Is getting celebrities to tell men they’re dumb the best way to prevent male cancer?
Samuel L Jackson made a trip to the UK recently to tell British men to stop being dumb. He hopes that doing this will help us solve one of the key health inequalities that men and boys experience. As a British man I’d like to say it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, but it isn’t. It’s not the first time I’ve heard someone suggest that men’s health inequalities are solely caused by our attitude and aptitude and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
The reason Jackson is telling British men to stop being dumb is that he is fronting a new male cancer campaign called One For The Boys that is on a mission to “change male mentality”. The rationale is this—men in the UK are 60% more likely to get the cancers that affect all sexes and 70% more likely to die from these cancers. This is caused—so the thinking goes—by men being dumb. If only men would only stop being so dumb and talk about our health then we’d stop dying from cancer in greater numbers.
Personally, I’d say that Snakes On a Plane has more chance of being awarded a retroactive Oscar than Jackson has of ending men’s cancer inequalities by telling us to stop being dumb.
Those of us who are pioneering an integral approach to gender take a broader view of male and female problems. Firstly we take the radical view that women have problems and men have problems too. Secondly, when looking to address these problems we will always look at the ‘I’, the ‘we’ and the ‘its’. Put another way we consider, what’s happening personally, what’s happening culturally and what’s happening systemically.
When we view men’s cancer inequalities from this broader perspective we soon discover that systemically we put less time, energy and money into fighting male cancer. This is demonstrated by three key facts:
- We invest less funding into research about male cancers than female cancers.
- Teenage girls in the UK and elsewhere are routinely vaccinated against HPV which the CDC says causes some male and female cancers, but so far only Australia is offering routine vaccinations for boys too.
- Women in the UK and elsewhere are screened systematically for breast cancer and cervical cancer but no equivalent national screening programme exists to detect male-specific cancers.
These are measurable, systemic facts and it seems evident that if we treated men and boys equally and put equal amounts of time, money and energy into preventing male cancer then fewer men would die from the disease—and frankly when you look at the systemic evidence you’d have to be “dumb” not to see this.
Then there’s the subjective world of what’s happening at a cultural level. One way to make sense of this aspect of the problem is to consider that there is an easy “bad man” cultural narrative, where men are painted as being at worst dangerous, and at best defective. My assertion is that everyone in the global men’s movement—in all its diversity—is at work trying to change the “bad man” narrative.
There are two distinct ways we are trying to do this—some of us accept the “bad man” characterization and work to change men and boys while others reject the “bad man” story and make challenging the narrative our starting point.
There are, of course, as with everything gendered, many nuances and shades to be found between these binary poles—and while the two extremes can often present themselves as being incompatibly hostile, they are actually trying to achieve the same thing—to change the “bad man” narrative that affects us all.
So if we all want to change the “bad man” narrative, then how do we do it? Do we work hard to change and fix all men until there are no “bad man” left and the story dies of natural causes or do we try and speed up that dying process by killing the “bad man” narrative dead in its tracks?
As far as initiatives like the Samuel L Jackson’s “don’t be dumb” campaign are concerned the answer is to label men dumb and defective and then try and fix us. This heroes and villains approach requires men to choose whether they are going to be a dumb-ass villain with a defective male mindset or the kick-ass hero who goes around telling all the dumb-ass men to stop being dumb!
But what if men aren’t defective and don’t need fixing?
That’s certainly the perspective of the Australian psychologist and author, Dr Elizabeth Celi, who is one the world’s leading thinkers on men’s health and wellbeing and has a simple but powerful message for men: “you don’t need ‘fixing’-you need to be allowed to be you”.
According to Celi, men face huge expectations from society, the media, family and friends that lead to confusing messages. She describes the psychological struggles that men face as a battle between their “Regular Joe” who represents what’s really happening for them and their “Mr Invincible” who represents the male identity they think they should present to the world.
“It doesn’t help men or women if men simply conform to a way they think they should behave” says Celi. “Whether this is fitting into traditional male stereotypes (strong, independent, provider, tough, capable) or idealised male stereotypes (supportive, caring, strong, understanding, capable)”.
Celi certainly has a foot in the camp that’s out to challenge the “bad man” narrative. Her publicity materials say she “helps to debunk the negative myths and stereotypes about men – our fathers, husbands, uncles, grandfathers, sons and brothers…(and)…champions the need for more positive male role models through a renewed appreciation and mutual respect for the strengths and skills of men and masculinity, as they now apply, in the 21st Century.”
For Celi, this doesn’t mean ignoring the problems that men have, but it means respecting men for who they are, meeting men on their own terms and “assisting them to fulfil their lives in the best way possible”.
