Celebrated annually on the 19th November, International Men’s Day recently came under the attack of newspapers, and the staff and students of the University of York. With British left-wing papers, The Guardian and The Independent criticising the event for being unnecessary and anti-feminist, some considering it merely a reactionary movement to the century old International Women’s Day, the role of International Men’s Day has been called into question.
Founded in 1999 by Dr Jerome Teelucksignh of the University of the West Indies, International Men’s Day has grown in size to be celebrated in more than 60 countries. The event made headlines in the UK this year when plans to commemorate the day were created and then quickly scrapped at the University of York. Speaking on the need for such commemoration prior to the plans being cancelled, Dr Adrian Lee highlighted the discrimination against men within the university, stating that “in academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men”. Lee was met with great opposition, with 200 staff, students and alumni signing an open letter to the head of the Equality and Diversity Committee, rejecting his comments. In response, the Equality and Diversity Committee cancelled the university’s International Men’s Day events, a decision which has also been met with great controversy, and a petition to see them reinstated in the future.
Many journalists were similarly aggravated by the surge in popularity of the day. Richard Herring, writing for The Guardian, names International Men’s Day before clarifying “the official one, rather than the regular days when they get more pay and power and privilege“. Holly Baxter, writing for the Independent, argued likewise that the day was unnecessary in her article entitled, Need some reasons why we don’t need International Men’s Day? Allow me to enlighten you. It is easy to see where such objections to focusing on men’s issues come from. The most obvious issues in gender imbalance in this country are indeed detrimental to women rather than men, such as the difference in average pay, the lack of female members of parliament and social ideas such as slut-shaming and rape culture. Men’s issues have also earned themselves a bad name in recent years with the rise of “MRA’s” (Men’s Rights Activists) and “meninists”, who seem to care very little about actual issues facing men, and behave more as internet trolls attempting to mock and discredit the modern feminist movement.
But none of this means men’s issues are unimportant. The UK Men’s Day website highlights a variety of problems faced by British men and boys today, such as shorter life expectancy, the negative portrayal of fathers in the media and the collective tolerance of violence against men and boys – including sexual violence and domestic violence. One issue it particularly focuses on is the increasingly high level of male suicide, which claims 12 men and boys in the UK everyday and is the leading cause of death for adult men in this country under the age of 45.
So is International Men’s Day succeeding in addressing these issues, or is it just another reactionary movement to further invalidate the women’s struggle for equality? Certainly there are flaws with it’s approach. The official International Men’s Day website relapses pretty quickly into gender stereotypes and the use of hypermasculinity, featuring a main image of four men cheering and raising clenched fists and a football, and the cringingly antiquated piece on manhood below:
“The ability to sacrifice your needs on behalf of others is fundamental to manhood, as is honour. Manhood rites of passage the world over recognise the importance of sacrifice in the development of Manhood.”
The concepts of “honour” and “rites of passage” indicate that men ought to prove themselves in order to be respected, ideas strongly perpetuated by society through unrealistic expectations of their physical strength, appearance, sex life and mental stability. It is not difficult to see the troubling link between the focus on self-sacrifice and male suicide rates. Various featured events on the UK Men’s Day website also seem to play on sexist stereotypes, such as beer hamper competitions and steak nights.
However, International Men’s Day has definitely brought about some success, certainly here in the UK. The charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) has boosted public awareness recently through assisting production on the music video Rollercoaster by Rapman, which deals with male suicide, and through their free oyster card holder awareness campaign. The charity provides a free helpline and web chat service for men who are suicidal. International Men’s Day also saw the Conservative backbencher, Philip Davies, raise the issue of male suicide in a general parliament debate for the first time. The discussion went on to address other issues facing men such as the lack of male primary school teachers and midwives, and the gender bias in child custody decisions. Members of parliamentary addressed the potentially hypocritical existence of a Select Committee on Women and Equalities, but no male equivalent.
While some areas of the International Men’s Day campaigns can be seen as reactionary, misogynist and a regurgitation of oppressive male gender roles, I have a lot of faith in the necessity and potential of the event. Feminism has become a broader struggle than the fight against political and economic oppression of women it started out as (and continues to be in part today); it has become a movement for gender equality, and International Men’s Day can play a very important role in that.