During the recent US Open final, the spectacle of Novak Djokovic smashing his racquet on the ground – as if had produced the poor shots in some sort of sentient rebellion at his anti-vaccination stance – attracted a lot of gleeful comment on Twitter.
We had heard once more during Wimbledon that certain women were too emotionally volatile for top-level sport; that they needed to “toughen up”. One of the main proponents of this idea was also responsible, during the Olympics, for belching out the opinion that no great sportsperson would celebrate finishing second or third, so silver and bronze medals were not meaningful achievements, as if being able to run faster than all but one of the earth’s inhabitants is so minor a deed it’s hardly worth mentioning in the Christmas round-robin.
After all this, it was fun to watch Djovokic – one of the paradigms of a specifically macho sporting excellence – succumb to emotional pressure, even though many of us could also hear a parent’s voice in our heads muttering, “he paid good money for that racquet”.
But it is also a little depressing how often this comes up. Why do so many people still talk about “anguish in defeat” where it relates to a male competitor, and “temper tantrums” if the exact same thing happens to, say, Serena Williams?
I’ve got a podcast (yes, I know, but come back). Handsome influencer Michael Chakraverty and I interview people – straight, gay, queer, trans, perhaps none of these – about their relationship with masculinity. Something that comes up again and again is how much of a “performance” maleness often is; and how much damage that can do to all of us, male or not.
Of course, whoever we are in life, an element of performance is inevitable. Looking like an exemplary parent at the school gates (concealing a hangover and with a packed lunch that’s basically just three satsumas and an IOU note), or expressing interest in every single other guest at a wedding (including the one who says, “I always thought I should be a comedian, actually” and asks for your thoughts on Jim Davidson versus “the woke brigade”). We’re all playing roles of one kind of another, nearly constantly. But the casting brief for the character of “normal man” sometimes seems to demand the worst from us.
If you like a football team, go to a pub and yell abuse at the players. If women are under discussion, rank them out of 10 for attractiveness, remembering to dock points for being above size 8 or so. At a comedy club, laugh extra loud when the MC suggests someone looks a bit gay. Men are better than this, but the script we’re given often is not. It’s up to all of us to tear it up.
Many of our guests on the podcast say that their main experience of masculinity, early in life, was as a test they were failing; a task they were not executing successfully. Men like this can take years, even decades, to come to self-acceptance, but they’re our best hope.
There is plenty of resistance to the re-shaping of masculinity and to the ways the next generation of those identifying as men (and those who’d rather not give a label at all) talk, dress, think and frame gender issues. But when you look at what has been the common experience of women for many generations, perhaps something new is worth a try.
The show called “Being A Real Man” has run for a very, very long time on the world’s stages. Like any other show, it might be time to think about modernising it. Of course, not every man will like this. But, well, maybe some people are just too emotionally volatile for this sort of thing?
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