandwith.
If men are dominant then with that comes
a shopping list of other constrictive traits – being the provider,
power, authority, sexism, a reliance on certainty, strength.
As the anthropologist, Margaret Mead once said –
‘every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man’
and, I’d say, the opposite of that is true as well,
because if we do, hopefully, men will see there’s nothing to fear.
Equality isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a zero sum game,
it’s not a see-saw – when one goes up, the other goes down.
No, it’s balance, holding that see-saw in buoyant space,
alive with possibility, not anchored at one end,
and suspended at the other.

‘But what,’ I hear you say, ‘about us? The children?
When we come along men and women
become father and mother. Doesn’t that put a spanner
in the equality works?’

Well yes, it always has done, but doesn’t have to.
If we want a better society then it’s in our power to shape it.
The ocean shelf slopes up as well, remember?
So, to start with, subsidized universal childcare, across the board
for all pre-school children. And paid, equal, parental leave.
Being involved as a Dad needs to become the norm –
the choice of who cares and how much,
made within each family, not by society.

For this to happen men need to not just be invited
to take their leave, adopt flexible hours, but also expected.
How does that happen? Well, apart from changing the culture
of work to adopt this, also in stressing the benefits.
I mean, It’s a win-win situation – children experience
and see men in a caring role, while, and it’s been proved
in the Nordic countries where this is already on the move,
men are happier, more socially-connected, more emotionally-stable
if they feel they can exchange the stress from above
of putting food on the table, for caring for their children –
for providing for them, not just with money,
but also time, emotion, love.

Some say this will be the hardest sell,
the most difficult thing to do. But I’m not so sure.
I’ve played rugby, ridden stallions in the hills, climbed
Kilimanjaro. But I’ve never felt more of a man,
or a human, than when being a father to you.

A couple of other equality points.
One – the concept needs backing in the courts.
Laws, like the new bill passed in Iceland that punishes unequal pay.
Two – Our governments should lead by example.
Set a female MP target of 50% in parliament.

Okay, I’m going to bring this to a close now,
but before I go, a couple of more ambitious ideas.
I mean, what’s the point of imagining reform
if you don’t let yourself dream?

So here’s one – the de-gendering of personality traits.
What would it be like if we stopped identifying aggression
with men, emotions and communication with women?
To allow boys and girls to grow up free of expectation
as to who their sex means they should be?
To organize their roles in life, in relationships, as they see fit?
To be people who are many things and types
and who share, perhaps, more than we think?
To do away with the idea of ‘girls jobs, and boys jobs’
(thanks Mrs May) and say to our children,
follow your instincts, your wishes, your ideas,
free from prescription or boundaries or fears.

For the time being though, in terms of men,
how about we at least try expanding on the traits
we traditionally associate with them?
To protect and provide, for example.
What if we were to ‘man up’ on this one,
and extend our vision of what is provision,
protection, beyond our own tribe. To see it in
terms of our species instead? Until to do either
in such a way that somewhere else, someone else,
is left unprotected or unprovided, just isn’t manly at all.
If we follow this logic then environmentalists, climate activists,
never usually spoken of in the most masculine terms,
should be the guyest guys of us all.
protecting the whole planet! and in doing so,
trying to provide for everyone? Wow, now that’s a man,
lifting his eyes from his own back door
to take in the globe, to protect and provide for us all.

What about bravery? We teach our boys to be physically brave –
why not emotionally too? And strength – is just physical enough anymore,
or to survive in the modern world shouldn’t man
be strong in well-being, empathy, mental health too?

I could go on, but you get the gist. Expand the traits
of each gender until, well, they just meet,
and then what do you get? People, full of difference,
yes, but humans all the same, raising their game.

So, daughters, let’s end on a vision
of what men and masculinity might be
by the time you’re my age, forty two, forty three.

A person with chromosomes of X and Y,
for whom power without compassion is no power at all,
for whom strength has been de-coupled from domination.
For whom to be fit, healthy, means in body, mind and emotion.
For whom oppression is equated with fear in the oppressor,
aggression with failure on the part of the aggressor.
For whom the ability to be vulnerable makes him strong,
as does that to be unsure, uncertain, even wrong.
A male allowed to contain Whitman’s multitudes,
who has cared for and witnessed the growth of his children
or who, if he has none, is still positively involved, as mentor, teacher