In any discussion of gender, the word ‘patriarchy’ is never far from people’s lips. Whether it is used to refer to a specific person or group, or to denote an amorphous ruling elite, it is a word that provides clear direction for people’s anger at the plethora of warped ideas about gender that have been passed down to and imposed upon us, an anger that can sometimes lack an explicit target when it is felt on a societal level. I suspect, however, that if you were to ask people what kind of image the word ‘patriarchy’ conjures up, for many the answer would be that of a group of elderly white men, rotund and jowly, sitting around a mahogany desk in a fusty office somewhere in Belgravia, laughing heartily as they add arbitrary rules to the leather-bound canon of gender roles.
“A woman shall be considered less of a woman if she expresses an interest in automobiles, particularly the mechanics thereof,” one of them writes, his belly wobbling as he chuckles at the unnecessary problems this will cause.
“A man shall be considered less of a man if he enjoys ‘When Harry Met Sally’ or the work of Nora Ephron in general,” another writes, barely able to contain his amusement at the thought of millions of men feeling compelled to choose ‘Die Hard’ over ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ despite them finding comfort in the palpable chemistry between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in the latter.
They are all laughing at that last one, applauding with gusto the pettiness of their colleague. They are hooting and howling and they haven’t even yet got around to discussing the myriad ways they’re going to inflict misery on those who do not identify as male or female.
Of course, no such committee exists to my knowledge, meaning the anger some people feel about the way gender has influenced their lives against their will may not always have an explicit target. It can be experienced more generally, as a broad frustration and resentment with the status quo, which, were it to be personified, would almost undoubtedly be a heterosexual, cisgender white man called Colin. Seeing as Colin is at the top of the pyramid of privilege and does little to change that fact, it is easy to see how he could be viewed as the architect of such a system. Given how much Colin and his cohorts benefit from the patriarchal hegemony in which we live, it is natural to assume they either had a say in the matter at some point or actively perpetuate it in the here and now. For many, this view has been confirmed through personal experience. I would wager we all know at least one man, bullish in the arrogance instilled in him by a society that applauds him for his very existence, who insists we live in a balanced meritocracy while simultaneously reaping the rewards of its imbalance. Frustratingly it tends to be those who benefit most from a hierarchical structure of privilege that are the least willing to recognise its existence.
Does this mean that being born a heterosexual, cisgender white man is in itself a transgression, that this group is automatically in the wrong? No, of course not. It does mean, however, that if you are born into such a position of privilege and wish to live in a fair society, it is important to be aware of this structural imbalance, to do what you can to redress it, and not to bury your head in the sand. Shrugging your shoulders and saying “Well I didn’t make it this way” is simply not good enough. However, even if a system works in your favour most of the time, it can also limit you some of the time. I believe this is no truer than in the case of gender. Although they have been dealt a better hand by patriarchal society, it is not necessarily all sunshine and rainbows for men either. In our culture, there is a very clear mould for men to fit. Of course this changes over time – the idea, for example, of a man in my grandfather’s generation wanting to be a nurse would have been laughable, while these days it is far more accepted – but it is nonetheless there. This mould lends itself to a one-size-fits-all approach to masculinity, making it particularly hard for those who are not straight, white, cisgender and able-bodied to find their own form. This model is all well and good for those who neatly fit within its parameters – they may well go their whole lives without giving gender a second thought – but what happens if you don’t quite feel as though you fit that mould? These gender norms may not only be unhelpful, but downright limiting and distressing.
The media has a large role in shaping our ideas about gender; you only need to look at the different way in which the sexes are portrayed to see there is a bias – let us not forget we live in a country where a leading national newspaper publishes photographs of topless women on a daily basis. Through the television we watch, the websites we browse, and the newspapers and magazines we read, we learn how to perform our gender. Men’s magazines are particularly persistent in pushing narrow ideas of gender. The majority seem to split men into one of two camps – yachts, watches and George Clooney or football, cars and Danny Dyer. As much as I like football and George Clooney (sorry) I have other interests and I like to think I’m a bit more complex than that. And, if I feel that way as a straight white guy – for who and by who these magazines are generally written – how must other people feel who are ignored completely? It may work as an advertising strategy to segregate men and slot them into boxes, but the effect this has on the men themselves is not so positive.
