We need to chill out about masculinity

Those who want to ‘liberate’ us from masculinity often want to swap one set of rigid norms for another.

Paddy Hannam


There is a concerning undercurrent in contemporary discussions of masculinity.

For decades, feminists rightly argued that our societies developed patriarchal structures which produced and reinforced specific gender roles. One of the greatest contributions of feminism has been slowly to free us from certain expectations about what men and women should be.

But there are areas in which feminism has itself become too rigid in this regard. Some feminists, for example, have difficulty accepting that some women actually want to be housewives and homemakers – and that that is totally fine. We are now seeing the equivalent of this in relation to men.

‘Toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity have arisen as the gender counterparts to ‘white privilege’ and ‘white fragility’. The implication of these terms is that, just as the un-woke white man or woman is an obstacle to progress, so the heteronormative, stereotypically masculine man is an unhelpful hangover from the intellectual and political dark ages.

Masculinity is the subject of a new exhibition at the recently reopened Barbican Centre in London. Titled Masculinities: Liberation through Photography, it comprises a large number of photographic and film artworks and projects in an attempt to demonstrate ‘how masculinity has been coded, performed, and socially constructed from the 1960s to the present day’.

It’s a good way to spend an hour or two. The exhibition raises some fascinating ideas, highlighting how expectations of masculinity have varied between different cultures and over time. It explores links between gender and countercultures surrounding sexuality and race. In part it reflects the work of people like sociologist Raewyn Connell, who has argued that rather than there being a clear-cut popular image of the masculine man, masculinity is a changeable – and malleable – thing.

But this important point is partially lost, both in this exhibition and in the broader debate around masculinity. There is indeed no single, approved version of masculinity to which everyone must aspire – most (or at least many) versions of it are valid. Contemporary discussions of masculinity, however, often urge men either to conform to a specific ‘acceptable’ version of masculinity or to ditch it altogether.

Some of the artworks in this exhibition seem oddly out of place. Two separate photographs of men urinating strike a strange tone in an exhibition presenting masculinity as constructed: it is hardly by choice that men must urinate and do so in a different way to women.

Meanwhile, other pieces seem to be setting up a kind of strawman of traditional or ‘toxic’ masculinity. One example is a film by artist Richard Mosse, which features members of a college fraternity in the US. In it, the men attempt to out-shout each other, the winner being the one who can shout for the longest time.

On the face of it, this seems crass and immature behaviour from the students. But when you read the description, you find that the artist actually asked the men to perform in this way, offering to film them if they would take part in a shouting competition, and promising a keg of beer to the winner.

There are some problematic parts of ‘frat culture’ in the US. But by getting these frat boys to perform in a certain way, effectively getting them to conform to a version of masculinity he seeks to reject, Mosse undermines the honesty of his piece. Far more effective, in this exhibition, are the photos of real-life frat parties.

The exhibition as a whole is thought-provoking, and makes some important observations. Masculinity is, at least partly, constructed. Likewise, modern-day analysis of ‘toxic masculinity’, like that of ‘white privilege’, does have a kernel of truth to it. Just as it is true that white people in the West experience far less racism than non-white people do, we all know men who behave in inappropriate ways.

But the all-consuming cry of white privilege often becomes, in the end, reductionist – neglecting the experiences of poor white people by lumping them together with rich white people. And so too does present discourse about toxic masculinity, which ends up forcing people into categories that do not fit. It ends up prizing those who challenge traditional notions of masculinity over those who embody those norms comfortably. The point is, or should be, that both are fine ways to live your life.

Such black-and-white thinking often leads to the condemnation of the majority simply because it is the majority. Though it is important to critique established thinking and ways of life, the majority should not be attacked just for being broadly conventional.

Men and women should be free to live their lives as they choose. But just as we shouldn’t impose preconceived ideas of masculinity or femininity on people, we shouldn’t impose a preconceived idea of ‘liberation’ on them, either.

Paddy Hannam is a spiked intern.

Picture by: Getty.

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Claire D

22nd July 2020 at 9:47 am

Sometimes the historical ignorance and ideological brainwashing that lies behind articles like this overwhelm me (I am a woman after all).
Throughout history men and women worked alongside each other to survive. At court, the centre of power until the 18th century, women exercised influence as much as men did. The growth of cities and the Industrial Revolution with technology made the difference.
Women’s biology usually meant they needed men to protect them but psychologically and mentally they were no different to women of today, eg, Anna Maria Garthwaite, born in the 1670s I think it was, one of the greatest silk designers of the age, running a successful business in Spitalfields, exporting her fabrics as far away as America.
Take away modern contraception, sanitary products and clean running water on tap and you would very quickly discover what a load of c*bblers feminist theory is.
Who developed said modern contraception, sanitary products and sophisticated plumbing ? Men, masculine (toxic or otherwise) men.

