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Boys Don’t Cry: On Bill Murray and Masculinity

This morning I had a meaningful talk with a friend about men, masculinity, and mental health. She too was concerned about the need for more thoughtful discussion to understand and support men’s challenges.

So I got right on it. Plus I had a few web bookmarks I’ve been meaning to read and integrate.

First there was a study called Men’s Mental Illness: A Silent Crisis by the Canadian Mental Health Association. Part of it reads:

The ‘code’ governing men’s behaviour is one of the prime barriers preventing men from seeking help. According to UK-based, men may feel it’s “weak and unmanly to admit to feelings of despair.” Because it’s easier for men to acknowledge physical symptoms, rather than emotional ones, their mental health problems can go undiagnosed.

Beliefs about masculinity also encourage men’s general lack of interest in health issues; many men simply don’t believe they are susceptible to depression, so why bother learning about it? Similarly, risky behaviour, seen especially in younger men - including abuse of alcohol and/or drugs and violence - can mask their emotional problems, both from themselves and their physicians.

Another example of how traditional notions of masculinity are a barrier to men’s health is Cynthia Daniels’ book Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction.

Two Reviews
“Exposing Men presents a gripping account of how men’s reproductive systems are just as harmed by environmental and industrial factors as are women’s, ranging from low sperm counts to birth defects to sexual health. Arguing that men’s position of social privilege often obscures the dangers to which they are subjected, Daniels makes a powerful case for rethinking how we see men’s role in reproduction, sexuality, and masculinity. Everybody, male and female alike, who thinks that feminism is just about women-or just for women-should read this book.” — Nancy Hirschmann, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

“Exposing Men considers how prevailing ideals of masculinity have produced a skewed societal and scientific understanding of men’s reproductive health.” — Contemporary Sociology

Meghan’s Blaaaah has a blog entry linking the discussion to popular culture. She posts a fantastic video called “Bill Murray is Sad”. Fans of Wes Anderson movies should definitely watch this and it also helps explain her point. Part of which is:

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It’s not that I don’t love Bill Murray. I do. And I like these characters. And with a few caveats, I like these movies. But it’s been fascinating to watch some men I know propel Bill Murray into hero status in ways that women do not. And the more I think and write about it, I think this hero status is available to men in ways that women cannot access. Picture each of these characters as a woman. Might she still attain some kind of cult following? Sure. But I don’t think that she could tap into something in the way that Bill Murray does. And that something, I am coming to believe, has a lot to do with contemporary masculinity, and it increasingly seems, some good old-fashioned resentment.

Of course men’s emotional pain is not just something to watch on the big screen or theorize about. It has real consequences – such as men’s violence. Pat McGann wrote for the Men Can Stop Rape blog on the tragic school shootings by young men. In part, he writes:

I knew that after tragic incidents like those named earlier, the media wants to present the public with answers, and it seemed probable that none of the answers would clearly identify traditional masculinity as a culprit. But I didn’t want to just stay on the surface of manhood; I wanted to burrow underneath to get at its muscle and bone. I wanted to write about how men’s pain gets transformed into men’s anger, because it seemed to me that some deep-seated anguish was underlying all the bullets, the ropes, the knives. We men typically aren’t socialized to handle pain in healthy, constructive ways. Instead we’re taught to “suck it up” and “get over it,” which might be useful strategies some of the time but not as everyday practices – especially when it comes to violence.

Respected violence prevention educator Paul Kivel proposes positive ways of looking anger and de-linking it with violence in an article Anger is not the Problem.

More responses to the issue of emotional awareness and masculinity include educators such as David Hatfield and even public education campaigns targeting men’s panic around self-esteem and penis size. This clip is called Speeding, No One Thinks Big of You.

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Photographer Charlie White looks at male vulnerability through a fictional puppet named Joshua. He took a series of photos exploring self-image and self-loathing and 4 photos and an audio interview are featured on NPR’s program Understanding Joshua: Vulnerability on Film.

Mostly because I just love the song, I’d like to end with one my favorite dance songs, Boys Don’t Cry by The Cure:

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How are you feeling about this post? Write a comment, ask a question, add a link……..let’s keep the conversation going.

Just for your events calendar and linking back to my first post in this Blog, my video Shoulder to Shoulder: men and vulnerability is showing at the Global Community Film Festival in Toronto September 28th.

Category : Uncategorized


  paul wrote @ September 24th, 2007 at 4:05 pm

hi, i’m just making sure the comments box is working. i’ve had problems with it before.
i’m sure there’s lots i’ve missed out on in my blog about masculinity and mental health, but that’s what you’re for — please write in.

media projects exploring these topic are especially welcomed.

  marlena wrote @ September 25th, 2007 at 8:41 am

Oh - I love Bill Murray too. But yeah, Meghan makes smart points and so do you. It’s refreshing to see deeper critiquing of hip films.

I recently saw Brown Bunny with Vincent Gallo. The film is about a lonely, heart broken guy haunted by his true love. Throughout this kind of arty drawn out film he tries to fill her place with other women. His actions come across to me as a sort of tragic duschebag. There are scenes of him racing his hyper masculine motorcycle but then there are glimpses of him driving his van on this endless highway crying over his loss and breaking down in the end, a big lonely man cry scene. It’s interesting. A lot of people hated this film. You should check it out sometime.

