Man: The Façade? From Histories Heroes to Lads in Leeds


By Sam Cook

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

In 2012, I moved from the outskirts of Leeds to study History at the University of Kent. I’d struggled for a variety of different reasons to exist in the friendship groups I had created while at secondary school, most of which revolved around laddish culture, bravado and things being ‘gay’ if they didn’t conform to my friend’s roughly defined ideas of what is masculine.

As you can imagine, this didn’t leave much room for self-expression and I learnt to co-opt my personality into this narrow rubric in pursuit of conformity as opposed to introspection or self-development. I wore a mask, one of which I now know wasn’t necessary and one I could have avoided all together – a crime which punished my ability to form an accurate picture of who I am or what type of person I wanted to be which seeped into my past, present and future.

It took me a while to come to terms with this. I tried to shed these ticks of unnecessary projecting and avoiding how uneasy I felt in various situations being someone I didn’t. At my core, I didn’t have any affinity with them.

This led to depression, anxiety, self-harm, misunderstanding, anger, confusion together in a cocktail of mental disorders that are rife in our generation and only getting worse.

Experiencing university culture in some ways helped and in other ways made things worse but there’s one thing I found particularly relevant when I ended up specialising in Napoleonic history.

I found that it is often the case that the reality of famous historical character’s personalities and how they are portrayed in history are seldom the same.

Napoleon is arguably the epitome of fake historical narratives: A brooding thinker, a Machiavellian conniver, genius of political strategy, prolific propagandist and a weaver of bureaucratic webs through and through. Popular history immortalises him as a heroic figure, focusing on his military victories and representing him as an embodiment of masculinity.

The first of these two images, for example, adeptly illustrates Napoleon the man — a sulky looking brooding figure of evident power but evident frailties.

This is contrasted with Napoleon the myth as portrayed in the second, a man unconquerable with no displays of weakness, a leader of men and an emboldened warrior. Napoleon is infamous for deliberately constructing this version of history and ultimately editing his own posterity, doing so in the hope that this would manipulate the perceptions of him held by those in the future.

This worked remarkably well, and more modern literature laments that prior Napoleonic history focused so much on Napoleon the general as opposed to Napoleon the politician (Broers, 2014).

As ruler, Napoleon chose to characterise his individual persona through militarism and typically masculine traits as presentation for his public persona.

He perpetuated what became to be known as the ‘Napoleon myth’ — one man with two portrayals of self. This self-denial and self-affirmation of self has resounding similarities with a great deal of men today. It’s this dual wielding of personalities that I began to see in myself and how it was inexorably tied to my perception of masculinity.

A fundamental and time honoured concept caught amidst society’s transformation towards modernity is masculinity and what makes the modern man ‘manly’.

Traditional understanding of masculinity is rather simple: physical strength, aggression, red-blooded and all those quintessential characteristics that are for all intents and purposes what is perceived to be the antithesis to femininity. Both traditional femininity and masculinity are defined most of all by their respective differences.

This has, however, become really quite convoluted post-millennium. The line between traditional perspectives of gender roles seem blurred when we consider what is expected of the modern male.

This is emphasised most prevalently in metropolitan, multi-racial and liberal societies such as London. The frequently quoted anecdote of a Spartan mother reminding her son on the eve of battle to ‘come back with your shield – or upon it’ typifies the straightforward mentality that defined a man’s role in society and how this is tied to his sense of self, social integrity and crucially, pride. This is hardly representative of wider society as it is now.

It would be fascinating to witness the reaction of a Spartan warrior being sat down by their respective partner, asked to open up, be emotionally responsive to their daughter’s relationships or be comfortable being the little spoon.

The expectant role of the male in their relationships with family, friends, work colleagues and lovers is evolving irreparably but from what to what?

In the absence of war, laborious manual work and easily defined acts of ‘manliness’, the path towards manhood is littered with ill-defined abstractions that block progress.

The modern man may be forgiven for not quite knowing as yet what should be integrated, what should be slipped by passively and what should be actively hammered out of existence.

Men are still clinging to more traditional (and easily identifiable) characteristics of masculinity to safeguard against complex and new expectations.

Struggling to understand internal contradictions have led to heavy psychological tolls, as the equally prevailing and imprisoning sentiments of ‘suck it up’,man up’, or ‘just get on with it’ seem to linger in the male psyche.

This is evident when one considers the growing awareness surrounding male mental health and suicide rates. ONS figures show that there were 6,233 suicides of over 15-year old’s registered in 2013, 252 more than in 2012 and the male suicide rate is three times higher than that of the female rate (Davies, 2015). The aggregate UK suicide rate was 11.9 dates per 100,000 people, with middle-aged men being the most ‘at risk’ category of individual (NHS, 2014).

It’s unsurprising that these figures are often linked to toxic forms of masculinity, especially when it pits traditionally masculine action against the reality of a more emotionally sensitive individual.

Returning to Napoleon, the systemic use of social media also beckons a call to create an individual ‘façade’ that many now abide. Young male and females’ use of social media platforms as a means to control and manipulate visual sides of their personality is now pretty much normalized.

As a final point, the term ‘Napoleon complex’ is largely used to describe over-aggressive and insecure behaviour in shorter men. This term is anachronistic, not only because Napoleon was average in height for a man of his time but because it is far better suited to evolve the term to include the broader complexities of modern masculinity that are aptly represented in Napoleon’s dual personality.

The ‘Napoleon complex’ could be better used in the description of males who project pretences of masculinity while covering up another more sincere side with clear frailties and emotional depth.

By using the term ‘Napoleon complex’ in a different way, we can highlight crucial issues that form the root of the problem and is killing hundreds every year across the country.

Sam grew up in Woodlesford, a small town on the outskirts of Leeds. He now lives in London working after completing a Double MSc in International Affairs at the London School of Economics.

Read more articles like this in our Experiences section here.


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