, , , , ,

I’m a bit conflicted about the term “man flu”, which seems to have become a fixture in British slang.  On one hand, it seems to be a rather good joke.  It calls attention to the way in which men often claim that their experiences are more significant than women’s.  Men’s sport, men’s music, even men’s colds, are apparently the real thing, compared to which women just can’t measure up.  So “man flu” seems a handy term to point to this devaluation of women’s experiences, and valorizing of men’s.  Its cuts down to size some of the claims that women have it easier, that men do all the hard work and suffer the most.

My discomfort with the term[1] stems from the way it intersects with ways we allow men to talk about their illnesses – or don’t.  By “we” I mean a sexist, patriarchal society which continually polices people’s gender and demands they conform to certain arbitrary – but nonetheless often damaging – roles.  The way “man flu” gets used in everyday life seems to me to reflect an anxiety about men admitting to being ill.  The intention may be to criticise society’s elevation of men’s experiences over women’s, but it has the effect of shutting men up when they start hinting that they don’t match to with sexist stereotypes of men as impervious and invulnerable.

I don’t mean this as a complaint that men have a tough time in a patriarchal society: they manifestly don’t.  Nor am I suggesting that “man flu” is an idea which wicked feminists dreamed up in order to mock men.  (Apart from anything else, you hear the term used by both men and women.)  Rather, I’m saying that it plays into troubling ways we gender discussions of illness, and supports an ideal of men as powerful and not dependent on others.  An ideal, of course, which serves to support men’s dominance in a sexist society.  I’m willing to believe that I’ve got this wrong: to be told that actually I’m just irritated by women criticising men in a sensitive spot.  But I think worth raising the issue, and I’d like to hear what other people think.

Firstly, the form of the term “man flu” recalls a spate of other “man” neologisms we’ve seen over the last few years.  Though apparently carrying a very different meaning, it sounds oddly similar to “man-bag”, “guyliner”, “manscara” and Dove’s deodorant, “Men + Care”.  As other people have pointed out before me, all these terms go to great lengths to separate the words they appear to be pushing together.  If we assumed that men could carry handbags, there’d be no need for the term “man-bag”.  If men lining their eyes seemed natural, it would be called “eyeliner”, not “guyliner”.  Most blatantly of all, the title of Dove’s “Men + Care” explicitly excludes the idea of caring or being cared for from the term “man”.  These phrases all emphasize that they’re putting something temporarily alongside the idea of what is naturally “manly”, thus bolstering the assumption that the two things don’t belong naturally together.  The phrases have the effect of emphasizing the distinction between their constituent parts, and I wonder whether “man flu” doesn’t in fact have a similar undertone.  Does it hint at the way being ill is kept separate from our society’s notion of a real man?[2]

Of course there are ways in which we, as a culture, are happy to allow men to display illness.  Sports injuries, bruises, the occasional broken leg, even a scar or two, so long as it doesn’t disrupt the body’s general outline.  But none of these disrupt the sense of the male body as essentially closed off, independent and presenting a hard surface to the world.  On the contrary, they stage the male body’s impacts when it meets the physical universe.  They call attention to the body slamming against other hard objects and bouncing off.  I’m not suggesting these are not painful or unpleasant or damaging, but rather that our culture is more comfortable with recognising them as the ways a man can be hurt.  They reinforce that sense of the male body as solid, impervious and with secure boundaries.

Flu is a different matter.  It’s less serious than some of the things I’ve mentioned above, but it’s potentially an illness which seems less “manly”.  It is less suited to that image of masculinity as hard and tightly boundaried.  On a literal level, it involves the body’s borders becoming permeable and blurred.  The nose drips, the eyes run, the whole body sweats.  The body needs to take in lots of liquids at the mouth, which then reappear at other gaps in its surface.  It becomes “leaky”, that term so often associated with women’s bodies, and associated with a misogynistic disgust at them.  That rigid distinction which stereotyped masculinity likes to assert, between what is in the body and what is in the world outside, is undermined for a while.  The potentially “feminising” element of flu might even be read from its etymology, since “flu” is a contraction of “influenza”.  The term was borrowed from Italian in the eighteenth century, where it still held the older sense of “influence”, as in a force exerted by the stars.  The illness was put down – at least rhetorically – to the traumatic and debilitating pressure of some passing star upon the sufferer’s body.  Again, we’re used to hearing the idea that women’s bodies are subject to the moon’s phases as part of a discourse which imagines them as open to influences and forces beyond them.  Flu looks like an image of the insecure body, the un-masculine, un-self-sufficient body, whose boundaries are permeable.  These are all tropes that have been used to imagine, and revile, women’s bodies over the years.