I realise that much of what I’m saying may sound like some kind of crisis of liberal middle-class guilt, but rest assured there is a selfish side to my desire to challenge gender roles: I have seen the negative effect this indoctrination has had on me. I had never really given gender much thought until I saw the effect my own insistence on ‘being a man’ had on my health. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, have been known to dabble in depression, and I have always tried to keep these things to myself. My rationale was always that I am simply a private person, but when I really thought about what was going on I arrived at the crystalizing realisation that the real reason I suffered in silence was because I thought it would compromise my manhood to reach out for help. Men are supposed to radiate strength, to be fearless and bold, so surely if you’re driven by anxiety and fear you cannot be a real man? Trying to seek help? Well, that would have been an admission of failure. I might as well have turned in my testicles then and there.
Sadly it seems that I am not the only one to feel this way. According to recent research provided by CALM, suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK, and men accounted for 76% of all suicides in 2014. The disproportionate rate at which men kill themselves is generally attributed to the inability of men to seek help due to deeply entrenched ideas about masculinity. When you think about this, along with other issues facing men today, it becomes clear that the patriarchy harms men too.
I wanted to do what I could to challenge our ideas about masculinity and, being the millennial that I am, my solution was to create an online magazine. The idea was to cut through the façade of masculinity that most men’s magazines seem desperate to uphold, and look at some of the topics that are important to men outside this mould – and indeed to many inside the mould. I wanted to create a magazine that had something to offer all men. U-ZINE will not focus solely on gender, but rather it will approach a broad range of topics from the outlook that being a man means whatever you want it to mean. We will be looking at society, culture, current affairs, sex and relationships, but tailoring our approach of these subjects to avoid the restrictive ideas about gender that many media outlets promote. We will be looking at what is relevant for young men today, and not just for the men that fit traditional notions of maleness. I also intend to use U-ZINE as a platform for voices and ideas that are often ignored by men’s magazines, as I think for too long the image of masculinity portrayed by the media has excluded people of colour, people in the LGBT community and people with chronic health conditions or disabilities. I also want to provide a platform for women to address men and engage them on the subject of feminism; I think most of us guys have a long way to go in understanding the experience of women in our society and what we can do to level the playing field.
I am approaching this whole endeavour from the viewpoint that there are a lot of men out there who do not want to perpetuate structural imbalance – in whatever form it may be – but do not necessarily know what is needed from them in order for things to change. I do not have all the answers, but I know that we have a long way to go to promote tolerance and understanding, and informing people is the first step. In this regard I want U-ZINE to be a place where all men can come to inform themselves without fear of reproach or judgement, because telling people they’re stupid for not knowing something rarely makes them want to educate themselves.
Ultimately, I want U-ZINE to be a breath of fresh air among the toxic locker-room stink of Lynx Africa that shrouds most men’s magazines. I want it to be a source of reassurance to every guy out there who has ever felt pressure to live up to an unachievable model of masculinity. I want it to tackle questions that a great number of men are afraid or embarrassed to ask. In short, I want it to be the magazine I wish I had available to me when I was in my teens.
We are living in a time when popular notions about gender are changing rapidly. According to a poll by Fusion, roughly half of millennials believe gender is not a binary issue, but rather that it exists on a spectrum. There is of course resistance to this idea, but it seems that people are increasingly realising that it can be restrictive and damaging to limit ourselves in terms of gender. I am not suggesting that we should now all declare ourselves gender-fluid or that any man who enjoys football and lager is somehow old-fashioned or narrow-minded. What I am suggesting, however, is that we endeavour to create space in the realm of masculinity to include men of all kinds. I don’t think discussion of gender is something that should be restricted to middle-class intellectual masturbation on Tumblr; I think it is something we could all benefit from engaging in. With the fight for gender equality ongoing, men can no longer rely on traditional ideas about masculinity for comfort – nor should we want to given the patriarchal ethos from which they were forged.
There is of course a hangover from days gone by when men were expected to be the strong, silent breadwinner, which is evidently causing problems for those who try to cling on to it in an ever-changing world, but as we continue to push for gender equality, I believe this will wear off and the burden of defined gender roles will be lifted off our backs, freeing us up to define our own sense of masculinity. I hope U-ZINE can help in facilitating some of the conversations we need to have to make this happen.