GUY TALK

ALARM­ING STA­TIS­TICS ON MALE MEN­TAL HEALTH HAVE PROMPTED A NEW GEN­ER­A­TION OF AUSSIE MEN TO CHAL­LENGE HARM­FUL STEREO­TYPES OF MAS­CULIN­ITY

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Words by DAN­NIELLE MILLER

Real men cry: how re­defin­ing the no­tion of mas­culin­ity can help save lives.

Boys don’t cry. That’s what TV pre­sen­ter An­drew O’keefe learnt while grow­ing up. As a lit­tle boy, he only cried when he in­jured him­self, and he never saw his fa­ther weep. Yet he’s among the new gen­er­a­tion of men who are try­ing to buck those harm­ful stereo­types – as a fa­ther him­self, he tries to be open about his tears with his own kids.

“We should show our kids that it’s pos­si­ble to be vul­ner­a­ble or blue, and still be a sane and ca­pa­ble per­son,” he

tells Stel­lar. “And I think we be­stow a great gift of trust and re­spect on the peo­ple we love when we share our grief and heartache, when we let them be the ones to con­sole us some­times.”

The sta­tis­tics on men’s men­tal health show O’keefe has got it right. An alarm­ing 18 per cent of Aus­tralian males over the age of 16 ex­pe­ri­ence mood and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, and strug­gle with sub­stance abuse. Men sui­cide at more than three times the rate of women.

Dr Michael Flood, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in so­ci­ol­ogy who has a spe­cial in­ter­est in gen­der and men’s stud­ies, says blokes pay an ob­vi­ous price for re­press­ing the full range of hu­man emo­tions. Apart from health is­sues, they have “more shal­low re­la­tion­ships or su­per­fi­cial friend­ships”. He adds: “Many men only feel able to share their more vul­ner­a­ble emo­tions with a fe­male part­ner [if they are het­ero­sex­ual], and if they are left by that part­ner? Then they are re­ally stuck.”

Ac­tor Ben Bar­ber ex­pe­ri­enced that emo­tional re­pres­sion twice over. “Grow­ing up in a coun­try town in Vic­to­ria, no one spoke about tears,” he says. “I judged oth­ers who ex­pressed emo­tion in a vul­ner­a­ble way, and I judged my­self for that, too. I thought that, as a man, that’s just not some­thing you do. It was weak if you did.”

Bar­ber later joined the army, where he feels he was trained to “breathe in tough­ness and squash down any­thing that could make you vul­ner­a­ble.” At the time, he says, this may have served him, but later when he left the army and was ac­cepted into NIDA to study act­ing, Bar­ber saw that his in­abil­ity to cry was go­ing to hold him back not just per­son­ally, but pro­fes­sion­ally.

“I re­alised I would be lim­ited in the roles I could play if I didn’t learn how to cry,” he says. “I thought there’s no way I can do it at a par­tic­u­lar point in a script in front of an au­di­ence if I don’t have ac­cess to that in my ev­ery­day life. From then on, I made a de­ci­sion that if I needed to cry, I just would.”

Bar­ber was shocked at the im­pact this de­ci­sion had on his life. “I was watch­ing a doc­u­men­tary on the play­wright Eu­gene O’neill and it re­ally moved me. I felt my emo­tions build up and I stomped on them. This was very nor­mal for me. Then I re­mem­bered my de­ci­sion and when I felt emo­tion again as I con­tin­ued watch­ing, I let it go. This big sob came up from the depths of my be­ing and the tears just over­flowed. And that was it. I could not stop cry­ing for about 45 min­utes. I hadn’t ex­pected how good that would feel – that’s what sur­prised me. It was the most amaz­ing, cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence; a re­lease of 15 years of bot­tled-up emo­tion. It com­pletely changed my life. When I fi­nally fin­ished cry­ing, I felt like I just wasn’t the same per­son any­more.”

That’s the mes­sage Gus Wor­land, cap­tain of Triple M ra­dio’s The Grill Team (“the man­li­est show on ra­dio”), is also keen to pro­mote. He’s on a mis­sion to ques­tion stereo­types around what it means to be an Aussie bloke, and filmed an ABC doc­u­men­tary se­ries, Man Up, cur­rently air­ing, on that very topic. Asked when he last cried, his an­swer is un­ex­pect­edly mov­ing.

