Contact! Unload: An invitation to reimagine masculinity

Contact! Unload is an event performed by graduates of the Veterans Transition Network (VTN), which is funded by the Movember Foundation and the Peter Wall Institute. The event aimed to raise awareness and spread information regarding men’s mental health — specifically the participants’ experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Through the performance, the participants shared difficult experiences from both their deployment abroad as well as their transition back to civilian life. The organizers emphasized that the veterans were performing rather than acting. 

This performance is a continuation of their service to the nation. While their service as active duty members is easily understood as a contribution, raising awareness of mental health issues surrounding decompression and the transition back to civilian life is just as meaningful. Beyond individual therapeutic purposes, sharing their challenges with the wider community calls attention to the importance of sharing individual vulnerabilities as part of their healing process.

Here in Canada, depression affects 840,000 men every year, is the second leading cause of disability worldwide and affects men at any time in their life. Men are often reluctant to reach out, talk about their feelings or seek professional help for their depression. Men tend to retreat to substance abuse or turn to risky behaviours when they are depressed and are three times more likely to commit suicide than women. Men’s depression increases anger, hostility and aggression towards others, including their loved ones. 

A student-based research/action group focused on reimagining manhood in North America, the student group focused on reimagining manhood found the parallels between this project and the broader societal and campus reality striking. The performance unloaded two key themes evident in social science research. First, that masculine expectations and stereotypes — together with myths about mental well-being — make it difficult for men to take charge of their health. The second theme is the importance of human contact and “brotherhood” as an essential coping mechanism.

The silencing effect of masculinity is illustrated through a symbolic tool — a box.  As part of their therapeutic practice, participants in the project took part in the creation of a tribute pole. According to master carver Rick Xwulactun, this pole — made out of three caskets —symbolizes the need to come together and share experiences and stories as a part of the healing process. The use of caskets draws attention to the feelings and experiences veterans buried, the potentially mortal consequences of such silencing and the healing potential of sharing them.

Interestingly, a similar symbol — the man boxis often used as an analytical tool within masculinity studies. It represents a set of unwritten standards, expectations and rules that regulate and confine men’s behaviour, thoughts and feelings. Men are taught that a proper, socially rewarding performance of masculinity means being strong and stoic, expressing oneself only through anger, being “tough” and leading. Men are also taught that any behaviours outside this strictly defined performance of masculinity — fear, sadness, vulnerability and anything stereotypically viewed as “feminine” — are forbidden and disqualify them from “manhood.”  

In grappling with this social reality, the highest ranking veteran participating in the event discussed the challenge of a dual responsibility as a leader and authority figure within the service — one that is valued through expressing strength and as individual who struggled with the damaging emotional traumas of war. This disconnect stemmed from the necessity to admit to self and share vulnerability in coping with these realities while maintaining the social performance of a stoic and authoritative leader.

The VTN enabled these veterans to challenge the disconnect between leadership and vulnerability mostly through fraternal bonding with other men who share the same experiences. In such a hyper masculine societal segment, it appears that only men can “open the caskets," allowing other men to “breathe freely” and explore their full human potential beyond the man box’s restrictions. Such practices highlight the overall human need for emotional intimacy from which men in our society are often excluded with the exception of certain masculine social institutions such as the military or campus fraternities. Being rooted in traditional views of masculinity, however, we find that these institutions are inherently limiting.  

Contact! Unload, supported by Movember and presented during UBC’s Thrive week, is an invitation to reimagine a healthier, more inclusive and less competitive way to facilitate such an important bond within general society. The first step in challenging these social constructions is to open a frank conversation about the challenges we all face, effective coping mechanisms and support strategies for friends and family members.