“I’ve been in care since I was one and a half—social services say I’m the worst case they’ve ever brought into care. When I was 14 everything started falling apart and I tried to kill myself. When I left hospital I went to a piercing studio and got the bridge of my nose pierced and suddenly didn’t feel I wanted to hurt myself anymore. Now, when I need to self-harm, I get a piercing instead.’
Photograph: Craig Easton
“My background is mixed, but I mostly identify with ‘black British’. Society will always see me as black. Being a black boy in London now can be frustrating, as everyone thinks the worst of you. I feel judged daily, by everybody, young and old. Some of us conform to what’s expected, others fight it. The country is talking daily about Brexit, making decisions, and yet those whom it will affect most are not asked anything. We haven’t been included in decisions about our own future. I would like to do engineering, product design or game design. My aim is to create.”
Photograph: Roy Mehta
“I can’t read or write and have lived on a Traveller site all my life. I like it here, but in 2003, my brother Johnny was killed; he was only 15. It hurt me so much. Being a Traveller (Irish nomad) shouldn’t make any difference: we are all people.”
Photograph: Craig Easton
“I moved to the UK from Syria three years ago to feel safe and have a bright future. Now I am in college studying mechanical engineering. My dream is to make my parents proud and go back to Syria. The only fear I have is disappointing my parents or God.”
Photograph: Kate Peters
“I grew up with just my mum. I met my dad when I was 12, and then two or three weeks after I met him, he died of cancer. I was raised by women, so I have respect for them.”
Photograph: Christopher Nunn
Joel is 16. I’ve asked him to define masculinity as he sees it, just as I’ve been asking a similar thing of 16- and 17-year-olds like him all over the United Kingdom. What is going on in their heads right now, these boys on the cusp? What do they believe, and what do they doubt, about the mantle of adulthood they’ll soon inherit? What do they think makes a man a man, at a time when there are big questions being asked about gender identity and gender privilege?
Joel says, “My granddad was a coal miner for 20 years. So in his mind, masculinity is a very stereotypical “man’s man” thing: the guy coming home from work for his meat and two veg, a muscular, massive man. It depends who you ask, but I think, more and more, that idea’s dropped away.” What’s come up in place of the old certainties, Joel thinks, is a wildfire of confusion. “Because when you’re little, you think of being masculine as being big, butch, strong. You think of a man as someone who wants to help the people around him and, to an extent, protect.” Then you realize, Joel continues, “there’s a thin line between protecting and being overbearing. That line is often crossed. You hear a phrase like ‘toxic masculinity’ get thrown about. And it all gets… complicated.”
Some months ago, I began canvassing the views of about 30 boys Joel’s age—encouraging them to speak freely, from Brighton to Birmingham, Cardiff to Canvey Island, sometimes on the condition of anonymity—and certain preoccupations recur. In school they’re stressed (“Exam pressure. School pressure, obviously”) and outside the school gates they’re edgily aware of peer-on-peer violence, or at least the scent of it in the air. They like gaming, Netflix, partying, coupling, the Premier League, “watching useless videos for hours.” They’re irritated by early waking, overtly suspicious of security guards; being perceived as wasteful by adults who watch them watching those “useless” videos. They find YouTube relaxing, okay?
A Wildfire of Confusion
Some of these young men were responding to a readers’ callout about identity published on the Guardian’s website. Others came via contacts in youth groups and schools; a few I met while researching other articles. When we spoke they would chat in lucid bursts and then stall, drop into ums, awkwardness, silence. I found them confounding and fascinating in equal measure. On masculinity, male identity and what being manly is, they would contradict each other; sometimes they’d take extreme positions, sometimes admit total bafflement. As Joel put it, this has all gotten complicated.
What makes a man a man? Jesiah in Croydon believes it’s the internal things, “the values you stand by, doing what you believe to be right.” Dylan in Canterbury thinks it’s a matter of “not changing who you are to please people.” Hamish in Lanarkshire said, “You stand up for yourself, but you also stand up for others.” To Sonny in Birmingham, “You’re no more or less a man by being strong or brave.” Matt in Manchester said, “It’s mainly about fitness and strength.” Corrin in London added, “Strength definitely plays a part.” And to Evian in London, “The stereotype’s been put in our heads that we’re supposed to be strong, not meant to allow any emotions, but I don’t agree with that.”
Some of the young men I speak to feel their way into answers by considering how they’re different from previous generations. They’ve also got a keen idea what the millennial generation and people my age (mid–thirties) think. After all, they’re picking a route through our residue. They’re about to take over our messy bedrooms.
“My dad is quite tolerant, still quite masculine,” says Clement in Northumberland. “I’m still not totally open about everything with him, because there’s that traditional barrier of masculinity.” Discreetly, among friends, Clement has been experimenting with makeup, wearing jewelry. “If it’s interesting to me, I should be able to do it without being called something, put in a box.” Clement says he feels masculine and feminine at the same time, “A healthy medium… But I think many boys are stuck, unsure.” Ty from King’s Lynn is having a cheeky smoke outside school when we talk on the phone. I ask him what he thinks makes a man a man. “Have certain morals? Forgive and forget things? Around this area, the feeling of a lot of people my age is that to be a man, you have to be able to fight.” Ty likes to skateboard, smoke weed, “sometimes a bit of graffiti.” A year ago he hung around with a different crowd, “selling drugs, having fights, things like that.”
