Elle magazine examines gendered anxiety in men without thinking critically about gender

Cover of February 2014 Elle Magazine

Elle magazine had a great opportunity to talk about how patriarchy and assumed gender roles hurt men. But they didn’t take it. Luckily, I have no problem doing it for them.

Vogue is usually the only magazine I read every month. But I was drunk on a Sunday afternoon (completely normal on the DC brunch scene) and I picked up the February 2014 copy of Elle magazine for my monthly dose of “shit I can’t afford.” Let me be clear, I don’t read fashion magazine for feminist theory. But if you are going to try to take a stab at gender analysis, don’t half ass it.

But that’s exactly what Elle did in “The Anxiety Closet.” I should have known something fishy was up when the tagline was “He looks like a jerk, talks like a jerk, and acts like a jerk, but could he really just be angst-ridden?” I thought we were all in agreement that when a loved one is a jerk to you, there are probably some internal issues there, but whatever. The article, written by Rachael Combe, is a piece about the taboo world of men’s anxiety. The author briefly profiles Scott Stossel, who recently released My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, and the Search for Piece of Mind, and Dan Harris, whose upcoming book is entitled 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. And she makes an attempt to address some of the social and cultural baggage surrounding anxiety that affects men. It begins:

Most recently gals are said to be stressed-out by the pressures of leaning in and having it all. In Betty Friedan’s time, we were having a our nineteenth nervous breakdown and gulping down mother’s little helpers to fend off the claustrophobia of limited choices. Women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders twice as often as men and prescribed around twice as many medications for it. It has ever been thus: The stereotypical lady twisting her hankie and succumbing to the vapors goes back at least to the age of Hippocrates, when female anxiety was called hysteria, from the Greek word for womb.

But stick a finger in the winds of zeitgeist and you’ll feel an icy new gust of dread blowing. Suddenly for every Nervous Nellie, there’s a Nervous Neil reaching out a trembling hand for support. It turns out that men are also anxious as hell–and they’re not going to sublimate it anymore.

This snapshot of the “plight of women,” while devoid of any intersectional class, sexuality, or race framework, works well enough to set up the rest of the article. The piece goes on to say that:

Since anxiety is viewed as feminine, men afflicted with it bear a double stigma: Not only do they have a mental illness, it’s one that strikes at the very core of their sense of self.

This statement is true. Anxiety, and mental illness in general, are socially constructed as feminine. But there is a term for why that is–it’s called sexism. It’s rooted in the idea that men have more control over their mental and emotional selves than women do. And this assumption not only means that women are more likely to be branded as mentally ill, but that men who are suffering from mental disorders are less likely to seek and receive help. Combes validates this when she reports that “typically, men have hidden their anxiety, and it’s manifested in problems such as alcohol abuse and antisocial behavior, both of which are statistically more prevalent in men.” This is a good example of how gender roles hurt men, too.

But it’s not just the men themselves who are hurt. Stossel writes about his father being an alcoholic, not tolerating his anxiety, and beating him for it. Daniel Smith, another man writing on the subject, documents being distant and neglectful to his partner as a result of an untreated anxiety disorder. And the truth is that despite the framing of the article’s tagline, the way men treat their partners is just one of the many negative effects that an anxiety disorder has on their lives and the lives of those around them. Combe does well to briefly remind readers that anxiety is not a “Twinkie Defense against malfeasance.” And it’s good that she did because women are certainly not given a pass. We are still called bitchy and overbearing and asked to smile and be nice and keep our shit together, despite our mental/emotional state. We can’t go drink our problems away or else we’re irresponsible party girls “asking for it.” Even if we suffer from anxiety disorders, we can’t neglect our partners or children without being punished–or even criminalized for it.

The verdict is out on whether or not anyone should receive a pass, regardless of gender, but I’m finding it difficult to empathize with people who refuse to think critically about gender roles–especially when strict adherence to them seems to be one of the reasons for their anxiety. Dan Smith talks about how all of the married men he knows are okay with the idea of sharing child care responsibilities and taking on “traditionally feminine roles,” but ”what has been harder to reconcile is the continued pressure they feel to ‘be the traditional masculine breadwinner; the strong, silent, practical type. Men don’t know where they stand.’”  

Threats to the common patriarchal order of things are causing men to have anxiety. So what do they do about it? When reporting on popular treatments that men seek for anxiety, Combes highlights Alcoholics Anonymous because it is a “safe space” and “drinking itself is pretty macho.” Harris, one of the profiled authors and an ABC Nightline anchor, also masculinized meditation by calling it “the dumbbell curl of the mind” and the mind’s “bonus level” where you get “special tools.” This language reinforces the limiting masculinity ideals that are causing anxiety for men to begin with.

And what did “The Anxiety Closet” offer in terms of resolution?

Maybe because of…economic trends, where women are stepping up and occupying more prominent breadwinning roles, men can then be free to be more emotional.

That’s right. It’s on women to position themselves in a way that allows men to express themselves more freely. You mean to tell me that after working “through the legacy of centuries of patriarchy,” women are still the assumed gatekeepers of morality and emotional sustenance? Please. Can we get any more cliché? The entire article represents a missed opportunity to start a conversation about why we feel so connected to gender binaries, even as we collectively evolve into different family and life structures.

Next time I’ll just look at the pictures.

Avatar Image Sesali is in love with that Valentino dress Zooey is wearing on the cover. That’s why she still reads fashion magazines.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted February 19, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    It may not be an intellectual treatise on the nature of gender roles in society, but it offers a source of empathy, and a lot of these men suffering from anxiety need exactly that. I don’t think this article was intended to be a critical discussion, and I don’t see how it’s necessarily “half assed” for offering advice for women on how to get their husbands or male friends to acknowledge that they have anxiety issues and need to get help.

  2. Posted February 19, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    I’m male and I wouldn’t have looked in a ‘lad mag’ for sensible comment on feminism (or at all actually) – and by the same logic I wouldn’t have looked in Elle either. It’s slightly like saying you read soft porn mags for the articles about Motor Cycles. I mean what you’re saying is “Article In Fashion Mag is a Bit Suspect from a Feminist Point of View” – well blow me down, who knew that might happen ? To be fair you have acknowledged that, but personally I wouldn’t be looking at the pictures in this kind of publication unless I was waiting in the dentists.

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