International Men's Day: Is masculinity successfully adapting to the 21st century?

Herbert Spencer’s oft-quoted phrase “survival of the fittest” is not only frequently misattributed to Charles Darwin (who was a proponent of the phrase), it's also usually misinterpreted. It’s often misunderstood to mean that those who are in the best physical shape or the strongest or most aggressive (qualities which have traditionally been associated with men) will survive.

However, it actually refers to the ability to adapt to an environment.

With traditional models of stability crumbling and rapid change all around us—whether it’s climate, the environment, technology, economics, or social relations—our current period clearly is about survival of the most flexible. Whoever can adapt to the increasingly rapid changes being thrown at us will thrive.

Earlier this year, I decided to write an article about organizations and individuals who are addressing men's issues in Vancouver for this year's Best of Vancouver issue. I was curious about what is being done to help men to evolve and adapt as a group in this era of uncertainty and fluctuation.

One of my interviewees for the article, Manology director David Hatfield, pointed out that this state of the world is requiring qualities which may fly in the face of what we traditionally have associated with men.

“Lots of people who are writing in the social ecology field, which informs my practice, is they’re talking about everyone needs to be working with resilience and be comfortable with ambiguity and change,” he explained in an interview at the Georgia Straight. “Some writers…are saying this is especially hard for men because we continue to socialize boys and men to be independent, competitive, stoic, invulnerable, et cetera. The new science…is about no, we need to relational, we need to be collaborative, we need to cooperative, we need to think systemically, not in terms of reductionist science.”

Something else that is inhibiting change for men is the recognition of weaknesses. That’s something that’s often considered antithetical to traditional models of masculinity.

Hatfield articulated the challenge in this area with insight. For example, broaching emotional issues, an area of particular neglect, is fraught with resistance.

“One of the core issues for men is emotional repression," he said. "And it’s very hard to quantify what that is, how do you demonstrate when it’s active or when it’s not happening anymore, or a man has moved beyond it. And it also flies against the male notion of power. Certain emotional expressions are rewarded as powerful. But grief is not one of them. Fear is not one of them. That’s a lot tougher sell to the average man than selling the right to vote was to the average woman….And this is one of the great challenges for men and people trying to offer this kind of educational opportunity for men.”

With such obstacles in the way, the men’s movement, which has existed in various forms since the 1960s and ’70s, has never become an influential social force in the same way that other social movements have.

However, that’s not to say that men aren’t changing.

Hatfield is encouraged by the change that he has seen, such as in generations of boys interested in talking about and exploring male issues and a shift in attitudes in younger generations.

On a somewhat superficial level, in the world of pop culture, I think recent trends such as metrosexuality and bromances, and the increasing acceptance of queer men (gay, bisexual, trans, and more) in mainstream entertainment and media, are signs of the expansion of male behaviour and definitions.

What’s more, when I initially began researching this article, I was somewhat worried that I wouldn't have enough material to cover. After digging around, however, I actually wound up with an excess amount of content that I couldn't include in the feature. The majority of the groups and organizations I found were relatively new or still developing, which are signs of promise.

And right now is a particularly appropriate time to consider these issues. It's Movember, of course, as men grow moustaches in order to raise funds and awareness of men's health issues. But it's also International Men's Day today (Movember 19).

This year, Hatfield wasn't able to organize an International Men's Day event like he has in past years but he is inviting any men interested in celebrating the day at his weekly Manology session at the Roundhouse Community Centre (181 Roundhouse Mews) at 7 p.m. (The first session is always free for new men.)

Upcoming sessions of Manology will include topics such as homophobia, depression, and an all-gender session on feminism.

For another example of how men are sharing their inner worlds, you might want to check out the screening of the Finnish documentary Steam of Life on December 3 at the European Union Film Festival (screening at the Cinematheque). The film takes a look at how men are able to not only shed their clothes upon entering a sauna but also their emotional hangups and social masks, by revealing some of their most intimate secrets.

If you’re interested in exploring some of these issues, you can take a look over some of the resources listed in the Best of Vancouver article (which is only a broad sample of what’s out there) or do further research on your own. And if you can’t find something that suits you or appeals to you, that could be a sign of an area of opportunity to take some initiative in.

You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig.

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