As charities warn of a crisis in men's health, building empathy among men of all ages is more crucial than ever. One way to do that? Reading fictionby Sarah Manavis / August 30, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
I come from a family of chronic film criers. My mom is known for being “teary,” wailing into a towel at Bridges of Madison County and repeatedly weeping at Ever After. My little sister infamously cried at the first Ice Age movie when she thought the tiger had died. In the last month, I have pathetically sobbed at the final scene of Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
My tendency to cry so easily used to embarrass me; that I, and the other women in my family, would break down at the simplest, most predictable Hollywood plot lines. We’re “tender-hearted,” my mother used to say, which I used to read as code for being overly-sensitive. But what I realise now is that what we actually were, and what we really are, is empathetic. Even though we don’t know these (poorly-developed) characters or lived their fictitious plot-lines, we feel for their losses, cry over their heartbreaks and feel their feelings.
This trait, empathy, is widely seen as female. Men, with their tough exteriors, are able to see that what we’re watching is really just Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley in front of a studio green screen. This ability to disconnect emotionally is seen as a strength, especially by other men, in pop-culture and in wider society. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean 3, you may be thinking: well, fair enough.
But a deeper societal problem lurks here. The problem is not that women are too sensitive, too sweet, and too empathetic; the problem is that men aren’t. Unholy amounts of studies and data over the last twenty years have unearthed the fact that men aren’t, generally, empathetic to their peers. Not only do they not feel very empathetic, but they are growing less and less empathetic year by year. What can we do to solve this? One idea that’s slightly less obvious than extreme social restructuring, feminist lectures and a mass therapy programme is to get them reading. Reading what, specifically? Reading fiction.