It’s International Men’s Day tomorrow – here’s why it’s a bad idea

Tomorrow is International Men’s Day, but Gary Barker isn’t celebratinggary-barker

I’m sure it was well-intentioned when International Men’s Day began over a decade ago. The day, in part, aims to draw attention to men’s and boy’s health; this year’s theme is “Stop Male Suicide”. This is a worthy goal: men die earlier and are more likely to face chronic illness and less likely to care for their health that women are. We are more likely to die on the front lines in wars and conflicts. We (men) are less likely to go for HIV testing and treatment when we are HIV-positive.  We are more than 80% of the nearly 500,000 persons who die every year from homicide, and in richer countries, three times as many men die by suicide than women, with men over 50 particularly vulnerable. I have spent much of my career writing about and studying these issues. I founded a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to working on them.

But here’s why I don’t believe in the day: it’s also “an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions […] while highlighting the discrimination against them.” As a whole, it puts the focus on individual men and not on the roots of the problem. It asks us to pat our backs, while identifying our victimhood. It suggests that somehow we as men deserve attention alongside other international causes from advancing human rights, to honoring peace-making individuals, to honoring causes that are urgent for saving our planet.

Hold on a minute, men.


Absolutely, individual men have problems, and the gendered expectations of how men should be (strong at all costs, silent in the face of pain, self-sufficient) are part of this. All these examples of men’s health issues and vulnerabilities are real and need urgent attention. They matter, for the men whose lives are cut short, for those who don’t go for HIV testing and treatment, and for those who kill themselves and kill other men. They matter for the women and girls who are often pick up the pieces and hold families together.

And, yes, men need help and we need to learn how to ask for help. I survived a malignant cancer eight years ago because I went for early testing and treatment.  My oncologist looked at me with an air of wonder. He said he had rarely seen men who did the tests they asked were to do on time, who picked up the results and did all the follow up—on time and as recommended.  He was much more used to men dying earlier from cancer than women, being far less likely to ask for help than women and less likely to make the lifestyle changes needed to recover from cancer: we as men are horrible at taking care of our bodies.

However, in a country (the U.S.) which just revealed itself to be full of white men (and women), supposedly the ones older-menwith the power and privilege, who voted for a campaign in part built on discrimination toward women, minorities, the LGBTQI community, Muslims, and many other groups, I find it more difficult than ever to emphasize (or give a pass to) this men-as-victims narrative.

We need to work harder than ever before to call out patriarchy, and, even more precisely, how patriarchy interacts with poverty, privilege and inequality.  The word patriarchy feels outdated to some men; for others it feels accusatory. For sure, patriarchy is too often over-simplified to refer to all men having power over all women. We all know, though, that this analysis doesn’t work – the white woman head of the CEO in NYC has more power (and much more income) than her Pakistani immigrant Uber driver.  And the white, male (or white female) head of state in Western Europe has much more power than the Syrian man who risked his life to cross the Mediterranean Sea in an overcrowded boat to seek asylum in that white man’s, or white woman’s, country.  Not all men have an equal portion of power.  Some have very little, if any.  Patriarchy also pits groups of men against other groups of men.

The problem starts, as sociologist Michael Kimmel tells us, when angry (and often lower middle income) men – those who showed up on November 8 in the U.S., and have been making their presence known in other countries around the world (promoting the ousting of progressive President Rousseff in Brazil, and cheering for Brexit in the United Kingdom)  – feel they have lost something they think they exclusively were due: stable employment and respect.

Hipsters feel pain too
Hipsters feel pain too

Men (and women) lacking work – the men who feel they have no identity and no worth – have a legitimate grudge. The erosion of welfare states, profits before people, the simplistic notion that those who are out of work are the victims of their own laziness, deserve protest.  But turning that anger into an exclusive victimhood on the part of angry (white) men ignores legacies of sexism, racism, and other historical inequalities and those who have experienced them.  All men and women, of all ethnicities, deserve dignified work, not just men, or white men.

This is why I don’t support International Men’s Day. What I would support – as a straight, cisgender, white man – is an International Day to End Patriarchy and Unearned Privilege, or the International Day to End Hegemonic Masculinity.

On that day, I would celebrate the women and men who make it possible for women and men to care for their children equally.  I would celebrate the women and men, boys and girls, cis- and transgender and across the spectrum, who work to end violence by men against women, by men against men, by adults against children, by police against young black men, and all kinds of violence.  I would celebrate the individuals and organizations, and governments and corporations, that work to end homophobia and transphobia.  I would celebrate the women and men who treat health care, for women and men boys and girls not as a commodity to be sold but as an undeniable human right.

On the International Day to End Hegemonic Masculinity, I would celebrate the policy-makers who support equal single-young-manand paid parental leave for mothers and fathers and all caregivers of their elderly parents.  I would celebrate those who work to end violence and who respect human rights every day. I would support those women and men who understand how poverty and inequality interact with ethnicity and historical oppression, and those who work to bring their countries to peace.

So in this year of angry men’s (and some angry women’s) voices, how about a day that celebrates our common humanity or one that celebrates an ethic of caring about what we share as women and men, cis- or trans, young or old?   How about a day that stops pitting men against women but finds our common cause in achieving gender equality and social justice?  That would truly be a day worth celebrating.

Gary Barker is President and CEO of Promundo, a ‘global leader in promoting gender justice and preventing violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.’