It’s not just verbal echoes of guyliner and influenza that make me uneasy about the way “man flu” reinforces gendered images of the body.  I’ve lived for many years with a disability which possesses some similar symptoms, though much less acute.  Admittedly this is probably another reason why my ideas on this subject should be deeply suspect!  I’ll admit my thinking is inevitably coloured by irritation at how difficult our shared discourse on illness makes it to talk to people about how I’m feeling.  Mentioning head or muscle aches, blurry eyes, shivers, and so on, do tend to attract jokes about “man flu”.  But it has also made me noticed how remarkably gendered people’s reactions to my illness are.

Put another way, I’m repeatedly struck by how uncomfortable people are with a man being ill.  To the extent that they make jokes about how I’m actually a woman.  I’m a fairly private person in many ways, and I’m lucky enough that people can meet me – indeed, know me for some time – without necessarily noticing I’m disabled.  I don’t have to continually explain my illness, or talk a lot about it, though it’s something I’m trying to be more open about.  So I’m not surprised that people are surprised, so to speak, when I tell them.  I’ve had twenty years to work out what I think about it (I’ll let you know if I ever do…) and they’d had twenty seconds.  But you might be surprised how often people’s reaction is to decide I’m female.

This can be a deliberate insult, of course.  We live in a deeply sexist society, where one of the worst ways you can insult a man is by suggesting he’s a woman.  So one might have expected the sports coach who reacted to my being off games for a long time with what the doctors were calling “post-viral syndrome” by asking me repeatedly in front of the other players whether I had got over my “ post-natal syndrome”.  It’s part of that protection of the male body image as impervious and unyielding to suggest that any deviation from a particular demand on it – whether that’s a workout, a tackle, or simply an apparent lack of effort – is to call into question the maleness of the player’s body.

But it wasn’t just macho sports coaches who made jokes like that, and they usually weren’t intended as insults.  Well meaning people, when told I had been sick at irregular intervals over the last few days, joked politely about morning sickness and asked when I was due.  Mentioning how my body temperature soared suddenly resulted in knowing references to hot flushes and the menopause.  These witticisms were intended kindly, to ease the potential embarrassment of the situation, but they – and all the others from which I picked these few examples – all shifted me carefully into a female frame of reference.  It was as if there was no language to talk comfortably about a man who was ill, and whose illness involved blurring the outlines of that impermeable, masculine body map.

Once I started noticing, of course, these comments stuck out more and more.  They all seemed to reflect a discomfort with the idea that a man could be ill in this way, not in total control of his body the way the stereotype demanded.  That’s why “man flu” gives me pause, because its rhetorical structure – and its effect of forestalling men who admit being unwell – seem to actually reinforce sexist images about “real” or “natural” masculinity.  I’m not worried about people criticising men for emphasizing the validity of their experience over that of women.  But I do wonder whether this phrase actually encourages men and women to insist that expressing weakness or illness is literally incompatible with being a man.  If so, that seems to be bolstering a patriarchal society, not critiquing it.

[1] Which is clearly a really heavy-duty discomfort, that you actually probably don’t even understand the gravity of, with me being a man and all…

[2] This speculation is supported by adverts for products like Lemsip, which tend to emphasize the idea that taking their product is “manly” because being ill is a womanly or boyish state.  One advert from some years ago actually used the tagline “It sorts the men from the boys” as if taking the medicine was some sort of physical endurance test, reframing having a cold as something which could be “fought” aggressively to re-establish a manly image.