I have never seen my dad cry. He has high blood pressure and i sometimes worry that because he suppresses so many of his feelings and stresses that they will cause him to crack or explode with a heart attack. Very sad.

You lured me in from facebook with Bill Murray! I don’t have any academic comments to offer. Just some random thoughts.

Your Blog reminded me that I still need to go and see Super Bad. Hey, and just yesterday I submitted The Cure for my friends upcoming wedding dance party request list.



  tuval wrote @ October 5th, 2007 at 2:55 pm

you might want to read this to get a different take on wes anderson’s films:

one thing i really struggle with is that when issues men’s health and wellbeing are discussed they are so often positioned in opposition to women’s health. areas where men are shown to be struggling are picked up by men’s rights groups to show how feminism has ravaged our lives.
i want to be able to discuss these issues. i think you show how important it is that we deepen the dialogue around men’s mental health but i wish it was easier to do it without the danger of having the conversation hijacked.
in the meantime i’m going to continue to work through all the great links you’ve posted and think think think about it.

  sianna wrote @ October 14th, 2007 at 6:58 pm

there is a documentary i saw awhile back on masculinity on cbc…it was really interesting..check out the link, don’t know if they have copies of it but it repeated a lot for a while.

  paul wrote @ October 21st, 2007 at 10:49 pm

hi sianna, yes i’ve seen this doc and i actually recorded it onto vhs to show others. it’s nice to know there is a growing body of work in this area. the NFB has a great doc called “Shredded” about male body image and working out and one of my favorite docs about masculinity is “MurderBall”.

tuval, the wes anderson story broke a small bit of my heart but i’ve read enough cultural studies (even ward churchill for that matter) to know about embedded racism in popular culture……..even the stuff many ‘thoughtful’ people like us like.

marlena, thanks for your honesty. i’m starting to read “The Kind Father” by Calvin Sandborn and he also lists the health risks associated with masculinity (suicide, depression, substance abuse, violence, and premature death).

thanks for the comments and please keep them coming.

  Melissa wrote @ October 23rd, 2007 at 12:32 pm

A month + after this blog was posted, I’m writing in to respond. And most especially to the images of Bill Murray, as I’m fascinated about this idea that men have propelled him into ‘hero status’.

The thing with Bill Murray, is even though he’s sad, he’s still cool. There’s nothing pathetic or desperate about him: just quiet, lonely, consistent stoicism. That’s what I saw in those clips: stoicism.

So is the message that men do indeed feel sad, but that it should only be contained in those blank, unpeopled spaces that are hotel rooms, crowded foreign streets and in your own head at the worst of times?

The woman who put together the film clips said: imagine women in those scenes. I’d like to go a step further and say: imagine Bill, but reaching out, again and again, each time he’s sad, talking about it with friends and coworkers and family.
Would he still be cool then?

Unfortunately, mental illness, and violence, in my mind begins with feeling cut-off, and isolated. When you don’t feel connected, it’s easy to get sick. While I’d say this is the case with both men and women, it’s still writ large that men need to be stoics. And, interestingly, I think this approach is more lauded then any female ‘pathetic’ approach of reaching out. For that’s still considered a weakness…

Contrast Bill Murray and Bridgit Jones.

whew, I’ve said my bit. Thanks for sharing those resources and your thoughts Paul.

  Jennie wrote @ November 3rd, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Just wanted to say that I’m glad to see a blog like this that is discussing issues of masculinity, media, activism, etc.
I read a lot of feminist blogs written by women, and it’s nice to see men out there doing the same thing. Wicked stuff.

  adam segal wrote @ November 10th, 2007 at 12:06 am

As a man providing counselling and psychotherapy to men, I take particular interest in your thoughts on constructions of masculinity and the impact on men’s lives, esteem and, ultimately the social roles that men end up playing. The costs for men, and the social realms they are a part of, are sizable.

The work that I do has helped me see just how devastating gender role expectations can be for men specifically with respect to their emotional health and wellbeing. Before the gender machine does its conditioning, children, both male a female, seem to have a greater connection to their emotions – a sort of primal ability to feel whatever they’re feeling, express it in some way, and experience the benefit of having emotions cycle through them [i.e. child drops ice cream cone, child cries, child feel sleepy with relief, child is ready for next experience]. For so many men, a barrage of consistent messages that support them to see emotional expression, or really just plain old emotions, as weak and feminine/queer [gender machine confirms both of these realms as ‘bad’] leaves them no choice but to find ways of disconnecting from their emotional[vulnerable] self. Something I’ve notice both in my own experience and in the experiences of the men I know and work with is how, for many of us, the years of emotional disconnection have resulted in a sort of emotional damn. As a result, connecting with emotions becomes a scarier and scarier option as the emotions have accumulated — gotten larger in the absence of care.

I feel hope, though, in our ability to change our habits despite their long roots inside our psyches. Finding ways back to ourselves and bypassing the internalized shaming messages is grueling initially. This unlearning can feel incredibly uncomfortable at first. Once we allow ourselves to attend to our emotions, ending the self-neglect we’ve been conditioned to enact, we can quickly begin to feel the benefit of valuing our emotions and the information they have to provide us with. In many ways, this process involves turning our attention away from our minds, which have been so overvalued and upheld as ‘wonderfully masculine’ [especially in the West], and permitting ourselves to feel and honour the vulnerability that exists despite all our efforts to hide.

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