Claire D

22nd July 2020 at 9:53 am

Anna Maria Garthwaite, born 1688.

jamie murray

22nd July 2020 at 10:53 am

You sound as sensible and switched on as my wife, she can’t stand feminism either, has her gag reflex stimulated when those ridiculous “I’m a strong independent woman” adverts come on and would love to stay at home with our children if it was financially viable. She’s also capable of being a “strong independent woman” and has proven it by being a single mum in very trying circumstances. None of that changes the fact that she’d much rather be in her present position of being protected and looked after by me ( a toxic male no less) than going back and doing it alone. That doesn’t make her weaker or less equal than me, it just makes her different, something these feminists struggle to comprehend.
Final thought, it always strikes me how many feminists are from the Isabella/Francesca class, usually comfortably off through daddies or hubbies money (oh the irony!) and with “jobs” such as campaigner or designer and never the Kayleigh/Leanne class, the type of women who live real lives with real jobs.

Claire D

22nd July 2020 at 11:27 am

Thanks, and I agree with you re: your final thought; that is what is so deadly about feminism, apart from encouraging hatred or denigration of men, it has not done working women any favours, in fact it demands more and more from them, so they must work throughout their pregnancies and get back to work as soon as possible afterwards, in order that they can be ‘equal’.
The equality scenario serves the ambitions of the wealthier, healthier feminists who can afford, if they so wish, to throw their feminism out the window if they should suddenly decide that actually they would quite enjoy being full-time mothers rather than MPs or whatever.
Middle class women can suffer as well, both in terms of two wages being needed to afford a home + pressure from the whole feminist belief system that being a full-time mother has no value, means you are oppressed and are failing to live up to what is expected of you at this time in history, all of which can lead to a serious lack of confidence in your mothering skills and other mental health problems.

a watson

23rd July 2020 at 8:11 am

It appears that the wealthy feminists you talk of particularly hate the working class male, particularly those feminists in the Labour Party. Great comment.

Dave Jones

4th August 2020 at 6:24 pm

Please never stop being an absolute gem..

Gweedo LeStrange

21st July 2020 at 9:22 pm

Utter nonsense. Masculinity is not constructed or socially determined, it is eternal and immutable. It is only one thing: strength – physical, moral, and emotional. That is why the weak hate men.

michael savell

21st July 2020 at 9:16 pm

George Whale,You got it nearly right but itshould be Femdomnisation,not feminism since there isn’t much between them now save for any male enjoyment.Why are there any feminists about when they could be obeyed far more diligently under femdom.

David George

21st July 2020 at 8:40 pm

“Toxic Masculinity” is casually thrown about but what is it, how common?
It’s become code for almost all masculine behaviour; but it’s really psychopathy by another name. Even the positive masculine, the strong, courageous, forthright, loving protector and provider is thus denigrated and the feminine celebrated.
An unbalanced society is weak and vulnerable. Vive la différence!

theodore smuglout

21st July 2020 at 8:13 pm

A woman being attacked in the street might appreciate some assistance in the form of toxic masculinity from a couple of male passers-by.

Gareth Edward KING

21st July 2020 at 5:13 pm

Sounds like a hoot this Barbican exhibition on the ‘problems’ with masculinity, probably give it a miss though. It reminds me of a group called ‘Creches against Sexism’ that I own up to having attended on a few occasions in south London back in 1986! That it is being held at the Barbican speaks yards, I suppose it could’ve been held at the ICA. Oh! here we go, that ‘eternal problem’ with masculinity (yawn!). One way to ‘deal’ with it could be to look at ‘Teen Wolf’, or alternatively: ‘Little Britain’ (oh sorry! it was recently banned by the BBC, so perhaps not). Where’s the problem? If in fact, (most) women and (most) gay men like ‘masculinity’ and that accounts for 55% of the population at least. In a recent TV film (Channel 4, if I recall): ‘Clapham Junction’ (2007?) none of the ‘gay’ characters were anything but ‘masculine’, but it was just as much about social class in Blair’s London as sexuality. Why not a Barbican exhibition about something more interesting? ‘Brexit Britain’? perhaps.

James Knight

21st July 2020 at 4:10 pm

Most of the woke characterisation of “whiteness” amounts to traditional masculine values.

