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.

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