I, personally, do not complain much when I get sick. It’s true that I provide for the people around me running updates about the type and quality of my illness, the intensity and character of its effects, the particular sounds of the cough, the volumes and colors of phlegm discharge and my own feelings about all of the above. But these communiqués, whether sent as text messages or shouted at my girlfriend from across the apartment, are useful news bulletins, provided in the spirit of CDC alerts. They’re not complaints. Me? I don’t complain. I update.
My girlfriend, oddly, disagrees. So do, as it happens, millions of unfortunately partnered heterosexual women around the world. “Men 10,000 percent are babies about getting sick,” one female friend told me recently. “It’s like no one has ever been sick before.” Everyone seems to agree: Men are drama queens about illness. When my girlfriend’s mother heard that I was looking into what she calls the Mancold, she insisted she be interviewed to provide cross-generational testimony to its existence. “We all roll our eyes when the Mancold comes calling,” she said. “All activities come to a halt, and, much like sports, there is a continuous update, sighing and groaning.” Under the name “Man Flu,” the phenomenon has entered the Oxford English Dictionary (“A cold or similar minor ailment as experienced by a man who is regarded as exaggerating the severity of the symptoms”), though all things considered I suggest the more clinical and less judgmental term “Masculine Flu Drama Syndrome.”
The most common theory about MFDS is that it represents a kind of inversion of gender roles. “It’s hard for men to express weakness, so when science says we have a reason, we really lean into it,” my friend Matt, who works in IT at a major hospital — and is therefore something of a medical expert — suggested. A gay friend theorized that the same dynamic can exist even in same-sex relationships. “The dominant male in the relationship does like to subvert the traditional roles and be doted on and cared for for a few days,” he told me. “Have you seen ‘Phantom Thread’? The whole movie is about this.”
But this seems to take for granted that men are generally not complainers. Isn’t it possible that men are simply more fragile and more dramatic in all situations? “I just whine more in general, so, yes,” one writer I know admitted when I asked if he complained about the flu more than his girlfriend. (As one of many recipients of his sickness-related personal updates throughout this year’s flu season, I can confirm.) Women, meanwhile, are natural stoics, blessed with psychological strength.
“Women complain less in general,” a friend who works in television production theorized, “because we know we have to give birth someday, so we implicitly understand real pain.” (Her girlfriend, a musician, nevertheless says “I’m a terrible person when I’m sick.”)
But perhaps this is not a question of psychology at all. “Like, what does it mean to be sick?” my friend Keenan asked. “People think this is question for hard biological science, but I think it’s more suited for philosophy.” I don’t disagree. Men are fatally insecure creatures, in constant need of external validation of their feelings; for us, sickness can represent an existential crisis. If a man is sick by himself, and there is no one for him to complain to, was he really sick at all?