Modern Masculinity:
Starting The Conversation

Written by Andy Fraser

In his upcoming Channel 4 series All Man, Grayson Perry investigates masculinity through the lens of three ‘ultra-male’ worlds to try to understand the seemingly complex issue that is modern masculinity. This comes at a time when the rise in male suicide rates has been linked to a ‘crisis in masculinity’ and is considered by some experts to be a national public health crisis as severe as smoking and obesity. Suicide is the biggest cause of death of men aged under 45 in the UK and research conducted by CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) shows that more than four in 10 men have thought about taking their own lives at some point. The suicide rate amongst middle aged men is the highest it has been for 34 years. It is important that we understand what role modern masculinity is playing in these statistics.

The rise of social media has enabled a ‘fourth wave of feminism’ which has provided a platform for honest, nuanced and detailed debate around the role of women in society. Masculinity means something very different to feminism so a direct comparison is not completely valid. However, it is not unfair to suggest that masculinity as a concept for males has not yet reached the stage of mass conversation in the way feminism – and by extension, femininity and what it means to be female – has for women.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines masculinity thus:

Possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men: handsome, muscled, and driven, he’s a prime example of masculinity

This definition feels vague. What makes these traits masculine rather than feminine? What does this definition mean in 2016 and how has this changed in recent years, decades and centuries? How do individual concepts of masculinity evolve with age? What role does fatherhood play? There are many questions to ask and only the slightest of hints that they are even being asked in society today.

As with many social and anthropological movements, advertising is both a symptom and a cause in the discourse surrounding masculinity. Advertising is a core focus of the market research we conduct and at our recent RDSi internal conference we identified masculinity as a key topic to explore. We followed this up by brainstorming traditional traits of masculinity, classifying celebrities into different segments of males, unpicking themes and deciding on further questions to ask in order to deepen our understanding. Looking beyond the theoretical and conceptual debates attached to defining masculinity, what implications are there for us and our clients in terms of our day-to-day work? How should brands target and engage male audiences? Do we need to consider a more male perspective when we respond to client briefs, design our questionnaires and reach out to male respondents?

One of the key insights from our brainstorming session was that, whilst round-table discussions in working environments are useful for sharing personal views on complex subjects, we must be cautious when extrapolating these views to the everyday realities of society as a whole. It is perfectly valid and fair for us to have individual opinions but how does this translate to the real world across different cultures and demographic groups? Do we understand how masculinity is changing and developing outside of the urban, professional setting we inhabit? What do we really know about cage fighters in the North East, police officers in Lancashire, traders in the City and the ‘ultra-male’ worlds that Grayson Perry identifies and investigates? We know modern masculinity is an intricate and complicated subject and we are at risk of trivialising it if we don’t examine it properly with the people for whom it is most relevant.

That is why we are launching our ‘Modern Masculinity’ series of Thought Leadership pieces. Our aim is to speak to family, friends, experts and clients in a bid to immerse ourselves in the world of modern masculinity. We want to understand what being a man in the 21st century means, whether a ‘crisis in masculinity’ really does exist and how this impacts our work as market researchers.

We are interested in speaking to anyone who has an opinion on the matter. We’d like to start the conversation.