I was around thirteen years old and our football coach had lined us up against the fence. “The squad’s getting too big; there’s twenty seven of youse now.” We shuffled around uncomfortably, until one of my team mates piped up: “That means there’s three gays; they said on the news it’s one in nine of us.” Shoving and accusations broke out, until our coach stepped in to quieten things down: “Shut up ya wee idiot; that’s not how it works…but if I was a betting man I’d say you three.” His stubby index finger jabbed out towards me and the boys standing either side of me.
His intention wasn’t to out us – none of us was gay; in fact he probably wouldn’t have done it if he had thought we were – rather he was trying to tease us for a perceived lack of “manliness”, which in footballing terms means dodging headers and rough challenges, and getting shoved off the ball too easily. This type of comment was commonplace in the world of Sunday League football – most often from older men, watching disgustedly from the sidelines as their sons shut their eyes at the sight of a powerful cross whipping into the box, but also from team mates who’d leap on the tiniest infractions of “manliness”, ranging from cleaning your boots to bringing a half-time banana.
All of this was obviously ridiculous, yet also thoroughly typical of my teenage years growing up in Edinburgh and while most of my peers eventually grew out of their homophobic “banter”, an unwritten societal code of “acceptable” masculine behaviour continues to influence young men in all walks of life, especially in male-dominated environments or professions which involve an element of competition. From an early age I both embraced and challenged traditional concepts of masculinity , sliding through mud on Saturday mornings and honing my demi-plies at the barre on Monday nights, and to this day I continue to enjoy watching both football and ballet but, while I was happily oblivious to social constructs when I was a little boy, I now often find myself debating the merits of my hobbies/habits which carry the distinct whiff of “toxic” masculinity, in particular those which rigidly define how men should, or should not, express themselves.
On the one hand, I can’t deny that certain “masculine” ideals, such as displays of physical strength and courage, appeal to me – it’s hard not to emit a whoop of joy watching Ali put Foreman on the canvas after rounds of soaking up his punches on the ropes or crack a smile when a total stranger greets you with the epithet “big man” – but at the same time I recognise there is an underlying toxicity in these traditions – boxing is a brutal, sometimes lethal sport that appeals to the same blood-thirsty instincts which used to fill up the Coliseum, and the desire to be strong and physically imposing leads many young men down a route of steroids and obsessive eating, which can trigger mental health issues such as bigorexia.
Ask yourself this – is it possible for a man to enjoy listening to rap that glorifies misogyny and violence, without necessarily agreeing with the message; to tease his mate for wearing a “salmon” coloured shirt, without actually thinking there’s anything wrong with men wearing pink; or to tell himself to “man-up” when he’s nervously balancing on the edge of the highest diving board in the swimming pool, without really believing a fear of heights is in any way a uniquely female phenomenon? I would argue that it is: I know men who’ve done all these things and they do not sincerely hold sexist beliefs; they have simply adopted a language, a pattern of thinking, that has been passed down from generation to generation and is ingrained in the media, the music we listen to and the films we watch.
Young men are increasingly comfortable with breaking some of the old taboos relating to gender – this is reflected in a number of observable metrics including the booming male beauty and fashion industries – and yet it seems that, while the definition is becoming a little more flexible, certain aspects of masculinity continue to exert a significant influence over their lives. Over the next few weeks this column will explore the views and experiences of young men living in Scotland in order to better understand to what degree the language and ideology of masculinity is changing, if this change is for the better, and whether a single, definitive concept of what it means to be a Scottish man, actually exists.
[Tommy Pia – he/him]