You may not be aware of it but today (19th November) is International Men’s Day. The idea behind the day is to celebrate the achievements of men, and the contribution they make to community and family life.
To be honest, I’ve always been a bit down on the whole thing. It’s not that I have anything against the idea of an Internation Men’s Day per se. But there are definitely elements of it that make me feel a little uncomfortable. However, rather than simply trashing it or distancing myself from the whole thing as I’ve been tempted to do in the past, I decided that this year I’d look not only at its problems but also at ways we could make it more positive.
The problems with International Men’s Day
The idea of a special day to celebrate men’s achievements does, in many ways, feel a bit unnecessary. As a gender, we’re generally not shy about doing just that. If you want to hear about men’s achievements you can look at the news, or history books, or museums, or statues in town centres, or on stamps, or in street names, or pretty much anywhere you can think of. Our achievements may be great but they’re hardly hidden. But then, we have a National Cheese Day and I don’t think any of us need to be reminded how great cheese is, so being unnecessary doesn’t in itself make it bad.
One of my big problems is that it’s often treated as International Anti-Feminist Day. I am a firm supporter of feminism and genuinely don’t believe it harms men; quite the opposite, in fact. I don’t think we need to use our day to try and diminish or reverse the accomplishments of other groups. But much of what you read on International Men’s Day is horribly negative and often misogynistic. I don’t want to associate with that kind of day, so I’ve always distanced myself from it.
Even when it focuses on men, much of what is written feels very old-fashioned. The official International Men’s Day website has a page with ’30 great manhood quotes’. But lines like ‘manhood coerced into sensitivity is no manhood at all’ don’t feel particularly helpful. Possibly worse is ‘strength, courage, mastery, and honor are the alpha virtues of men all over the world’. There’s nothing wrong with being strong or brave, but I like to think there’s room to be sensitive as well.
It is this tendency to present the idea of a ‘real man’ that I find most problematic. The idea that real men can’t be sensitive or flawed or out of their depth is unrealistic and potentially damaging. When you present an ideal ‘real man’, what does that make those of us who don’t – or can’t – meet it? It sets up the idea that you can somehow fail at being a man. What I find particularly sad is that many of the same writers will also be expressing concern about the horrifically high suicide rate among men. Do they not think that a culture where men are told to ‘man up’ and not show any weakness could be part of the problem?
The (potential) positives
One of the reasons I am a fan of International Women’s Day is that it celebrates the diversity of women. It’s not all about how to be the perfect woman or about the traits of femininity. Women working and achieving in non-traditional areas such as science and engineering are held up as positive examples, as are more traditional stay-at-home mums. Rather than pondering what makes a ‘real woman’, it just talks about what real women are doing.
This, then, is what I would like to see from International Men’s Day. We need to be celebrating the full range of the male experience. There is room in manhood for the full-time dad, the male nurse and the guy who cries at romcoms. We can celebrate people’s achievements without belittling the accomplishments of others. And we can be great men without having to be Great Men.
Hopefully, when we see men being celebrated for the many roles they are performing, it will be easier for those who don’t fit the stereotypes. Just as it’s now (I hope) perfectly OK for a girl to be interested in football, boys might realise that there’s nothing wrong with preferring netball, or not being interested in sport at all. Men who are struggling might realise that they’re not the only ones, and not feel the added pressure that comes with feeling like you’re failing as a man.
International Men’s Day isn’t likely to go away any time soon, and nor should it. But we shouldn’t let the ‘real man’ brigade have it to themselves. The full range of men should be heard and celebrated. There are an awful lot of men doing an awful lot of good things in the world; things that don’t make it onto the news, or into the history books. They all deserve their day too. So, whatever kind of man you are, if you aren’t harming others then you’re doing a good job. Happy International Men’s Day to you all.