It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when you realise you've been shoved into one of two categories: male or female. After a baby is born, parents and family members, then peers, teachers and total strangers make decisions that stamp one shape into the soft and malleable fabric of that person's gender identity. Blue for boys. Pink for girls. Separate toilets for either gender at school. Girls learning to please and appease others while unlearning how to say no. Boys pushing their shoulders back into boisterousness and placing both hands over their feelings, ramming them further down their throats – don't cry, don't show emotion, don't be "soft".
For many cisgender people – those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth – that 'a-ha' moment doesn't always feel seismic. But others notice they've been placed into a box with dimensions they didn't decide, and wonder why. Film director Darnell Depradine recently hit that point in his life, and has turned his thoughts on masculinity into visual EP Dear Male Ego, which we're premiering below. The 14-minute, five-track piece weaves just-about discordant piano melodies, wibble-wobbling synths and contemplative rapped lyrics through a story that grapples with what it means to be a young man today. And, more than that, how the expectations for a certain hard-as-nails masculinity can do unspoken damage to men that they're conditioned not to speak out about.
"I feel like society's expectations limit people's true personalities," the 20-year-old Londoner tells me, "and make people only be their true selves when they're alone. Throughout the film, the actors are wearing masks to hide themselves from being seen for what they truly are, as who they are does not conform with society's expectations." In frequently slow-motion shots, you watch these young men – friends and collaborators of Darnell's, filmed around London – twist and contort as though projecting their inner emotional battles onto their external movements. Before you even get to that stage in the film, it opens with a real and candid scene. It looks like anyone's teenage or early twenties front room, filled with mates and a TV crackling in the background. From behind the camera, Darnell becomes the subject of the sort of "ribbing" that would be familiar to anyone who's ever whiled away hours in a group coiled around a screen or a joint.
That scene, Darnell says, "shows how peer pressure can be applied to men when it comes relationships with women – having to follow a certain convention, or one type of way that you have to act towards people to maintain a masculine facade." You hear his friends try to nudge him toward pursuing a female friend, "trying to force me to be a 'savage' or someone I'm not", he continues. "I feel many men deal with this, so I wanted to show them that they are not alone."
He does so with a series of cinematic mini vignettes, shot in a studio as well as his east London home and outside Epping's Wanstead Flats where leaves flutter and green fills the screen. A host of collaborators, including Little Simz on a feature, help tell the story: Jefe (who you see swinging his dreads with glee and pulling off one of the film's many balaclavas), producer LikkleJay, duo Navan and vocalist Josh Kai. When brought together, theirs sounds like the music of kids who grew up on Frank Ocean and Sampha, splicing strummed guitar chords between the sort of lyrics that are so bluntly open they might make you wince. As Darnell puts it, "the collaborators were people I really thought would be able to portray the emotions I wanted. They were able to express vulnerability in different ways," ranging from Josh Kai's trembly voice to LikkleJay's knack for producing music that worked as part of the film and on its own when fed into your headphones.
Visually, Darnell cites Kahlil Joseph as a major influence, and you can see that written all over this piece. It hums with a gentle stillness. It showcases carefree male blackness. It lights brown skin to showcase its warmth in a way that makes the pink backdrop inside the studio setup look as comforting as what I imagine the inside of the womb might be. But mostly, it's allowed Darnell to broach the subject of toxic masculinity with care. And by that, he seems to mean the sort of characteristics highlighted by academic Terry Kupers as "the constellation of socially regressive male traits that serve to foster domination, the devaluation of women, homophobia and wanton violence" in a 2005 study on mental health in male prisons.
From where I'm stood, Darnell isn't saying that "maleness" is inherently terrible, or that men should feel guilty for being socialised as they have. Instead, he wants them to feel as though they can be more than the stereotype: sensitive one minute, ambitious the next, but not setting out to harm women or themselves in the process. "I feel toxic masculinity is almost like a cloak males have to wear to conform with society and be accepted," he says. "Wearing the cloak entails covering one's true self. It's the idea of constantly having to hide yourself in fear of being judged unfairly by society. Instead, he hopes "people can know that they can be truly be themselves no matter what anyone says or thinks about you". After all, there's more to each of us than one of two boxes ticked on a form.
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