I don’t doubt toxic masculinity exists. Think of the trans woman threatening that Ben Shapiro would be going home in an ambulance. Appeared to be a text book case.

Linda Payne

21st July 2020 at 12:56 pm

Where have all the real men gone?

Gweedo LeStrange

21st July 2020 at 9:20 pm

They realized that women are no longer worth anything more than a casual dalliance.

steve moxon

21st July 2020 at 12:23 pm

No, it’s non-scientific sociobabble bull to spout that society developed patriarchal norms.
There is no such thing as this supposed patrimularcky. There are no supposed rigid norms imposed socially, and certainly not of supposed dominance of one sex.
Male-female dichotomy is deepest biology, and the female is preferenced, not the male.

Stef Steer

21st July 2020 at 12:17 pm

“Just as it is true that white people in the West experience far less racism than non-white people do, we all know men who behave in inappropriate ways.”

Is it? as far as I can see pretty much every day in the mainstream media there are racist attacks on white people (even if they come from white people) and that is not to mention the fact that for example I knew British Asians many years ago who were quite comfortable being racist against whites, whilst most considered it banter and I did too some had real hatred just below the surface and the same double standards we see in the mainstream today.

As for toxic masculinity, What do you mean by men who behave in innappropriate ways? The term Toxic masculinity is yet another nebulous deliberately ill defined term that is basically just a way of emotionally abusing men.

James Knight

21st July 2020 at 4:14 pm

“What do you mean by men who behave in innappropriate ways?”

Bad shirt and tie combination.

Neil John

25th July 2020 at 2:21 pm

I see more toxic femininity, especially as exercised by Irish Catholic Matriarchs, in the destruction of families.

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 11:00 am

So Paddy still thinks “white people in the West experience far less racism than non-white people do”. Perhaps he could explain his statistical sources for this claim, and if he is including South Africa and its state-sponsored racism against whites in ‘the West’. Also, could he explain why those putting up ‘it’s ok to be white’ posters or say ‘white lives matter’ get persecuted and prosecuted for their racist opinions and lose their jobs, while those saying ‘black lives matter’ and even write it on statues on national heroes are treated as rebel heroes in the MSM. Finally, Paddy should tell us if he ever complains about non-white racists or knows that India, China and Lebanon are the most racist nations on the planet, according to various credible research efforts online. By contrast, Anglophone nations ended slavery and are among the least racist in human history. Only complaining about white racism makes you a racist, Paddy.

a watson

21st July 2020 at 9:27 am

Surely it is the working class male that is despised by the middle class feminists most in such as the Labour Party and BBC etc. To ridicule and patronise poor and supposedly uneducated men gives them a comforting sense of their own superiority and entitlement, betraying fear and hatred- how they are destroying our society and culture.

James Clark

21st July 2020 at 10:20 am

Culture and society aren’t fixed things, you might not like the changes but they’re going to happen. Try looking back at the culture and society of the early twentieth century and compare them to what we have now.

Philip Humphrey

21st July 2020 at 10:59 am

Perhaps as good middle class socialists, they have an idea of a working class that they imagine they are fighting for and seeking “justice”. Unfortunately they don’t seem to like real working class people when they come across them. I think this has been a longstanding problem for Labour and one of the reasons they lost the last election so badly.

James Clark

21st July 2020 at 11:27 am

Brexit and Corbyn probably eclipse any other reasons for Labour losing the last election.

Chris Stapleton

21st July 2020 at 9:23 am

“One of the greatest contributions of feminism has been slowly to free us from certain expectations about what men and women should be.” On the contrary, feminism has taken it upon itself to tell men what masculinity should be. Duly ignored sexism.

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 11:04 am


Jerry Owen

21st July 2020 at 8:14 am

I wouldn’t spend a penny on this exhibition!

George Whale

21st July 2020 at 7:50 am

Menstrual emotionality is no match for masculine strength and leadership, which is why the modern West is weak and ripe for conquest (ideologically or otherwise).

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 11:11 am

Stefan Molyneaux, the evil white supremacist I mean world’s most popular philosopher now cancelled on PooTube and Twatter, says that a culture which defers to women will inevitably be replaced by one that does not. Wise women of the west might want to nurture and save the few men still able to defend them from that glorious future. Start with Trump. I fear it’s too late for emasculated ‘conservatives’ like Boris.

James Clark

21st July 2020 at 11:36 am

You don’t need to be a philosopher to see inevitably of culture changes.

