Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Reimagining manhood after ABC's Man Up

  • 28 October 2016


Recently the ABC premiered Man Up, a three-part factual program aiming to 'kick-start a national conversation about Aussie male suicide'. The series cites that suicide is the leading cause of death among Australians aged 15 to 44, with three Australian men dying by suicide for every one woman.

Presented by radio personality Gus Worland, Man Up challenges the 'Aussie bloke' propensity to avoid expressing emotion, which has been denigrated culturally as a sign of weakness. This tendency is ultimately unhealthy: spoken about or not, mental illness can brew amid reticence — a saddening reality, when reaching out to loved ones can help address men's problems.

Even the historically glorified trait of independence can be destructive: Professor Jane Pirkis has found that 'self-reliant' men are 34 per cent more likely to experience suicidal ideation.

The series has already been written about authoritatively — by a psychiatrist and a queer journalist, no less — so I won't cover the same ground. Instead, responding to the showrunners' suggestion that 'tackling male suicide mean[s] having to change what it means to be a man', I'm delving into the origins, expressions and possible transformations of the concept.

Interestingly, the existence of 'hegemonic masculinity' — the societally idealised masculine identity which men are (usually oppressively) measured against — was posited in the 1980s by researchers studying inequality in Australian schools and men in Australian politics. It seems Australia has always been a hotbed for examinations of masculinity, machismo and how both manifest.

Yet Western masculinity as a whole is rooted in Enlightenment ideas regarding rationality's superiority over emotion, an ostensibly feminine aspect of human psychology tied to Mother (note the terminology) Nature. This schema, in turn, is descended from the two pillars of Western civilisation: Ancient Greek philosophy, which espouses the 'taming' of so-called animal drives; and Judeo-Christianity, which preaches humanity's 'dominion' over the natural world.

In the early 20th century, the Frankfurt School — building on the work of sociologists Georg Simmel and Max Weber — explored the West's alignment of manhood with labour. Along with the institutionalisation of men as 'breadwinners' came large-scale shifts whereby many men identified themselves, not by what they thought and felt, but rather what they could do.

This sort of instrumentalist thinking persists, channelled in the widespread Australian response to psychological problems: 'man up and get over it', as though the production of capital should take priority over the welfare of those who work for it.