“Are Men Okay?”

I see this phrase a lot. Sometimes above or below some wince inducing spectacle of a boy, man or men making a prat of themselves, as we are all wont to do from time to time. But most often it’s a caption for a video of what is often a cry for help. Young Lads openly weeping but perhaps over something deemed ‘irrelevant’ like sports or a video game. Or making grandiose statements about how they’re heartbroken but undermining the message somewhat by saying it’s feminism’s fault they single. And yes, sometimes these things do deserve to be ridiculed but more often than not the glib and dismissive tone of the “are men okay?” meme (sometimes styled as “are white men okay” adding another layer of insight to this) undermines the fact that this is a valid, and pertinent question. Because right now? No. Men are not okay.

Just a quick glance at a majority of suicide prevention campaigns in the wealthier nations of the world will reveal the high rate of male suicide. In the UK it is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. As such, statistically speaking, the biggest risk to my life… is me. Even ignoring the profound existential question this raises about the choice to live it demands a level of investigation that those who are most at risk refuse to take a close look at. Or, instead, accept the cheap explanations of some self-serving right-wing intellectual. But as opposed to looking into a lot of the excellent peer-reviewed research that is now being published pretty regularly or the stats available from the various mental health charities out there, you don’t even have to dig that deep to see where a part of this horrific outcome is developing. And it’s somewhere attached to that “Are men okay?” meme.

Instagram’s all powerful algorithm has worked out I like movies (well done Instagram, have a cookie), so the explore page regularly recommends me accounts that repost clips from movies. A lot of these accounts repost the same clips however, over and over again and it is usually of some white actor screaming. Think of Tobey Maguire destroying a kitchen with a crowbar, JK Simmons asking if his student is “on my time”, Joker telling Robert De Niro he gets what he deserves before blowing his brains out and so on. I’ve talked about this before and why it’s really unhealthy but, in summary, taking these moments, that are indeed powerful in the context of the movie, out of context and putting them together with other angry, shouty men seems to be a cry for help in and of itself. Under the guise of ‘celebrating great acting moments’ a significant proportion of these accounts, no doubt created by men, are hoarding examples of outpourings of rage and posting them pretty regularly. Freud would have called this sublimation, a psychological defence mechanism whereby unacceptable behaviours or impulses are turned into more socially acceptable versions of that behaviour. There is a fixation on male anger and volatility that has become a conspicuously ignored trend. Ignored or mocked, I should say.

Back in 2020, in the Before Times, Melissa Señor did a skit on SNL where she sang a song about White Male Rage dictating the choices of the Oscars that year (in 2022, after the now infamous Slap, it seems it isn’t just white men’s rage that dictates the direction of the Oscars). For this skit, SNL came under fire from the extremely online edgelord brigade (it’s probably safe to assume most of whom were white and male) saying it was racist and sexist and — as they do — hounded Melissa on social media. Natch. As ever, the people who could most benefit from understanding that JOKER is explicitly (if unintentionally) about white male rage and the main character’s justification for murder being that he wasn’t being paid attention to, missed the point and responded to accusations of male rage with, you guessed it, male rage. But this is the trouble. Jokes like the one on SNL and the “Are Men Okay” meme do hit upon the problem but equally undermine any attempt at a solution. Men are not okay but if the only way this is pointed out is either to glorify their anger or laugh at it, the issue’s not getting resolved. So why aren’t men okay?

Men have seen a pretty substantial shift in social standings around them in this century. Even just in the last 10 years. Given that the majority of all political parties, corporations, artists, tradesmen, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers have historically been men has set a precedent in society that is currently being undermined by demands for better representation from those who are not men, least of all white men. And a good job too. It’s about time. Call me a lefty cuck but judging by the absolute mess we’re all in right now maybe a touch more diversity beyond white dudes in charge of every part of life might help change things. This change in standing, even in the absolutely minuscule way it has happened so far, has forced most men to reckon with their entitlement, particularly when it comes to work and relationships. The dynamic has shifted and it’s easiest to blame the shift, not the fact that there was a problem to begin with. This is where the rise of right-wing ‘intellectuals’ peddling self-help manuals and talking on podcasts about real men and their duties have found their grift, essentially selling the same moonshine we’ve always been sold: the bottle branded “Man Up”. And it’s so easy because the alternative is to open up and be vulnerable and, speaking from experience, that shit is painful. Further more some of their advice holds water but their reasoning doesn’t. Tidying your room is actually really good advice and really simple but you shouldn’t do it because all those feminazis won’t clean it for you but because it will help with piece of mind and its a good indicator of self-sufficiency. JOKER starting a riot and becoming a ‘hero of the people’ for no adequately explained reason in Todd Philips two hour long tantrum is sold as “The Truth” of masculinity and what it will take to change things, and it is sublimated by its audience as “The Truth” because the alternative is actively mocked and ridiculed online.

I see a meme in a lot of different guises do the rounds on social media whereby a man’s apartment is shown with a mattress on the floor, a TV and Playstation in a the corner, nothing on the walls and no other furnishings. Big laughs, men don’t no how to decorate, right? No one’s bothering to point out that these men (of which I was one) basically have crafted themselves a cell. They quite literally look like prison cells. Cue “Are men okay?” Or, perhaps, some young lad, hysterically perhaps, but honestly, crying on tiktok about being heartbroken. The comments are then filled with “pussy” comments from other Big Strong Men or “are men okay?” from everyone else. It seems obvious and even naive to say these are cries for help but they are and as tired as I am of the dead-eyed, right-wing commentators grifting off this pain I’m equally tired of the mean-spirited dismissal of a pretty gigantic issue drifting below us like some deep sea leviathan come to feed.

To head off a few criticisms, I am not saying the origins of and the expressions of men’s anger are at all justifiable or in any way good, but the internet is screaming at us all about what’s at the heart of a significant proportion of problems in society today. I am also not saying these poor widdle boys just need their Mummy and mollycoddling. The solution does not come from outside sources. As someone still unpicking all this themselves the only way to undo it is to do the damn work yourselves and it is hard work. And yet nothing in comparison to what pretty much every other demographic has to go through on a daily basis. As that other meme says, it’s a privilege to be taught about someone else’s pain. HOWEVER that does not mean white men are not also in pain, because we are. It is just that the source of this pain is misdirected and predicated on historical issues that have needed to change for centuries. White men’s pain isn’t even necessarily our fault but it is our problem.

Call it what you want, toxic masculinity, patriarchy, white male rage, whatever, it’s all the same thing. It is an internal issue that we are told is an external one and can only be solved with aggression, violence and demands that other people fix the problem. We’ve been taught to expect to have everything handed to us and that is, in a small way and quite rightly, being denied us now. But equally, as a part of all this, we have also never been taught how to adequately express or deal with the frustration this creates. So here we are. Men literally screaming at me from my phone, other men being called a pussy for being open about matters of the heart, a giant bruiser of a man crying and collapsing over even the idea of his emasculation, and a male suicide rate of 15.3 per 100,000 in the UK alone. It’s an utterly miserable state of affairs and there needs to be more men willing to open up and be vulnerable about the issue, who can also help other men with the work required to change. But you know what isn’t working? Making fun of the men who are trying. So allow me to answer the asinine question the internet keeps asking. Are men okay? No. We aren’t. But some of us are working on it. And fellas, keep working on it.

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Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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Leo Cookman

Leo Cookman

Peripatetic Writer analysing Pop Culture. “Time’s Lie” out now from Zero Books.

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