I knew a guy in college — short at 5-foot-4, though he still referred to himself as “average-sized” — who went to the hospital because he sprained his back while changing a lightbulb. Rather than using a step stool, Dave (who wished to remain anonymous — after all, there’s a college reunion coming up) stood atop a kitchen counter and attempted to unscrew the lightbulb facing backward, while arching his back at an uncomfortable 45 degrees. The result? He slipped off the counter and ended up on the floor, holding both the lightbulb and a series of cables from the ceiling.
I recently asked Dave what made him decide to pursue this very basic domestic task in a needlessly complicated way. Over the phone, he tells me, “At the time, I was definitely insecure about my height. It was the first time I’d lived in a house, rather than a student dorm, so I already didn’t know how to do most things: use a [laundry] machine, a dishwasher, a stove, etc.” Crucially, however, he and his long-term girlfriend had recently broken up, and she was now dating someone else — a 6-foot tall rugby player with muscles so tight that his veins showed. He also had a rugged beard, and despite only being 20, looked a decade older.
In contrast, Dave was skinny and played badminton. “I definitely did feel intimidated by him,” Dave says, laughing. “It seems silly now, but back then, it did feel like she had left me — we had been dating since secondary school — for someone who was much more stereotypically male.” Dave doesn’t attribute the lightbulb incident directly to jealousy, though. Upon reflection, he thinks it was much more about proving his own masculinity to himself. “Obviously what happened was stupid,” he explains. “There was just something about the combination of a domestic chore — something that you expect all men should know how to do effortlessly — and feeling that [there is] a way as a man, that you have to do it.”
I was interested in the latter portion of Dave’s statement, and whether, like him, other men had carried out tasks in complicated, often dangerous ways because they felt that as a man, all other methods would be too feminine. And so, I posed the question on Twitter. As you can imagine, I wasn’t disappointed:
This phenomenon also extended far beyond Twitter. Imad Khan, 29, who works as a financial analyst in London, tells me via Facebook, “When I moved into a flat with my fiancée, I decided to DIY it even though I hadn’t done anything handy before. My logic was that I could learn from YouTube videos. Nor did I feel like putting up shelves or a cabinet would be that hard. Now, two years after we moved in, our wardrobe leans to the right, two of our bookshelves fell off so we have to stack the books on the floor and our TV stands on a couple of wooden boxes because I drilled the holes for the wall bracket unevenly, so when we put the TV on the stand it kept sliding off the wall.”
Another friend, 32-year-old Aaron, has a similar story. “A couple of years ago, I ended up destroying most of my clothes because I insisted that I knew how my new washing machine worked,” he explains. Despite his girlfriend continually telling him he was using the wrong settings — as per the instruction manual — Aaron felt that by tweaking the settings, he could wash and dry his clothes in a matter of hours, without having to hang them up to dry, a function of his super expensive new Hotpoint washing machine with built-in dryer. “The result was that my clothes all turned a weird blue and green color, all my [sweaters] shrank to a child’s size, and to top it off, half of it was still damp.”
“You know how guys can sometimes think they know how to fix a car even though they know jack shit?” he adds. “That was definitely me and the washing machine.”
All of which made me wonder whether or not men’s attitudes toward tasks, especially those in occupations where a high level of risk is present, could endanger other people. In 2016, for example, Yasin Khan and Andrea L. Davis, researchers at Drexel University, explored how gender affected safety in American fire departments. According to their study, published in the Journal of Workshop Behavioral Health, women were less likely to have a “tough guy” attitude when completing operational tasks, more likely to delegate tasks and follow safety rules and regulations, leading to fewer injuries on the field.
Funny enough, according to the paper, one of the biggest causes of injury faced by firefighters is ladder-related — that is, male firefighters are reluctant to have their female colleagues assist them with holding it up. As one of the female interviewees says:
“I think where we [women] benefit too is with technique because other things can be a struggle. We use better technique and a lot of guys get hurt because they just try to muscle it or god forbid that they ask somebody for help and god forbid they ask a woman to help with a ladder. So a lot of guys will just muscle things that really would be more efficient as a two-person job. And women, I think are smart enough, especially once you get on [the job] long enough, maybe not when I was younger, but when you’ve been on long enough to say you know what, I need help and I’m just gonna ask for help.”
The need for such men to “prove themselves” in physical work environments, isn’t just about gendered expectations either, according to Victor J. Seidler, a professor of social theory at Goldsmiths, University of London. In his book Recreating Sexual Politics: Men, Feminism and Politics, Seidler suggests that actions designed to be “performatively machismo” provide more insight into men’s changing roles in office-based workplaces, as well as the expectations placed on them by wider society. “Work has always been a way of proving a man’s individual worth and achievement — it has been a question of ‘getting on’ and making it in the world,” he writes.
To Seidler, physical labor is likely to be seen by men as an essential part of themselves. Partly, it’s because “work and labor have been integral to how contemporary masculinity has been constructed,” especially in occupations such as manufacturing or finance. Yet Seidler also suggests that because the idea of “work” has been attached to our conception of masculinity, the end result is a “denying of emotions and feelings… and they do not realize how the organization of modern work environments continually undermine their sense of reality.”
Simply put, so long as tasks like changing a lightbulb, using a washing machine or putting up a shelf have gendered connotations, it’s likely that a good percentage of men will see their inability to do so as a hit on their self-worth and/or masculinity.
Dave attributes his lightbulb incident to the perils of being a “young, angry guy,” who mellowed out as he grew older and more comfortable with himself. “I’m in a much better place now,” he says. “I’m way less agitated by my height, and I noticed that when I stopped caring so much, other people didn’t care either.” He might be an exception to the rule, though. “I hope that guys aren’t still going through what I did when we were at university,” he adds. “Then again, lads get into trouble for all kinds of stupid things.”