He who has the most toys when he dies wins

There are fabulous things about being a man — like banter and piss taking — but sometimes we get lost and trapped by gender scripts. There isn’t a specific therapeutic solution for this but it helps to understand the lived experience of each person coming into the therapy room. It’s 80% about process and 20% about the right approaches. So said Dr Michael Beattie in his training workshop in London today called Working With Men: Meeting The Challenges of Orthodox Masculinity.

Michael is witty and slick. He’s a former communications guy who still does management training for corporates. He works as counselling psychologist at the Gender Identity Clinic, an NHS service in London and co-wrote Counselling Skills For Working With Gender Diversity and Identity (2018). Michael mentions his father a lot, who was 52 when Michael, 49, was born — “my abiding memory of him is being frightened of him, and also wanting to be like him”. Michael shares personal details like growing up in Zimbabwe where his grandfather was a pioneer who saw himself as part of a civilising project when they seem useful, drawing comparisons with the empire building acts and myths of men through history into the modern workplace.

His playfulness and self-deprecation — “I’m a great believer in buying books and not reading them but knowing what they’re about”; “I’m living my own cliche” (about his constant Guardian references); “I’m in between task oriented and feelings, I care about how you feel but we still need to do this”; — make him, in my view, a valuable communicator in what can be a fraught space among therapists. Masculinity is often carefully avoided. Therapy is feminised. Gender didn’t arise once during Michael’s training, during which he was the only man. Here are his points that resonated with me today. I haven’t quoted the research that Michael referenced.

Bodies and behaviour

  • Our bodies create behaviour as well as being directed by those behaviours
  • So the more masculine behaviours I perform the more masculine I become

The pressure to confirm to masculine norms is huge

  • It’s tough being a man — this is known as masculine gender role stress
  • Normative masculinity is an impossible ideal that is always being attempted and competed for
  • Men and boys gain access to the tribe of men through conformity to masculine norms of identity such as winning, self-reliance, emotional control, primacy of work, risk taking, physical toughness, playboy behaviour, dominance, conspicuously avoiding self-care
  • The need to conform to group norms can make us do almost anything, and we look to the apparently most powerful others for social cues and mimic them
  • Research in schools found a ‘boy code’ that was competitive, praised hardness, sporting prowess, casual treatment of schoolwork, being adept at ‘cussing’, dominance and control, and the importance of not being seen to try too hard at anything
  • Boys were free and funny in groups, serious and softer in one to one interviews
  • Popularity is linked to masculinity
  • Young men have a higher threshold of severity for help seeking than females, particularly help from a GP
  • The hero myth still drives men: the brave adventurer, facing down fears — both external monsters and the emotions inside himself, and conquering the unknown
  • The primacy of work enables men (and women, it has to be said) to achieve social status and avoid facing existential anxieties
  • Boys today feel stranded between the more orthodox masculinities of their fathers and grandfathers and the #metoo movement

Masculine norms kill men

  • Conformity to masculine norms builds an ‘acquired capability’ for suicide because men get used to impulsive, aggressive and risky behaviours that expose them to pain and fear
  • Asking for help is at odds with orthodox masculinity scripts
  • Men are in a triple bind: they’re shamed into hiding normal emotional expressivity, which creates the possibility of anger or rage, but help-seeking is prohibited

The more money I have, the more masculine I am

  • Traditional masculinity at work is characterised by competition, aggressive interactions, and exercising control. It fuels a pernicious ‘busy ethic’. Productivity is valued and there’s an unease with ‘worthless’, unscheduled time, especially retirement. “The more money I have, the more masculine I am.” “He who has the most toys when he dies wins” (the billionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes is credited with this last quote)

Involved fatherhood clashes with traditional masculinity

  • Fathers who adhere to masculine norms and those with depression report higher levels of maternal gatekeeping (ie their partner blocks them from access to their children). In traditional gender roles parenting is the mother’s domain, which limits men’s ability to participate in the home as an equally contributing parent

Anger is a key to understanding men

  • Anger and aggression can be a way back into the tribe: men who have missed a goal can end up fouling another player in an act of violence
  • Anger helps preserve boundaries and a stable sense of self, and so men can react with hostility to insights by a therapist — therefore therapists need to be able to remain calm in the “being hated” bit or refer their client on

Friendless and disconnectedness is rife

  • Friendlessness is a massive problem among men. It trebles for UK men from their early 20s to late middle age. One in eight men have no friends at all. Married men are a third more likely than singles to have no one outside the home to turn to for support

How therapists can help

  • Masculinity isn’t toxic but aspects of its performance can become difficult
  • Therapists can work with masculine scripts and explore with their male clients how they serve them. Scripts include: strong and silent; tough guy; playboy, winner; independent
  • Male therapists can use appropriate self disclosure, humour and realness to model vulnerability. Female therapists can use motivational interviewing techniques to explore the client’s stories around how masculine scripts have affected them and defuse gender-specific stigma
  • Common process issues working with men: restricted emotionality and shame, anger and aggression, compartmentalisation

Hegemonic masculinity
This one I couldn’t swallow.

  • Hegemonic masculinity wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates, creating a pyramid structure of power with layers of complicit, subordinated and marginalised people — ‘the patriarchy’ we hear so much about

I’m not sure this pyramid actually exists in the UK. What is the evidence for it? The concept of hegemony comes from the Italian Marxist Antonia Gramsci, who was the founding member of the Communist Party of Italy in 1921. He thought the greatest obstacle Marxism faced was the Christian foundations of Western European cultures. In his prison notebook he wrote: “Any country grounded in Judaeo-Christian values can’t be overthrown until those roots are cut … Socialism is precisely the religion that must overwhelm Christianity … in the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.” It feels like this has happened in the last decade. But assuming the pyramid still exists, if it ever did, where is the evidence that life as a member of the complicit overlord class of white men is so good? There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary in public policy, documented forensically by William Collins in The Empathy Gap: Male Disadvantages and the Mechanisms of Their Neglect (2019).