There’s a new word you may have seen recently, appearing in publications from Metro to Men’s Health. “Manxiety”. It’s one of a series of compound words which have appeared over the last few years, all containing “man” or “guy”. Manscara. Guyliner. Manbag. They seem to be associating men with a particular idea, but in fact they do the exact opposite. After all, if men were usually associated with the idea of makeup, “guyliner” would be just called “eyeliner”, and there wouldn’t need to be a separate kind of “mascara” which was marked out for them.
The awkward presence of “man” in these words, which sits there as an obviously added-on element, serves to keep the original idea separate from “manhood”. There has to be a specific kind of bag that men can carry, because a regular “handbag” is apparently unacceptable for them.
Beyond these compounds, there are whole slews of words to which our society tends to add gendered terms. In each case it demonstrates an assumption that the original term does not “naturally” imply the specified gender. “Female lawyer” is a good example. A newspaper will never describe what a “famous male lawyer” said in court, because the word “lawyer” is used as if it is implicitly male. They may well refer to a “male nurse”, however. When I was an undergraduate, a particularly promiscuous man was sometimes called a “man-whore”, as if “whore” was so obviously a term for a woman that it needed this little explanatory addition to apply it to a bloke.
As those examples imply, there are definite patterns we can observe in which words “naturally” seem to belong to which genders. “Career” needs the addition of “girl”, but no-one ever called me a “career boy”. Nor is there any such thing as a “dadtrepreneur”, since it is tacitly assumed that “entrepreneurs” will be men, and that if they have children this will have no effect on their working lives as someone else will be taking care of them. There literally isn’t a word for “man who has to juggle his duties as a father will the demands of his business”. There’s no phrase for “boy power”, either. That’s just power.
Man-whore. Career girl. Mumtrepreneur. Guyliner. Embedded in each of these is an assumption about the gendered nature of the original term. The clumsiness of the resulting phrase is part of its function, as the two terms refuse to sit comfortably together. They advertise the supposed incongruity of a mother starting a business, or a man wearing makeup. “Manxiety” is exactly the same. Whilst apparently associating men will anxiety, it carefully disconnects the two ideas. Men don’t have anxiety, they have “manxiety”, it insists. That thing women and children get, that’s not connected to men. Men don’t have it. Of course this is nonsense. Men have anxiety, just as they have depression or any other kind of mental health issue.
The real problem with the word “manxiety” is that it perpetuates exactly the kinds of problems men face in dealing with mental health. It asserts that these problems are separate from the essence of being a man, that somehow “man” and “anxiety” are ideas which don’t go together. This is precisely the attitude which keeps men from seeking professional help when they need it, or from being open about their emotional lives in ways which could reduce the mental pressure. When we tell men that they have “manxiety”, we fuel the machismo which insists that feelings are for the weak, and that men must never admit “weakness”.
“Manxiety” is a mental health issue for men. Indeed it’s a symptom of the crushing gender stereotypes which damage men’s lives and the lives of those around them. It seems utterly perverse that we realized men’s tendency to delay going to the doctor, to bottle up their feelings in toxic ways, to preserve an invulnerable-seeming shell around themselves which prevented anyone from getting close enough to help…and then invented a word which implies that men having mental health issues is “unnatural”.
Last year I thought I had found the most tragic example of the “man” compound, in an advert for body wash by Dove. It’s the image at the top of this article, which advertises their “Men + Care” range. That plus sign, carefully keeping apart men and the idea of caring or needing care, whilst selling them a product, seemed to sum up the horrible situation gender roles put men into. It verged on chilling when you considered the levels of violence which men perpetrate against themselves and other people, within this culture which demands that “man” and “caring” are such alien concepts to each other. But I think I’ve found a more heart-breaking example. “Manxiety”.