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5 Responses to “It’s International Men’s Day tomorrow – here’s why it’s a bad idea”
  1. Hi Gary, on Duncan’s website – how splendid to see your messages here, and how widely I hope they travel. It’s a long job to advance this vision to people – the progressives as well as the reactionaries find it a difficult one to take in. I understood the ways men suffer through race, gender and class when I lived in Lesotho in the early 1990s. As a country built on migrant remittances from the South African goldmines, Lesotho was an aid basketcase as the Cold War powers fought to build the biggest embassy and be seen supporting brave little Lesotho against its Apartheid neighbour. Female literacy was 74% – the highest in Africa and the only place where it was higher than men’s. Lesotho still figures among the highest countries for women’s empowerment (oh scarily ambiguous concept) due to the fact that girls were sent to school because their brothers didn’t need an education to get a life-sentence job down a mine in South Africa. The male story was being a herdboy (hypothermia was common in the mountains in July), and a life in the mines far from family, denied the right to family life. Everyone suffered. Gender-based violence was high, STDs were higher. When I came to Oxfam, I knew for sure that gender equality work was about human beings of both sexes and their interactions with each other – and about interactions between elites and the women and men whose lives they exploit and wreck. We need to throw out both facets of a polarised gender order of hyper-masculinity and – dare I say it – the hyperfeminity that is its opposite – male strength, female vulnerability. Both sexes are both strong and vulnerable – we need to move past the gender stereotypes and see how they drive conflict, war and inequalities of all kinds. And evolve social and economic policies that genuinely support human beings of all sexes and genders and none, to be happy and peaceful and fulfilled. In his recent Reith Lectures the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah pointed out how our current world privileges certain forms of identity, including race and nationality (and gender!) – which maybe shouldn’t be seen as important at all.

  2. Pete

    Hi Gary,

    Like you, I don’t see a need for a day to celebrate the achievements of men. But you edited that sentence pretty radically. In full it has a totally different message, it says

    “It is an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions, in particular their contributions to community, family, marriage, and child care while highlighting the discrimination against them.”

    So an occasion to focus in a positive way on the contribution of men to community, family, marriage and child care. That sounds like a very good idea – I’m sure I’ve heard many women argue in different words that we need to do that. Of course it might well lead to a realisation that we (men) could do a lot better in these areas.

    But that is a side-track, the main focus of International Men’s Day is on the problems you list: mental and physical health, violence, homicides, disconnection from their family and the joys of bringing up children, imprisonment, conscription into whatever force controls their area whether it is legal or illegal. Each of these deserve attention.

    A badly worded sentence on their website should not cancel the day. Sure there are other problems in the world – these have other days.

    This must not become a day for the angry white men in developed countries – but all politicians are now realising that we need to understand their anger so that it cannot again be focussed onto vulnerable minorities. The angry white men of the rust belt, especially those with a limited education, don’t seem to me to have much power or privilege.

    You seem to be saying that because the elite are mainly male the problems of all other men are to be ignored – isn’t that part of the old politics that lead to the election of Trump?

    I often find the frequent emphasis on gender by INGOs to be divisive. Both women and men in poverty have a tough time and to emphasise just which gender is worst off seems unnecessary. I am not talking here of experts – of course they need a deep understanding, I am talking about the message that gets out to the public. I could quote many occasions in which women are written about as more deserving, more valuable, than men while they are suffering a common fate.

    According to stats on poverty, women in Malawi are deeper in poverty than men – mainly because older women missed an education. But by the same data, men in Malawi are deeper in poverty than women in Zambia. My ambition is to lift whole communities out of poverty, not just to reach an equality in which Malawian women have the same lack of wealth and opportunity as Malawian men – that would be failure.

    By the way, I have read more articles that you (Gary) have written – and I generally agree with and support your work in ProMundo.

    I do support work to end violence against women (do I have to write that?) but there should also be this one day devoted to different problems that vulnerable man face, and we should accept it without seeing it as a threat to vulnerable women or children and use it to improve the lives of men, women and children.

  3. Duncan Campbell

    Hi Gary. If any “special day” has an “as-victims narrative”, then it is a bad event. No matter how bad things are, there is never a good reason to adopt, accept, or enable a victim mentality. A victim mentality won’t stop the oppressors, and it won’t solve the problems of the oppressed. It just makes the oppressed person even more miserable, gives bigots fodder for more bigotry, and satisfies bullies.

    But then, in this world of “me first”, and “demanding rights without any thought for responsibilities”, everybody is a victim somehow or other. So no surprise that we have something as nonsensical as “International Men’s Day”. Mike Pence was as victim of prejudice and bullying by some members of the audience at the theater where he went to see “Hamilton”, but that doesn’t mean we need to declare an “International Vice Presidents’ Day”!!!

    Now, if “International Men’s Day” was about taking responsibility, and being caring and compassionate, and making sacrifices to defend the rights of others, THAT would be a very good day indeed! If International Men’s Day was about calling out the oppressors, showing them in a respectful but clear manner how it is that they are being oppressors, what the consequences of their oppression is on the lives of those they are oppressing, and what they can do to stop being oppressors, THAT would be a very good day indeed!

    I say that all “International Days” should NEVER be about “who’s a victim” – NO ONE needs to be reminded that life’s a bitch. International Days should only be about what needs to be done – both by the oppressor and the oppressed (as Victor Frankel, Gandhi, Mandela, and many, many other heroes of horrific oppression have made clear, no one is a “100% victim”) – to make things better. You can’t change the past, but you CAN at least try to make today better than yesterday. Let’s focus on that.

  4. RG

    “So in this year of angry men’s (and some angry women’s) voices, how about a day that celebrates our common humanity or one that celebrates an ethic of caring about what we share as women and men, cis- or trans, young or old? How about a day that stops pitting men against women but finds our common cause in achieving gender equality and social justice? That would truly be a day worth celebrating.”
    Go talk to feminism, it disagrees with you. If you want to look at something dividing people, look no further.
    And maybe, next time, put this out on international women’s day? See how wel lthat sentiment goes.
    Otherwise, there is no patriarchy, so get off your high horse.

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