James Clark

21st July 2020 at 11:48 am

Why has masculine strength and leadership allowed the West to become weak and ripe for conquest?

George Whale

21st July 2020 at 12:46 pm

Wrong way roun – the feminisation of Western society and governments is the problem.

George Whale

21st July 2020 at 12:46 pm


jamie murray

21st July 2020 at 9:20 pm

I’m not sure which history you’ve been studying, but there’s been a huge cultural change since the 1960’s that has slowly eroded admiration for masculine norms (and they are norms, fixed since humanities conception and practised throughout all societies historically and the present day) at the expense of building up the feminine qualities of women. This is a huge mistake as men and women have different but complimentary roles that together work best for societies benefit.
And anybody who comes out with nonsense along the lines that gender or male/female roles are purely societally constructed and not inbuilt has never had the privilege and experience of raising a boy and a girl ( not to mention being married, to a woman of course).

Alexander Allan

21st July 2020 at 7:34 am

Oh this poor intern has been brained washed to believe radical leftist ideology: “ feminists rightly argued that our societies developed patriarchal structures ….”
The reality is that is the correct orientation of man is to sacrifice and protect. This is masculinity in the true sense. The effeminate man is all that we have today and they range from those men who proclaim they are feminists to the serial adulterers like Bojo

George Whale

21st July 2020 at 7:53 am

Yes, from day one these poor boys are indoctrinated by hectoring, penis-envying harridans to apologise for their masculinity.

jamie murray

21st July 2020 at 9:35 pm

Any man who is married or who has daughters knows the absurdity of saying “we live in a patriarchal society” when most married men spend 90% of their time placating and deferring to the women in their life for the sole reason that men in general want a quiet life and women want their own way, women are aware of this and act accordingly. Yet in times of deep stress, dangerous situations or other high adrenaline moments mens bravery and calmness under pressure is needed and called upon by the women in his life and most “real” men will respond accordingly and without complaint!
It’s maybe about time society stopped this male bashing nonsense as it’s getting really boring now.
Finally we should realise this feminist crap is mainly media driven, most “normal” women love the men in their lives and love the fact that they’re “manly” and would hate it if they were’nt!

Tony Rutter

21st July 2020 at 7:02 am

“For decades, feminists rightly argued that our societies developed patriarchal structures which produced and reinforced specific gender roles. One of the greatest contributions of feminism has been slowly to free us from certain expectations about what men and women should be.”

Although a good opening for discussion, this statement is very problematic. It asserts a certainty and truth that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has decades of aggressive feminism really improved society on the whole? Many people would argue not, that we’ve actuality regressed; feminism has put such unsustainable pressures and artificial expectations on society that we’re even now seeing a birth rate that would eventually make our species extinct. Think about that for just a second. So no, I would say that the undermining of masculinity, the promotion of gender over sex, the Incessant push for women to fit a certain mould, has not been a “great contribution”. The evidence has never been more clear than it is today, and for those of us that have been alive long enough to observe the changes, it’s been akin to watching someone very slowly digging their own grave.

a watson

21st July 2020 at 9:46 am

Yes. Just look at what is being destroyed and undermined of our culture.

Dominic Straiton

21st July 2020 at 6:55 am

The only reason feminism exists is because capitalism has produced such abundance women can have choice. Men have spent the last million years protecting their women and children,like every other primate and providing protein for the development of the human brain . We didi it because evolution produced fake buttocks enticing men around the front,unlike any other primate, so that love could blossom. Were in it together. Always have been.

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 11:17 am

Making the possibility of love dependent on evolving and practicing the frontal sexual position sounds fanciful. I recall a scene suggesting this discovery in ‘Quest for Fire’, but have you got a link?

Gordon O Gopher

21st July 2020 at 1:08 am

There’s definitely no better place to get a better understanding of masculinity than an art exhibition.


George Whale

21st July 2020 at 7:57 am

You can be sure the exhibition was assembled mainly by homosexuals and man-haters.

Jerry Owen

21st July 2020 at 8:16 am

It is the Barbican!

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 11:23 am

Paddy hasn’t mentioned any need for diverse opinion among exhibitors. Maybe he thinks a Barbican employee going to work in a Trump hat is a) possible and b) can expect a friendly fist bump, as a fellow and equally enlightened soul.

a watson

21st July 2020 at 9:36 am

I doubt they understand much about what art is. It is not an exclusively feminist or homosexual activity – but if you are hetero male these fools don’t want you involved.

nick hunt

21st July 2020 at 11:18 am


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