We caught up with Jack Urwin (@JackMerlin), author of the highly-acclaimed book ‘Man Up‘, about toxic masculinity, his late dad’s dark sense of humour and getting published at 23.
CALM: Your new book, Man Up, tackles “surviving modern masculinity”. What’s modern about modern masculinity?
Jack Urwin: We’re at a unique point in our history in terms of how we view gender. Only really in the last century have we started to move away from traditional gender roles of men at work and women staying at home to take care of kids, so a lot has changed in a relatively short period of time.
The fact is, a lot of men seem to feel their place in the modern world is becoming less purposeful, so in an attempt to claw back some sense of manliness a lot of them are perpetuating what we’d refer to as toxic masculinity – a sort of overcompensating form of behaviour that has its roots in ideas of traditional masculinity – such as strength and stoicism – but because our understanding of these has become so warped and removed from context they end up just being very unhealthy ways to act.
CALM: Did our dads and our dads’ dads have it easier than us?
JU: I think for the most part our generation has it easier. The horrors my grandfather faced in WW2 screwed him up beyond belief, and the attitudes that passed on to my dad and the rest of his generation was one of silence and emotional repression. Only now are we starting to address the damage done to men by these attitudes and so I have faith that for mine and the following generations men are going to be in a happier, more content place.
However, it’s obviously not quite that simple: if we look at why charities like CALM exist in the first place it’s because boys and men today are in a real state in terms of their mental health, and the fact suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 50 is a travesty. So while I don’t think our dads’ and their dads’ generations necessarily had it easier, I do believe we’re at a point now where men are under a huge amount of pressure in their daily lives and unfortunately this is taking its toll and, in some cases, quite literally killing us.
CALM: Maybe they had a better sense of humour… In the book you suggest your Dad was “fucking with” you when he said he was feeling better right before a fatal heart attack. What part did humour play in your upbringing?
JU: My dad was a fairly sarcastic man, but I don’t think that’s any different to most dads if I’m being honest. At primary school I had always been very academic and well-behaved, but then at the end of the school year that my dad died, I won an award for ‘funniest pupil’. As I’m sure anyone who’s watched literally any drama featuring a scene with a psychologist would be able to diagnose, I was deflecting my grief and using black humour as a coping mechanism, which obviously wasn’t the most healthy way of dealing with things.
That said, I think if used properly, humour can be a massive help in coming to terms with trauma and mental illness and I’ve tried to inject my book with it in an attempt to make the writing accessible and not too preachy.
CALM: How has your dad’s absence impacted your life?
JU: Obviously it’s had a profound effect on me. It’s been 14 years now since he died so I’ve spent well over half my life without him and it’s one of those things you adjust to, but I do occasionally question how differently things could be were he still around. It’s easy to look at the negative stuff that’s come off the back of this, but without it I probably wouldn’t have come to a lot of the conclusions I have about my own sense of masculinity and improving myself – and, let’s face it, I doubt I would have written this book. It’s a cliché but if this book helps a single person, maybe even saves a life, then perhaps my dad’s death won’t have been for nothing. It’s important to focus on the positive outcome of tragedy, I think.
CALM: What unique challenges do you think men face as parents?
JU: Although much progress has been made in the last few decades, we still have a tendency to view men as inferior when it comes to parenting – the bumbling buffoon of a dad like “Buhhhh how does a nappy work? My tiny brain is incapable of figuring this out, I better get my wife to do it!” is still a pretty common sight in the media and in advertising, and unfortunately I think this perpetuates the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t be a child’s primary carer, and perhaps even dissuades men from taking on more fatherly duties as a result.
On top of that, structural inequality in society is still a major barrier to getting more fathers really involved in their kids’ lives – the disparity between maternity and paternity leave, coupled with wage inequality, means in most cases it doesn’t make financial sense for fathers to be the primary child carer. This is why I say men need to be aware of the wage gap and fight for equality in this respect as well as regarding better paternity leave. If we want better opportunities as fathers, we have to do everything in our power to make it work financially.
CALM: If could tell your Dad one thing about you now, what would it be?
JU: I’m happy. I think that’s all any parent ever wants or needs to hear their child say.
CALM: What are the big voices in masculinity right now? Who else’s books or blogs should we be reading?
JU: You know, I’ve had a lot of people praise my writing for being brave or bold or original, and while it’s incredibly lovely of them to say so, I think it does a massive disservice to the people who’ve been writing about issues surrounding masculinity for a very long time, who, for the most part, are women. Bell Hooks is a great example of this, and Laurie Penny – who actually told me I should write this damn book in the first place – has some terrific insight into the subject (especially in her last book Unspeakable Things). Feminist writers are probably your best first port of call for nuanced takes on masculinity, because, as I discuss in my own book, it’s women who are often those most affected by toxic masculinity or left to pick up the pieces of its fallout.
But there are, of course, men doing good in this subject too: one of the most difficult but important interviews I did for the book was with one of CALM’s biggest advocates, a man called Jonny Sharples, who has written some absolutely beautiful and important articles on his brother, who took his own life not too long ago. His openness and willingness to talk about this traumatic subject is, frankly, inspiring, and I commend he and all the other men like him who are speaking out in order to further this conversation and make a difference.
CALM: You’re pretty young to be a published author. Congrats! Is it annoying when people point that out?
JU: I’ll be honest, my ego thoroughly enjoys it. Two years ago a book wasn’t something I’d ever anticipated happening in my lifetime, but here we are. I think my age is indicative of how new much of this conversation about masculinity is and how it’s very much my generation driving the progress and hoping to redefine what it means to be a man, in the hope that ours and subsequent generations can be a bit less shackled to these needless ideals and happy in who they are.
CALM: Irvine Welsh described your writing as “fabulous”. What’s next for Jack Urwin?
JU: I have a few ideas in mind for potential future books but whether anything will come of them I have no idea. Journalism is in a bit of a state right now and it’s getting harder and harder by the day to make a living out of this, so I’m currently trying to find whatever menial labour I can to support myself – it’s a bit discordant to come back from a book tour in the UK, doing interviews for major newspapers and speaking at festivals, to Toronto, where I now live, and applying fruitlessly for barista and shop jobs, but I’m not complaining.
If I never wrote anything again I’d still have this book to my name, and for all its flaws and imperfections – of which I’m sure there are many – I am very proud of what I’ve accomplished with Man Up, and can go about my life happily knowing that at least a handful of people were interested enough in what I had to say to shell out their hard-earned money for it.
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