Why we need more stars like Robert Webb to speak up about masculinity

Saying 'man-up' isn't helpful for anyone

Note: This article includes the mention of suicide

A few days ago, Robert Webb released his memoir, ‘How Not To Be A Boy’. Unusually, it’s an autobiography with a theme and focus – and the theme is masculinity. It’s the “fuck you” to gender stereotyping we’ve been in dire need of for quite some time; a string of anecdotes exploring Webb’s own masculinity, mental health, anxiety and grief, alongside typically hilarious ‘Peep Show’-like moments.

“What are we saying to a boy when we tell him to ‘man up’ or ‘act like a man’?” writes Webb. “When we tell a boy to ‘act like a man’, we’re effectively saying, ‘Stop expressing those feelings.’ And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like ‘stop feeling those feelings.’”

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In the example Webb draws above, emotional intelligence falls dramatically short of societal expectations of ‘strong’ masculinity. It’s considered a weakness – a distraction from the tired belief that men should provide stability, income and protection for the wife and family. It’s an issue that’s at the heart of the statistic which finds British men under 45 more likely to die of suicide than anything else.

In ‘How Not To Be A Boy’, Webb does not hold back from sharing his feelings. The memoir is immensely intimate, with Webb recounting his father’s abusive “tempers”, feelings of inadequacy, queerness and, at the age of 17, his mother’s death from cancer.

A few months after the funeral, Webb finds himself lying in bed naked with his best friend. They’re holding hands, listening to ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’. The teenage Webb is crying. It’s a moment that seems to touch on everything a man is expected to shun. Stripped of every protective layer of masculinity, Webb is offered a deeply needed moment of emotional outpouring, and reaches an important point in the grieving process. He writes, “It’s already occurred to me that mum’s death is not going to ‘sink in’, and neither will I ever get over it. The best I can do is co-exist with it. Grief has to talk to normality, normality has to talk to grief, and they both have to listen.”

He finds solace in the Prince track, just as others will find solace in his memoirs now. Webb waited three years before seeing a therapist to address the grief he felt after his mother’s death. When men are given permission to express their true feelings rather than bottling them away, they can move forward, ask for help, seek treatment, and be emotionally honest, without fear of judgement.

When we read a memoir like ‘How Not To Be A Boy’, or hear a song like ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’, we see our stars at their most vulnerable. We know we’re not alone. It’s the push we need to open the conversation around gender and mental health. That conversation starts now.

FOR HELP AND ADVICE ON MENTAL HEALTH:

YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably for young men
Time To Change – Let’s end mental health discrimination
The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day