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Boys Do Cry: The Artist Taking On 'Fragile Masculinity'

Boys don't cry. Take it like a man. Be a big boy.

Messages around what masculinity is (and isn't) are drummed into us since an early age, says queer Sydney artist Samuel Leighton-Dore. Male sadness doesn't come out in tears, but in anger, violence and substance abuse.

"I always thought I was bullied for being gay," Leighton-Dore told 10 daily.

"In hindsight, I suspect I was being bullied for being a different type of boy."

Unlike his peers, who fought their way up the schoolyard social ladder with fists and jeers, Leighton-Dore wore his emotions easily.

"The biggest part of growing up has been learning to take pride in my sensitivity," he said.

Photo: Supplied.

That pride and vulnerability is threaded through his work, and next week his first solo exhibit opens: Fragile Masculinity, Handle With Care.

It's an exploration of how pseudoscience of phrenology -- an 18th-century method of measuring bumps on the skull to determine mental traits -- and the stoicism of public statues intersects with modern-day understandings and expressions of masculinity.

In other words, it's taking on toxic masculinity -- and finding it wanting.

"I really want to interrogate this idea that a man's pursuit of strength makes him quite fragile," he said.

Credit: Samuel Leighton-Dore.

"Toxic masculinity to me is behaviour that is born from a sense of fragile masculinity. When we hold on to our idea of masculinity too tightly, we lose all flexibility in that area. That's where I think toxic behaviours come from. It's like the chicken and the egg, but way less cute."

One of Leighton-Dore's most eye-grabbing pieces reimagines a Men's Health magazine cover, only instead of articles around a 5-minute ab workout or how to drop body fat, it talks about how to deal with rejection or being strong when life gets hard.

Credit: Samuel Leighton-Dore.

"I wanted to imagine a world where mental health was viewed in the same light as gym culture," Leighton-Dore said.

"Not that that's a negative thing -- a lot of positive male relationships form in the gym -- but I can't help but wonder what it would be like if the focus was on emotional well-being."

It's my way of imagining a world where people boast about mental health gains.

Part of Leighton-Dore's work in removing traditional definitions of masculinity is because right now, something isn't working. Men are killing women -- 69 women were killed in 2018, according to Destroy the Joint -- but they're also killing themselves, accounting for about three-quarters of all suicides in Australia.

"If those stats alone aren't enough, then I don't know what is," he said.

The good news is: there's hope. Leighton-Dore points to celebrities such as Nick Offerman and Osher Günsberg as strong male role models working to address masculinity and mental health.

Osher Günsberg. Photo: Getty.

READ MORE: Osher Günsberg: It's Been Nearly Five Years Since I Lost My Mind

READ MORE: Nick Offerman: We're Making Everyone Not White Or A Billionaire Unhappy

But in typical millennial fashion, there's always a seeping undercurrent that none of this will matter in a few short years, anyway.

"The change in masculinity is coming, it's whether or not it comes before global warming kills us," Leighton-Dore said.

"Like -- 'finally, I don't feel so restricted. Too bad I'm knee deep in flood water'."

Fragile Masculinity, Handle With Care opens Wednesday 20th February 6pm-9pm at m2 Gallery in Surry Hills as part of the 2019 Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras festival.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

Contact the author: abrucesmith@networkten.com.au