Review: You Are Not The Man You Are Supposed To Be

You Are Not The Man You Are Supposed To Be, a new book on masculinity, has plenty of interest for working dads

Man in a red hood thrusting hand at camera


Being a man “doesn’t mean dressing like Blackbeard and doing crack for breakfast” according to Martin Robinson’s new book on masculinity. So that’s good. 

The book is called ‘You are not the man you are supposed to be’. Its subtitle may be, ‘Into the chaos of modern masculinity’ but its strength is in its focus. Masculinity is such a large and sprawling subject that it’s easy to get side tracked (as I possibly prove in my blogs for this site!). But Martin keeps things on track and moving forward throughout the book’s 200 odd pages.

Work inevitably comes into his purview. And a number of his overriding themes will be well recognised by working dads.

Environment is masculinity

He rejects the idea that masculinity is fixed by biology. “Environment is masculinity” he states. That’s an approach that chimes with the findings of my first book ‘The Gender Agenda’ in which my partner and I documented the daily nudges kids get to make them conform to a certain stereotype – male or female. But it’s also one that will chime for many working dads. Martin wonders how he can be so multifaceted in the home – tender with his kids, loving with his wife, fun, confident – yet when he walks out the front door it acts “like a 3-D printer in reverse” and he becomes flat, a sketch of what a man ought to be.

This is perhaps the strongest theme to emerge from our ‘working dads and lockdown’ series from last year. Many men reported that when they were forced to work from home they actually missed the commute as an opportunity to switch between their home and work personas.

Martin zeroes in on this conflict, identifying the fundamental question: which is the genuine man? His answer, broadly, is both. Of course we are all made up of different facets, different personas and that’s as it should be. But expressing our entire range seems frowned upon. Too many men feel pressure to live up to some ideal model of masculinity. And when they inevitably fall short of what is always unattainable that’s when the problems kick in.

Male mental health

The book, like Martin’s website The Book of Man, is greatly, but not exclusively, concerned with mental health among men. The statistics are well worn and still shocking. We’re not even out of the prologue before he hits us with the appalling stats that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, 95 per cent of prisoners are male, 86 per cent of homeless people, and 73 per cent of deaths from drug misuse are men. Something is clearly up.

But Martin’s skill is in managing to drop some humour into the mix while addressing such serious issues. He gets a drag makeover, trains with a Royal Marine and attends an ‘intimacy jam’. His description of the last of these is probably the highlight of the book, it reads like a feature from one of the better men’s magazines. Hardly surprising given Martin’s edited Maxim and ShortList in his time. These experiences speak to another theme of the book – the need for men to display humour and humility. 

If I’ve any criticism of the book it’s a small one. His list of interviewees is slightly overstuffed with hard men. There’s at least two ex-SAS, a boxer and a cage fighter in there. These are men who have demonstrated a hyper masculinity by killing or fighting other men. To some extent they have earned permission to talk about mental health without anyone questioning their masculinity. That might not apply to the rest of us sitting in the pub with our mates. But Robinson is keen that we do all embrace a more expansive and open discussion around masculinity and mental health. And that stretches to the workplace.

Men and dads in the workplace

He repeats an appalling anecdote about giving a presentation in a blue chip company only for the CEO to emphasise that equality, diversity and inclusion relies on continued profits. This despite the fact evidence shows equality, diversity and inclusion are the way to drive profits.

He points to stats that show while 93 per cent of British dads say they’ll do ‘whatever it takes’ to be heavily involved in their child’s life only 44 per cent take their full two weeks of paternity leave, and an even tinier proportion take Shared Parental Leave. Something’s up for working dads. The problem seems to be an unshakable attachment to the idea of being the breadwinner. Recent research backed up that hunch. Men who take extended parental leave generally expect to return to their role as main earner. Women take a lifelong hit when they leave the workforce for months of maternity leave. Again this adherence to a masculine stereotype can have tragic consequences. The figures for suicide among men closely map the areas with the highest rate of joblessness.

Themes and conclusions

But ‘You are not the man you are supposed to be’ is neither a whine nor simply a diversion. It has clear themes, conclusions and action points.

For a start it’s in our hands not to change the definition of masculinity, of what it means to be a working dad and a man, but to widen that definition.

If masculinity relies on environment then, as Martin succinctly puts it, “we’re all in this together”. Each of us that chooses to deviate from a strict and constricting model of manhood – by taking extra paternity leave or by embracing flexible working for example – helps to alter the environment, make it easier for everyone else, and maybe even save a life.

And it’s particularly on those of us with the most privilege. The experience of coronavirus has shown the value of empathy and allyship. Both are at the heart of our plan to build back better. By accident of birth men are burnished with certain advantages. ‘You are not the man you are supposed to be’ is short on finger pointing but not afraid of responsibility. It’s on all of us to help make the world a better place for everyone. 

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