I’ve met other men and women with a similar philosophy towards helping men as Celi and they are generally highly experienced people who are proudly, positive about men and boys and have real life experience of making a difference.
These pioneers in men’s work are developing new narratives and stories that help us make sense of gender from a male perspective. Celi’s approach is to help men get beneath “Mr Invincible” and help their “Regular Joe” to identify and express their “True Man”. She’s fully aware that men can sometimes struggle to access help—not because men are dumb, but because we face an internal struggle between our “Regular Joe” and our “Mr Invincible” which can sometimes make it difficult for us to be true to ourselves and reach out for support when we need it.
It’s an approach that Samuel L Jackson and other male cancer ambassadors may do well to consider if they want to be better role models for men’s health.
Many cancer charities are primarily focused not on preventing male cancer today, but on raising funds for research or equipment to treat or stop cancer tomorrow. With the emergence of a social marketing approach to fundraising it has become common for charities to create a “Mr Invincible” persona which hides their “Regular Joe” and doesn’t reveal what their true self is up to.
Campaigns like “One For The Boys” present themselves to the world as a “Mr Invincible” who is out to “change male mentality” and save men from their dumb-ass selves. The reality is, their Regular Joe doesn’t know how to “change male mentality” and is primarily using their “Mr Invincible” persona to raise money for hospital equipment. Their true measure of success will be how much money they raise not how much “male mentality” they change.
And rightly so. Raising money for charity is a noble cause and celebrity endorsement can help raise a campaign’s profile and credibility and attract extra funds to support the good work they do. For that alone, Samuel L Jackson should be commended.
But Jackson does not have the skills, knowledge or training to tackle men’s health inequalities anymore than Dr Celi has what it takes to deliver lines like: “I have had it with these mother***ing snakes on this mother***ing plane!”.
The reason campaigns like the one backed by Jackson don’t measure how much personal change happens as a result of their work is that they aren’t really behaviour change campaigns. In reality, they are fundraising campaigns dressed up as behaviour change campaigns—or put another way, they are a “Regular Joe” hiding behind “Mr Invincible” unable or unwilling to reveal their “True Man”.
Which is ironic when you consider that their lead message to men is “don’t be dumb”, stop being “Mr Invincible”, it’s okay to acknowledge your “Regular Joe” and show us your “True Man”.
If these campaigns were honest with us they’d say something like: “Look, we think it’s terrible that more men die of cancer than women and we’d like to do something about it, but to be honest that’s not our job. We’re a small part of the solution and we just need a bit more cash to do more of the stuff we’re good at, but don’t expect that to have a major impact on the unequal number of men who die from cancer next year.”
A problem as big as cancer can only be tackled through a combination of systemic,cultural and personal change. Locating the problem inside of individual men feeds the “bad man” narrative that men are dangerous or defective and leaves us isolated, disempowered and unable to act.
If we want more men to engage in tackling cancer then we need a new a narrative, a narrative that highlights the cancer inequalities than men and boys face and mobilizes men to take action by highlighting the systemic and cultural problems that help cause this inequality.
When we locate men’s collective problems outside of men and provide a positive narrative that respects and values their worth, then we are more likely to inspire and empower men to take action—and make it easier for men to work on their personal problems when they want to.
When I see Samuel L Jackson on the screen looking me in the eye and telling me man to man “don’t be dumb”, I switch off. But what if he said this to me:
“Listen brother, every man’s and woman’s life is precious so why are we putting less time, energy and money into fighting cancer in men? It doesn’t make sense to me. Is it any wonder that more men than women are dying of cancer every single day? Are you okay with that? I’m not. So here’s what we’re going to do. Us men, all of us, we’re going to get together and make sure we start putting more time, energy and money into fighting male cancer, cos that’s the only way we’re going to beat this goddam, mother***ing disease. So whose with me? Are you with me brother? Are you with me?”
Now that’s the kind of good man narrative that I’d be happy to part of and it could apply to any of the issues that men and boys face.
If we want to create an international men’s movement that is capable of tackling the many different problems that men and boys experience all over the globe then we need to start writing scripts that we’re all proud to put our names to.
That may mean challenging some of the “bad men” narratives that are alive in the world. More importantly it means defining the world’s problems in ways that men are inspired to solve them. That way we’ll start to see men as a big part of the solution to the many different challenges the world faces, rather than always seeing men as being the problem.
Men aren’t dumb or defective. Of course we have problems, but we’re not “the” problem. We are, like women, the solution.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Erik Charlton
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