Then he got beaten up one night, which shook him. Then he got beaten up a second time, “and I thought, ‘What am I doing with myself? All this, to boost the vision I’m manly?’”
I speak to a young man in southeast England whom we’ll call Mark. He’s been stealing bikes for some time. He got caught once, and was released the next morning. He sounds convincing when he says he’ll stop as soon as he turns 18. We’re chatting over Instagram one day when I ask him: what else will he need to do to become a man? Mark writes: “Don’t know,” and after a few seconds adds: “I’m still a kid.” Then he changes his mind about that second part and deletes it, so all that’s left is the blank.
Before speaking to them, I wonder if any will question the premise of my opening question: what makes a man a man? Samuel, who lives near Derby, does. “Being mixed-race makes identity quite a complicated thing for me,” he says. “You almost find that identifying as any one thing can be a way of discriminating against yourself.” Samuel has an older sibling who is trans, and he says this “makes it easier to see that identity can be forced on people. That people are who they are and not how they are.”
Man Up? You Don’t Say “Woman Up”’
This is something that nags at Dylan in Canterbury, too. He groans when I ask him about the phrase “Man up.” Some of his male teachers say it, and Dylan finds it “degrading… You don’t say: ‘Woman up.’ It doesn’t make sense.” Others come at it differently. Matias in London, a keen footballer, will hear his coach shout “Man up!” from the sidelines and find motivation in this “harsh encouragement.” Evian uses the phrase with his friends. “When someone’s upset or lonely, yeah, sometimes I do say that. But when you think about it, it’s like saying men aren’t meant to show emotions. And I think differently.”
Evian and Matias are a little younger than the others I speak to. Neither is a big talker; they stick to the point. But they’re self-aware and sharp, and while they can see that for others masculinity has become a complicated thing, they don’t find it all that complicated themselves. Matias wants to become a man in a traditional mold, protecting, providing. Evian hopes to be like his grandfather, “who worked as a carpenter, 24/7, nonstop for 50 years. He was dedicated. He grew a family.”
They both agree—everyone agrees—that young men are no good at talking about their emotions with each other. Sonny in Birmingham says, “It’s not really acceptable to say you’re vulnerable or lonely.” Reece in London remarks, “Yeah, that’s off the table.” When a young man we’ll call Chris, in north Wales, worries inordinately about what others make of him, such worries remain private. Max in Bradford sympathizes. “Most people’s response to being told [something like that] is a blank, confused stare,” he says. There’s “a definite stigma” around discussing your inner life, says Matthew in Brighton. Samuel in Derby goes further noting, “I suspect quite a lot of my peers have a mental illness of some description, just they’re unwilling to admit it in case it makes them appear less masculine.”
Sonny in Birmingham and Samuel in Derby have never met, but they share a kind of preternaturally wise, fringe-dwellers’ perspective. Independently, they describe a style of arms-race humor they reckon is common among their peers. Outrage piled on outrage, no subject off-limits so long as it’s framed as a joke—rape, race, the Holocaust. I ask others about this and Clement, who has noticed it, too, has a go at explaining. “If you’re gay, or Jewish, or black, that gets kind of picked up on and joked about—not in a way that’s malicious, or that they mean to be malicious, but definitely in a way that feels like there’s no limit. They have to top the last thing, do something bigger or better, increase the scale till the scale’s massive.”
I tell a few of these interviewees that when I was their age, my friends and I laughed about outrageous things that now make me wince. Maybe this has always been a schoolboy thing? Samuel’s not having it. You didn’t have social media, he says. Nor this nagging, heightened habit of “emulating and exaggerating, emulating and exaggerating. My generation depends on popularity. The pressure they put on themselves for more popularity is higher than any older generation’s experience.”
Dylan, who is gay, has a good-side, bad-side view of social media. For every supportive voice you might hear only because of access to Twitter, there’s the homophobe lobbing insults. Before I started talking to the boys, I believed they had caught a historical bad break when it came to social media—an industry helping itself to every sort of choice, enjoying unregulated excess through their most pliable years. Jesiah in Croydon brushes this off as lazy thinking. Social media’s just the part of youth culture most visible to older generations, he says. He thinks that people my age fixate on it disproportionately.
Masculinity via Instagram and Snapchat
Jesiah may be right. I still wince, hearing from Sonny or Ty or Clement about the closed-loop masculinity that gets impressed on them via their screens—“Making visual,” as Sonny puts it, “what a really large group of people think you must be.” In King’s Lynn, outside school, Ty explains what masculinity looks like as it comes at him via his Instagram and Snapchat feeds. The choice is a stark one “between being a hard man or a fuckboy. The hard men post pictures with their big jackets and balaclavas and knives, trying to boost their reputations. And the fuckboys look in the mirror with their shirts off.”
