19 November 2021 | Story Nontombi Velelo | Photo Supplied
Nontombi Velelo is a PhD candidate and Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State (UFS).

Current reports related to gender reflect and emphasise the negative impact of gender on society — especially the negative impact of men and masculinity in society. Studies are conducted to understand the root(s) and triggers of men’s social conduct/misconduct. Without a doubt, men are often guilty of causing some of the social ills. However, we often do not acknowledge and recognise the pressures and challenges that society presents to men. In most instances, the focus in reporting is on their conduct/misconduct. Less attention is given to interrogating and reflecting on how masculine notions are formed and subsequently practised, and the influence of social settings on these processes. 

It is worth pointing out that masculinity is not a static entity – it is flexible, evolving, and adapts to different contexts. However, there is a struggle between upholding the traditional practices of masculinity and the desire for modern and liberal practices of masculinity. The concept of ‘traditional’ masculinity is frequently used when investigating the construction and practices of masculinity. This concept is often understood as the opposite of the modern representation of masculinity. Yet, it refers to what is considered to make a man a ‘real’ man – attributes such as independence, self-sufficiency, heterosexuality, physical toughness, and emotional restrictedness. These attributes highlight the ideas of masculinity embedded in traditional ideology, rules, and norms. We often expect men to possess these attributes, particularly independence, self-sufficiency, and emotional restrictedness. Without a doubt, these expectations present challenges for men. Men are less likely to express their feelings – they are also not expected to express their emotions. Besides, men are not as expressive as women and the signs of mental illness are not the same as those in women. Though we expect men to man-up and demonstrate strength when confronted with challenges, we are not aware of the damage this may cause to their mental and emotional well-being. According to the World Health Organisation (2021), South African men are more than four times more likely to commit suicide than women. Of more than 6 000 cases of suicide, 5 138 were men, which translates to 21,8 per 100 000. This indicates the need to unlearn the damaging expectations of gender. 

Men’s socio-economic and socio-political positions influence how they view and practise their masculinity. Though Statistics South Africa (2021) reported that 32,4% of men are unemployed (compared to 36,8% of unemployed women), South African men living in poverty find themselves in a stressful climate, as they are unable to live up to their and others’ ideas of ‘successful masculinity’. To a large extent, men are still expected to assume the role of financial provider. Failure to adhere to these expectations may result in one’s masculine traits not being recognised or acknowledged. In some cases, men are considered ‘less of a man’ since they cannot fulfil the expectation of financial provision. This, subsequently, affects their interaction and relationships with other men, women, and children. 

Apart from the societal expectations, we need to pay attention to the socialisation process within the family. A family is a training ground where members are trained and taught about desirable and undesirable behaviour and expectations of others. Within the family structure, men and women are socialised to internalise and accept toxic gender roles – one being the use of violence. Violent behaviour is often associated with normal ‘boyish’ behaviour; therefore, it is perceived to be expected of a boy child to resort to violence. It is expected of a boy child to retaliate/fight back when facing conflict. Consequently, violence is viewed as a measure to correct behaviour associated with disobedience or challenging masculine authority. The Mail & Guardian reported in 2020 that one in five women in South Africa experienced violence at a partner’s hands. South Africa has witnessed an increase in gang rapes, most of the first-time rape offenders being teenage boys (SafeSpace, 2021). Teenage boys are not only members of society but also members of the family. This does not imply that parents are responsible for the acts of their children. However, it demonstrates the need to interrogate and challenge the socialisation process as far as gender roles and expectations are concerned. Regardless of the mentioned challenges associated with masculinity, there are individual men in society who have invested efforts to transform the masculine scripts and to cultivate positive male attributes. These are men who strive to be good citizens, husbands, fathers, brothers, and uncles. Unfortunately, the efforts invested by these individual men tend to be disregarded in society, since the focus is always on unpacking and reflecting the toxic actions and attributes of men. 

Commemoration of International Men’s Day

International Men’s Day commemorates the positive contribution of men to their world, families, and communities. The day aims to create awareness around the well-being of men. As we celebrate this day, it is important to recognise and acknowledge male pain. Society often disregards male pain and focuses on male privilege.

Furthermore, recognising ways in which men are hurt by rigid gender roles and expectations and social settings where these roles and expectations are practised, does not imply disregard for the struggle and oppression of women. With the 2021 slogan being ‘Better relations between men and women’, I am reminded of the third wave of feminist scholars who pointed out that society is experiencing a crisis embedded in patriarchal masculinity rather than masculinity itself. There is a need to sensitise men and women to the dangers of patriarchy, particularly for men. It is also important to encourage men to construct their own identities that are different from those prescribed by patriarchy. Although most men might not be oppressed by sexism in ways similar to women, we need to pay much closer attention to how men suffer the consequences of sexism. It is worth recognising that men do not derive the common benefits from sexist oppression, since they do not hold a common social position. It is important to acknowledge the role of individual men in changing the masculine narrative. May we recognise such individuals in our homes, workplaces, and communities. There is a need to unlearn the damaging patriarchal expectations of gender.

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