In All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks argues that even feminists don't want to fully reckon with what patriarchy actually does to the inner lives of men. That was in the year 2000.
Jump to 2023, and the need for tender but urgent conversations about masculinity - what it means, how to express it, and how we can accept the fullness of men and women in ways that engender care, intimacy and connection rather than power, domination and entitlement is still a huge conversation.
On October 16th, The Daily Aus co-founder Zara Seidler invited Teach Us Consent founder Chanel Contos, Movember expert and clinical psychologist Zac Seidler (Zara's brother, shoutout to a cute sibling moment) and "Not One More Niki" co-founder Tarang Chawla to unpack masculinity and its future. The panel took place as part of the inaugural SXSW Sydney, a multi-day conference exported from its 36-year run in Austin, Texas.
Across a soulful hour, the panel dove into how patriarchy socialises men, the gap between the values men hold privately (they want equality and don't subscribe to old-school standards of masculinity) and the standards society still puts upon them to experience publicly (they're expected to be stoic breadwinners).
Add to this the dire effects of unconscious algorithms on platforms like YouTube and TikTok that send children, young men and even grown adults down rabbit holes where questionable "gurus" like Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson capture audiences with a skerrick of truth ("it's hard to be a man"; "make your bed") before pushing them to the extremes of misogyny with false answers to their unmet needs, and we have quite a conundrum on our hands.
So how then do we even start to reimagine masculinity?
For Chanel Contos, the answer was largely tied to her professional work in consent education. This includes understanding the ways in which boys and men are initially shaped, proposing changes to help interrupt those processes, and instead promoting the need for mutually pleasurable intimate encounters rather than experiences rooted in conquest and domination.
For Dr. Zac Seidler, a need to address men’s mental health in holistic, meaningful ways is critical to the conversation. From a public health point of view, he explained that some colleagues in the women’s health sector wanted to switch their focus to men’s health, having realised that crisis care and shelters are often “ambulances at the bottom of the cliff” style responses.
For Tarang Chawla, that ambulance at the bottom of the cliff is deeply personal. His sister Nikita was brutally murdered by her partner in 2015, a crime that came after increasingly controlling and coercive behaviour that many would brush off. One of the most touching moments of the panel involved Chawla responding to an audience member, encouraging the young man to name his feelings as he was feeling them.
“Even just that - what you’re doing right now, saying ‘I’m nervous’ is huge. So often it’s my female friends who know what I’m feeling before I do, and I’ll say oh, I’m burnt out. And they go, yeah, we know. We've known for two weeks. But naming our own feelings and owning them in real time takes the emotional burden off women,” he said.
The panellists disagreed on the term "toxic masculinity". For Dr. Seidler, the media has latched onto this phrase to milk it shamelessly for all its worth, but in conversations about masculinities, it is actually unhelpful. Chanel Contos however thinks that it does help to identify undesirable behaviours.
One intention of the session was to offer solutions, not just to describe the problem. Audience members heard ideas they could implement into their own lives, from helping white middle-aged men find friendship to progressive, feminist men being more willing to be seen and heard in public spaces, to teaching men to handle rejection as a painful but natural part of life.
In On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Vietnamese American poet, essayist, and novelist Ocean Vuong wrote: “Sometimes being offered tenderness feels like the very proof that you've been ruined.”
Indeed, thinking of the ways that traditional masculinity has shaped and harmed men and women can feel, at times, tragic. And yet, touching into that tenderness, and being open to receiving softness despite a world that so often stymies it, feels hopeful. Reimagining Masculinity at SXSW Sydney provided another glimmer of hope along that journey.