Big Boys Don’t Cry: Is ‘Toxic Masculinity’ Harming Men’s Mental Health?

Portsmouth student Molly Burns explores the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ and asks whether the demand to ‘man up’ is harmful to male mental health. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.

My dad was always quite a figure around town while I was growing up. He could be spotted a mile off, cycling down the road in jeans and The Simpsons flip flops. He’d be heard in Tesco, loudly talking to someone with his thick accent travelling through the aisles. More often than not, if you truly needed to seek him out, he’d be found in the cinema, openly crying at movies. I remember going with my big brother to get his first tattoo. He cried on the way there, watery eyes dripping along the high street, excited but worried about how much it might hurt. He cried in pain during the inking and he cried in relief on the way home. My granddad cries at just the mention of one particular Specsavers advert, in which a short-sighted farmer shears his sheepdog accidentally. The man doesn’t even like dogs.

The men in my family have always been criers, so it didn’t truly hit me how ‘abnormal’ this was still perceived to be until recently, when I was babysitting my neighbour’s kid. As his parents left us he burst into tears, as people often do when faced with the prospect of my company. His dad stopped him, stared him straight in the eyes and said to his shaking, sobbing, ten year old son a cliché I thought only existed in old movies or songs by The Cure, ‘Boys don’t cry’.

How does forbidding men to express their emotions help anything? The male suicide rate is ever increasing and is now three times that of the female rate. Many researchers suggest that ‘toxic masculinity’ underpins many men’s experiences of mental ill health.

The Good Men Project – an organisation aiming to change attitudes to gender – describes toxic masculinity as follows:

Toxic masculinity is a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly “feminine” traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as “man” can be taken away.

Our predetermined gender roles have a detrimental impact on boys and men who feel pressured into keeping their feelings inside by social attitudes on what it means to be ‘a man’. For example, in 2015, Portsmouth News columnist Clive Smith wrote that boys should ‘buck up and get on with things’ in an article that made national headlines, eventually forcing the News to remove the article from its website.

Where did we get this view, and is it unique to the UK or the western world?

The infamous English ‘stiff upper lip’ can be blamed in part. However, the suicide rates in other countries are not that different to ours. Lithuania, for example, has a male suicide rate six times that of the female rate; male suicide is consistently higher, nation to nation.

Are we really OK encouraging boys and men to be stoic copies of Jeremy Clarkson? And if not, what are we doing to stop the next generation from passing on these values to the next generation? A young boy told by his father to ‘cut it out’ may be more likely to tell his own son not to cry as well.

In pop culture the trope of the detached, distant father is all too familar, a father too busy with his “manly” responsibilities to exist on an emotional level with his family: men like John Winchester in Supernatural who would leave his sons alone for weeks at a time while he was hunting demons, or Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, who has to take a police informant to his son’s football game after almost forgetting he was meant to attend.  These characters are familiar to us, we poke fun at them (if we notice them at all) and we may even acknowledge the harm he causes, but nothing changes. In terms of social acceptance, it might be seen as ok for a man to cry at a funeral, or a football game, but these are deviations from, not the norm. The only emotion men are publicly allowed is anger.

What’s worse is that we almost fetishize this stoicism. The ‘ideal’ man is often depicted as strong and silent, but for what? What exactly is desirable about a partner who cannot share emotions? In a recent conversation with friends, I said I could never date a guy who wouldn’t cry. One girl replied, ‘I’d never date a guy who cried; I’d want to know how far along in his transition he was.’ Her confidence to say something so ridiculous – as well as transphobic – shows how gendered our attitudes to showing emotion still are.

I’m a firm believer in the power of a good cry. By denying this relief to them and socially sanctioning men against showing their pain, aren’t we really just breaking them further?