“It was last night, ac­tu­ally. I was hav­ing a cuppa when my dad’s part­ner called. My fa­ther went into the doc­tor’s for a rou­tine check-up and they found five litres of fluid on his lungs. When they went in to re­pair the lung wall, they dis­cov­ered as­bestos. He was told he has be­tween 30 and 50 days to live. Nor­mally when I shout to get my kids to the din­ner ta­ble, it takes about 10 yells for them to hear me. But when I heard this news, I made such a hor­ri­ble noise that they came run­ning to see what was go­ing on.”

Like O’keefe, Wor­land be­lieves it’s im­por­tant for his chil­dren to see him cry. “That is what ev­ery man in Aus­tralia has got to be able to do when they need to,” he says. “The stoic, keep-stuff-to-your­self ap­proach? It’s just not work­ing for us.”

Wor­land also finds his tears are a use­ful tool for show­ing oth­ers he may need sup­port: “Last night I felt bet­ter af­ter I cried. I later cried with my brother, who rarely shows emo­tions, so that felt help­ful. Then it was like, ‘OK, well, that’s done – now how can we move for­ward?’ There’s a real re­lease of pres­sure. It gives you some breath­ing space.

“I had an­other cry at the ra­dio sta­tion [the next morn­ing] with the boys I work with. We all had a hug, and they gave me sym­pa­thy and sup­port. The prob­lem gets shared a lit­tle bit.”

``I let it go. i could not stop cry­ing for 45 min­utes. when i fin­ished, I wasn´t the same per­son´´

While shar­ing is in­valu­able, so too is the act of ex­pres­sion. Flood is ea­ger to ex­plain that cry­ing is not about bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences: “When you look at women’s and men’s re­sponses to dis­tress­ing sit­u­a­tions, what is hap­pen­ing in their bod­ies is the same. This tells us that what is go­ing on when we re­press tears in men is so­cial.”

If feel­ings are not ex­pressed, then where else do they go? O’keefe, who is a White Rib­bon am­bas­sador and cam­paigns against do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, be­lieves emo­tions come out in other ways: “As ir­ri­ta­tion, as de­spon­dency… all of which are far less at­trac­tive and use­ful than tears.”

Bar­ber, who now works with teen boys in schools in bust­ing myths around mas­culin­ity, says the next gen­er­a­tion seems more open to let­ting go of the no­tion that men must only ever show emo­tional re­straint. “The most com­mon thing I wit­ness when I talk to teen boys about cry­ing is re­lief,” he says. “There’s scep­ti­cism, too – sure. I say to them, ‘If we re­ally con­sider our­selves to live in a free coun­try, then we have to have the free­dom to feel and ex­pe­ri­ence the full spec­trum of hu­man emo­tions. This doesn’t take away from our sense of selves as men, it adds more to it.’”

While gen­der roles may be slowly chang­ing, the fact that many of us would still be more con­fronted by the sight of a man cry­ing than by see­ing him kick a wall in anger or frus­tra­tion shows there is still an ur­gent need for more open con­ver­sa­tions around what de­fines both strength and vul­ner­a­bil­ity, and what de­fines mas­culin­ity as well. Tears don’t mean men are weak; it shows they have a heart.

O’keefe agrees: “Ul­ti­mately, cry­ing can only be good for us. We broaden our knowl­edge of life and our un­der­stand­ing of what it means to be hu­man when we let our­selves ex­pe­ri­ence the wounds of our own heart with­out shame.”

``tears don´t make men weak. It shows heart ´´

HARD TALK In his se­ries Man Up, ra­dio host Gus Wor­land (right) en­cour­ages Aussie blokes to re­think the no­tion of mas­culin­ity.

BAT­TLE CRY TV host An­drew O’keefe wants to what is manly.

EX­PRESS YOUR­SELF Ac­tor Ben Bar­ber helps teenage boys em­brace their emo­tions.

SHOW OF STRENGTH Wor­land says cry­ing can be healthy for men.

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