Written by Jack Urwin — In October 2015, Jack Urwin wrote an article for VICE, A Stiff Upper Lip is Killing Men. It’s still there. It went viral and this book on masculinity came off the back of that piece.
The article introduced us to his relationship with his father and how he died just before Jack’s 10th birthday. His father embodied that peculiarly male quality of the ‘stiff upper lip’. He quietly died without getting any medical attention.
The coroner found evidence, the telltale scar tissue, of a previous heart attack that his father never reported. It is possible it was a ‘silent’ event. One of those that cause no pain. More likely Jack’s father kept his pains to himself.
Man Up covers a lot of ground in its various chapters: social conditioning and mental health in gender, masculinity in the military and the impressively named chapter The Ideal Man: Body Image, Consumerism and the Superficial Face of Modern Masculinity.
A glance at the chapter list makes it sound a lot more heavy going than it is. And there’s no getting away from it. Talking about suicide and relating some of the stories is emotive stuff.
Male suicide is an important topic and he draws us in through his interviews with Jonny Sharples whose brother, Simon Sharples, took his own life. Urwin quotes from a 2012 Samaritan’s report that worries that the way boys are taught to be men doesn’t give them the social and emotional skills to manage life.
If you want an introduction to some of the most serious stuff affecting modern men then this is a highly accessible, breeze of a read. That’s not an easy trick to pull off and Urwin deserves a lot of credit. He still sneaks in a fair bit of evidence but this is no dense tome. And he also ranges widely into topics that, at first blush, wouldn’t necessarily be problems for men.
Lad culture and violence
Urwin picks up on the lad culture of the 90s. He highlights how it was appropriated by the well-heeled: “The most vociferous lads are rich, privately-schooled rugby boys, often studying for high-flying degrees such as medicine and finance”. Yup. Sounds about right. I wasn’t a fan of the rugby crowd at Uni. As Urwin points out: “Lad culture is male privilege personified”.
“If you’ve witnessed the antics of rugby clubs in any students’ union up and down the country, you will know the vile, shitting-in-pint glasses, rape-culture-perpetuating behaviour ‘rugby lads’ are guilty of.”
Of course, it is not the sports themselves that are the problem here. It’s the male cultures that have grown around them. Football is certainly in no position to be congratulating itself. Urwin points out the dismal association that shows how domestic violence spikes on match days. The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research wrote a full review on the topic.
Road traffic deaths
The epidemiology is clear on this and it’s interesting that Urwin picks up on it. It’s a seriously neglected topic.
“The average number of men killed or seriously injured behind the wheel of a car in any given year is more than twice of women.”
That’s a terrifying difference and is another manifestation of toxic masculinity. One that almost no one is addressing. Urwin does draw our attention to the efforts of one Australian state, New South Wales, to address this by relating bad driving and inferring small penis size. They think they did make a difference.
Bigorexia and body image
When it comes to health and fitness, Urwin has plenty of thoughts. When it comes to those guys who are trying to get a massive, muscular physique then, as Urwin suggests, the protein shake industry, is built on this entire premise that this is the definition of masculinity.
The best stuff from Urwin is some of the excoriating comment on Men’s Right Activism. He acknowledges that they are addressing areas where there is need and males are under-represented. But largely they deserve the slapping he gives them:
“The Men’s Right movement is, as far as I’m concerned, deplorable: hijacking important issues for a largely misogynistic agenda of its own.”
Urwin takes the time to set out the benefits for men of addressing toxic masculinity. We’ll have better relationships, have richer parental involvement, live longer, and be happier. What’s not to like?
For an easily accessible primer then Man Up is a damn good place to start.