The debut author’s study of ‘toxic masculinity’ was uncomfortable to write, but he says it’s fired with hope that clichéd male behaviour can be unlearned.
From The Guardian: When Jack Urwin was nine years old, his father Richard died on their bathroom floor. He’d had a heart attack. This was the first time that the Urwin family had heard of him having heart problems. That was not the case for Richard: his post-mortem revealed significant scar tissue, indicating a previous attack, while weeks later, Jack’s mum found angina medication in the pocket of one of his jackets. He’d known, but never said anything.
Weeks later, Jack won the epithet “funniest pupil” at school. The absurdity of this, he would write a decade later in a Vice article, was that he had never been particularly funny, but a fierce appetite for humour had been born from his father’s death. “After he died, jokes took preference over sincerity in almost any situation,” he wrote, “because the idea of picking at wounds and revealing the fragile human beneath was about the most terrifying thing I could comprehend. It’s a trait I now recognise as one of my father’s greatest flaws, ultimately contributing to his downfall. It’s also an inherent characteristic of so many men.”
The article, A Stiff Upper Lip Is Killing British Men went viral online on its publication in 2014. Urwin, then 22, was struck by another absurdity: as hundreds were lauding him as a fresh new voice on gender, as feminist writer Laurie Penny was messaging him about finding an agent and as Irvine Welsh was praising his piece as “fabulous” – he was stuck working a shift in a bar, unable to respond to any of it. Two years on, it is still easy to see why it took off: Urwin’s voice is honest, young, funny and sad. On a poignant, humorous note, his piece ends: “Please: start talking. I don’t want to have to write a whole book about this stuff.”
On the day I meet Jack about his whole book, the Orlando nightclub shootings have happened overnight and the world is still trying to process why the gunman killed 49 people. Fights are breaking out at the Euro 2016 championship in France, with a Russian politician tweeting his support of Russians attacking English fans: “Well done lads, keep it up!” It is a heavy day to be talking about masculinity; he wrinkles his nose when I bring up the news.
“We do need to look at how we ascribe meaning to these events,” he says. “That 98% of mass shootings in the US are by men is never mentioned. If 98% of mass shootings were committed by Muslims or black people, there would be uproar! And you don’t see women trashing bars in Marseille.”
Urwin’s first book, Man Up, is all about what he calls this “toxic masculinity”: the public performance of masculinity that is conditioned into men from birth, the idea that acknowledging weakness is a weakness itself. Boys don’t cry, listen, talk about feelings: every caricature that is mined for advertising and sitcom fodder is rooted in a more sinister truth that produces real problems: like violence, sexism and mental illness. Britain’s “lad culture” – which Urwin defines as “vile, shitting-in-pint-glasses, rape-culture-perpetuating behaviour” – is at its heart one big pantomime, fuelled by the attention of the men involved.
Urwin himself might be mistaken for one of his male performers – tall and with a burly frame that would probably look serious on a rugby pitch – but the personality that goes with it is warm and acutely, almost apologetically self-aware.
“There is something about the male personality that means we are so driven by a mob mentality,” Urwin says. “I remember from school how fascinating it was to see how perfectly intelligent boys could spur each other on.” He reels off a list of “games” he played with other boys: pushing on someone’s chest until they fainted; flicking coins at each other’s knuckles; spraying deodorant up one’s nose; drinking Tabasco sauce. “I wasn’t an idiot. I knew this was stupid behaviour. But I still took part in it. Why? A sense of belonging I think. You don’t want to be the only one in a class of 30 not doing the masculine thing. It makes them perceive you as effeminate or gay.”
He doesn’t buy that this comes down to something innate in his gender – what the British Medical Journal calls “male idiot theory”, or “evolutionary neuroandrogenic theory”, which links more testosterone to more aggression. “I have a problem drawing links such as these, as I fear they are all too often used to justify awful behaviour while ignoring the greater issue of how we are brought up and socialised to act,” he says.
How men are socialised to act is a product of history, Urwin argues in Man Up: he traces the concept of masculinity from the birth of “behavioural modernity” 50,000 years ago, up to today’s “lads”, who he thinks were born from a desire to emulate the disappearing working class. One element Urwin returns to frequently is why men don’t talk about their feelings – an attitude he believes was handed down father-to-son from the two world wars. He does not exempt himself from this problem: “My partner says, ‘You literally wrote a book about talking more!’ But when you are writing, there is this level of detachment that you don’t get when talking. You can remove yourself from what you are writing about, almost as if it is fictional.”
This freedom allowed Urwin to share something he had never spoken about before: a period of self-harm when was 13. When his family read the book, there was some unhappiness. “It was very difficult for them knowing I felt able to share that with the whole world but not with them. I agonised over sharing it in the first place, but if it reaches someone who is ashamed about self-harming, I thought it might be a valuable resource. My mum was saying, ‘Why did you never tell us about this? You’ve written a book about being more honest, but you’ve kept a lot of stuff from us.’” He suddenly laughs. “I was fairly certain my family hated me for a while. I still need to do some bridge building.”
As is often reported, there is a huge disparity in suicide rates between genders: men are three times more likely to complete a suicide attempt than women. However, the last Adult Psychiatric Morbidity in England survey found that 7% of women and 4% of men in the UK had attempted suicide, which Urwin believes indicates another problem: “Some research suggests that men use more violent methods, because in that point of absolute despair, this is a way they can claw back some success. If they fail, it is a humiliation. Of all the ways our masculinity is killing us, there is nothing more harrowing than a man feeling successful if he completes his suicide.”
As the problems came before, Urwin feels a solution will also be produced from generational change. “It is like racism and homophobia – we sort of have to wait for some people to die out. I think some people can be changed, but when you get to middle age, it is very difficult to unlearn everything you’ve always known. But our attitudes to gender and sexuality are a world apart from 50 years ago. We don’t need to be the men our grandfathers were.”
While the book is in early days, Urwin is happy about the reception it has received: “It has left me feeling quite optimistic about the future of humanity.” He is thankful that women and feminists have been supportive; Urwin is a vocal feminist and is confounded by the idea that men and feminism are somehow at odds.
For anyone new to today’s online dialogue, discussions of gender and abuse tend to go hand in hand. But bar a few run-ins with Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) online, who argue men are now at a disadvantage due to the progress of feminism, Urwin has remained unscathed. When I write about women or gender, I pre-emptively logout of Twitter, I say; Urwin winces. “That is a male privilege,” he says. “For the most part, I don’t have any trouble, even when I support feminism.”
What he is finding troubling is dealing with praise. Men have lauded Man Up as something bold and new, but Urwin is hyper-aware of his female predecessors. “A lot of this has been touched on before but mostly by women. There are lots of ideas that aren’t necessarily new but people are celebrating me for them. It does feel a bit bad.”
He looks grim, then huffs a laugh. “I am not going to argue with it too much though. I want to sell books, on the cynical side of it.”