I ask Ty to explain fuckboys. What’s the deal with the toplessness? Come on, says Ty, “It’s to get girls.” He’s feeling burned just now, he says. A girlfriend has cheated on him or, if I understand Ty correctly, a girlfriend has cheated on him more times than he has cheated on her. “I believe that women aren’t of equal status to men,” Ty goes on to say. “They’re actually above men at the moment. They act above, I mean. To get a girlfriend, you have to try a lot harder than 10 or 15 years ago, when people were getting on that everyone was equal. Now they’ve sort of risen above it because the people [feminists] who were originally saying let’s have equal rights, they didn’t have anything to say anymore, so they kept pushing it and pushing it.”
Jesiah is clear-headed and at ease about feminism. “I’ve got two younger sisters. I see what the older sister goes through, especially as a black woman, only trying to get what she’s worked for and deserves. I don’t feel threatened by it; I welcome it. But I know people at school who feel extremely threatened.” Clement says, “You see a pushback against feminism, yeah.” There’s unease, Corrin says. “Some of my friends are, like, scared to get girlfriends because of the whole #MeToo thing. What if, in 10 years, the girl comes back and makes trouble?”
“It is completely right that society makes an effort to get women involved in the STEM subjects, in history, in politics,” Joel says. “Because for so long women have been excluded from these sorts of things. But it leaves, um, a gap. In my opinion, and from what I’ve heard from others, there’s nothing—no voice of that for young men. There’s no person saying: ‘You can be this, you can be that.’ Do you understand what I’m saying?”
So many young men tell me something along these lines that, yeah, I think I do start to understand what Joel’s saying. I’ve tried to let them speak for themselves in this article—not to overinterpret, or patronize, or apologize for them; only to ask their views and pay attention to their answers. A lot of them feel threatened. The most engaged know they’re part of a historical steering correction; some, like Jesiah, have the perspective and personal experience to appreciate this as a necessary correction. Others admit more selfish feelings.
One young man describes a visit to a bookshop. “And the first thing you see? 100 Female Inventors or whatever. Or Michelle Obama’s book saying, ‘Have high hopes for yourselves, girls.’ I guess there’s this idea that young men will already have high hopes for themselves?” But Clement in Northumberland thinks those of his peers who expect otherwise are unrealistic: “If anyone tried to do a similar thing, a male-empowerment thing, it would be seen as empowering sexism and the whole lad culture.”
Still, Clement says, he can see signs of trouble brewing. “There’s been a reversal. The attitudes towards women that were acceptable 30 or 40 years ago are now, like, the worst thing you can say. I feel like that’s left a lot of young men in the dark. Because they hear their fathers and grandfathers repeat these attitudes, and they don’t know how to react. They’re faced with women who are stronger and more confident. It’s confusing. It scares them.”
Some Guys Are Angry, Disenfranchised
“I think it’s a serious problem,” Joel says. “A lot of young men are becoming angry and disenfranchised. You know the rise of the far right that’s gone on in recent years? I think that’s partly because there’s a lot of young men who’v e come out of workingclass families like mine, and they don’t have anyone to look up to. They don’t have anyone saying, ‘This is what you as a person can do.’ Maybe that’s where the drift comes in. Young men join these groups that have the typical far-right message, ‘You should be fit, you should be strong, you should provide,’ because they’re not given anything else to look to.”
Jesiah wonders if he’s seen something similar. “With the stabbings and the killings, people are quick to blame social media, as if it’s the root cause of all these problems. I personally believe it’s that young men aren’t being listened to. They don’t have a voice—even down to Brexit—[in] what’s going on. The legal age to vote should be lowered, because we know what we want. Being young and having no say in your future is completely mad. We’re seeing everything go by us. So yeah, I think that contributes to some of the anger out there, the hate.”
Some say they feel ignored and generalized-about when it suits the wider world. At the same time, they feel they’ll be held to obscure account for wrongs that happened in the world when they were children, when they were babies, when they hadn’t been thought of at all. So that now, some young men get the impression they’re seen as a bit gross, a bit distasteful, as problems-inwaiting. William in London sums it up: “We’re seen as mindless testo drones.” Or, Matt in Manchester, “We’re seen as manipulative and sex-obsessed.”
“I think a lot of mainstream politicians are afraid to really touch on masculinity,” Joel says. “In case of maybe saying the wrong thing. And I can understand that. It’s a very difficult thing to talk on, even now, even to you. But I think there does need to be a place to be able to say that masculinity’s a good thing. That masculinity can be admirable. Otherwise we’re just, sort of… just…”
Stranded? “Yeah,” Joel says. “Stranded.”
A freelance writer for the British newspapers the Guardian and the Observer, Tom Lamont has been on assignment interviewing young men across the UK about masculinity, #MeToo, role models and coming of age now. A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian.