Will the UK's ‘Being a Man’ Festival Break the Taboo of Masculine Self-Examination?
'Men's Issues' seem like such a luxury problem. London's Southbank Centre's 'Being a Man' Festival is looking to change that.
You could be forgiven if your first reaction upon hearing about the Southbank Centre's second annual 'Being A Man' festival – an entire weekend of talks, discussions, performances and debates aimed squarely at getting blokes to reflect on the challenges they face in 2015 – is to throw your laptop into the nearest skip and pray for an asteroid to wipe out 50% of the population. A festival for men to talk about men stuff. The very concept of it sounds like something that should never have been allowed to snowball into reality. It's reminiscent of an ill-fated idea punted in the dying moments of an Apprentice brainstorm, or worse, the sort of thing Danny Wallace might write a book about.
Simply put, 'Men's Issues' seem like such a luxury problem that even conceding it's a real thing leaves you open to accusations of being a whiney meninist. To be a man who complains about his identity feels roughly equivalent to being a millionaire tax-avoider who complains about his lawyer fees. Men face no real existential threat. Men have enjoyed an entire civilisations' worth of largely unchecked economic, governmental and institutional power. 'A Festival For Men' is already an accurate summation of 98% of the world. And yet, there's a growing volume of evidence which suggests that for all our de facto privilege, blokes are circling the drain – doomed to an encroaching fate of near-total obsolescence.
'The End of Men', 'Are Men Obsolete?', 'Are Men Necessary?' are all books released in the last few years which ruminate on the idea that hegemonic masculinity as we know it is dead. But this is far from just an academic concern. A look through CALM's 2014 report into the mental health of males in the country paints a grim picture. It underlines the fact that suicide is the single biggest killer for males under 30, while giving clear evidence that men who are in thrall to those familiar masculine ideals of stoicism, strength and independence are endangering their own health. "Pressure to be the breadwinner, to be responsible for financial and legal issues, to be strong and practical..." the report says, are leading to men channeling their frustrations into "risk-taking behaviour such as getting drunk, taking drugs and gambling".
'Men's Issues' seem like such a luxury problem that even conceding it's a real thing leaves you open to accusations of being a whiney meninist
This problem is far from a modern endemic. As far back as 1981, Joseph Pleck published a report called 'The Myth of Masculinity.' Here, Pleck laid out his ideas of the 'sex role strain paradigm', explaining the multi-faceted issues which arise when men attempt to live up to what is little more than a mirage of masculinity. He discusses the profound dysfunctionality of men who feel that to 'toughen up' is better than to share their problems, and links his ideas to financial and familial collapse, depression and, once again – suicide. What seems clear is that whilst men might not be an oppressed group, the background assumption that they're immune to social pressures combined with either a reluctance or an outright inability to discuss their issues is leading to an unignorable crisis of masculinity.
Taken as a whole, there is a weight of research concluding that many men lack the tools needed to negotiate through a complex and anxiety-inducing world. The dominance of a restrictive ideology which equates vulnerability with weakness has left men without a road-map to navigate through their problems with anything more than a grunt and a shrug. Whereas it could be argued that feminism has enriched women with the ability to delineate, refine, discuss and sharpen their sense of identity and social position – men are often left with weak or unavailable role models, trapped in their own skin with no idea of how they should behave or what is expected of them. Beyond the frothing waves of dullard meninists on Twitter, there lies a genuine issue, and one that has been brewing for decades. So how does this festival aim to fix it?
"I want men to feel they have permission to discuss what masculinity is, and to give them an opportunity to realise that there's so many different ways you can be a man," says Jude Kelly, founder of the Being A Man Festival and artistic director of the Southbank Centre. "There's rigid ideas as to what makes a proper bloke, and I don't know if they're helpful to men of any age," she says.
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These rigid stereotypes permeate through every layer of society, but the idea is perhaps best illustrated in the dingy world of gendered advertisements. Imagine, if you will, that you've been charged with the responsibility to corner the male-market with a new range of scented candles – how are you going to do it? Candles, as is well known, are the exclusive preserve of women and Nicky Clarke. You stride over to the front of the room and draw what looks like a crude vertical car exhaust on the flipboard. Soon, others start to join in. "It's a raging inferno-shaft" says Ian, loosening his tie and leaning across the conference table. "Cock? Wax cock?" says Linda, scribbling out her other ideas and drawing a firm circle the phrase. Then Rob bangs down his pencil and interrupts the whole thing. Rob, so close to being fired last week, knowing he's on his last leg, seizing the moment in a last-ditch effort to preserve himself, rises from his chair and points directly at the flipboard – "This isn't a candle," he says, confidence swelling over into an unprompted Jeremy Clarkson impression. "This" he says, "IS A MANDLE."
And yet, this is not a fantasy scenario, but an entire industry. The #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag that's been doing the rounds over the last few months collected examples of male-targeted products and now forms a sad gallery of misplaced identity. There are loofahs shaped like hand-grenades, 'Dude Wipes', compendiums of BROetry, and, perhaps the most forlorn object of all, a 'Man Tin.' These are people whose entire jobs rely on their expertise in pinpointing demographics, and yet they are collectively unable to conjure an idea of masculinity that's any more fleshed out than a character from a WKD advert. In 2015, 'male interest' is limited to Moylsey on Radio X, banter merchants on Labrokes ads, and, at the upper end, fantastist James Bond aspirants who drop £500 on cufflinks and have a close personal relationship with their tailor. There is a huge sighing gap where reality should be, and in the face of this, the breadth and depth of Being A Man festival is hugely promising. As Jude Kelly says, "If you want to be a fully functioning human being, then you have to build your identity on who you are, not what you get told you ought to be."
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A quick tour around the events going on over the weekend include documentaries such as Jennifer Newsom's acclaimed work 'The Mask You Live In' – a feature profiling young men's efforts to navigate society's narrow scope of masculinity; guest speakers with a width of expertise in the fields of journalism, psychotherapy, broadcasting, medicine, activism and beyond; and open forum discussions about topics as diverse as fatherhood, gangs, prison, ageing, extremism, education and body image. The most resounding message of these various events is the promotion of communication. Embedded in our language are ideas which implicitly suggest that part of 'manning up' (or, if you like, not 'acting like a girl') involves keeping a stiff upper lip, maintaining the illusion of dominance and strength, and taking life's setbacks on the chin – until the bitter end if needs be. With this in mind, it's not hard to picture an entire sea of blokes stewing in front of an endless loop of porn and video games, their inner emotions alien even to themselves, spewing forth the sort of maladaptive behaviours – the unsolicited dick pic bullies, the crying GamerGate infants, the rape-joke-apologist Archbishop of Banterburys who prop up Lad Bible's online store etc – that constitute seemingly 90% of your daily newsfeed. For men, the act of admitting they're not infallible and having the platform and opportunity to talk about it is half the battle.
The festival doesn't only turn its gaze inwards, but also looks towards how relationships between men can lack emotional transparency and availability. Fatherhood is a big topic here, and one that many males in their mid to late twenties simply have no idea about. How do you be a father? What's the male equivalent of Mumsnet? What does a good dad look like? Aside from the withering 'put-upon male' trope familiar to anyone who's been to a shit local comedy night, it's yet another male-issue that's conspicuously absent from everyday discourse. Instead, we have the mentality that men should simultaneously shut their mouth and sweep their issues under the carpet to preserve the image of being 100% in control of their shit, 100% of the time. This is the Roy Keane effect. Roy Keane – a man who would cock a rifle to the base of your skull if he even suspected you'd once worn gloves – was on camera at the start of the month talking about Robbie Keane's playing chances after his wife had just had a baby. "Well he didn't have the baby did he?" he said, a nervous laughter rippling around the press conference. "Unless he's breastfeeding he should be alright." And there have it. Parenting For Blokes 101 – Man The Fuck Up.
The unfortunate fact remains that many men do not where to turn to advice. Whilst the media landscape is full of progressive and relevant female-centric offshoots – Broadly, The Pool, Women's Hour, The Hairpin, The Debrief etc – the men's market is stuck in the Triassic era of tits and imported lager. This contributes to what Jude Kelly describes as a 'caricature identity', evident throughout all kinds of male representations. For many marketers it's as though blokes are little more than Mr Men characters, defined by one or two adjectives that float above our heads like avatars from the SIMS. 'Lad Culture' thrives upon this pack identity paradigm – reducing the human condition to a real-world BuzzFeed quiz. Sure you can be a Ladbrokes Lad, but which variety do you choose? The Smooth Talker? The Wildcard? The Joker of The Pack? The Sensible One? Our culture serves to funnel men into an increasingly limited set of default expectations, which in turn creates a pressure valve of unvented emotions, these then spill over into shitty and inexcusable behaviours, then the admonishment winds men up even more and the grim cycle repeats itself. The sad result is exemplified by the roll-necked Dapper Laughs, sat like a naughty schoolchild under the reproachful glare of Emily Maitlis. This can't happen again.
With events like Being a Man, Jude Kelly hopes that the discourse surrounding masculinity can become broader and more inclusive. "The reason why gender equality is a great thing for men and women," she says, "is that it means that you don't have to assume that you have the upper status, you haven't got to worry about your power, you haven't got to prove that you deserve to be a man." Ultimately, this feels like an attainable goal. As long as the dialogue keeps pushing forward, away from the toxicity of pre-Industrial masculinity and towards a landscape that's more in-keeping with the progressive, tolerant and inclusive society that most of us would want to inhabit. Dapper Laughs didn't die for nothing. Society is ready for masculinity to be revamped and remoulded, and if it takes an event like Being a Man to kick-start the conversation, then that can only be a good thing.
Southbank Centre's BAM – Being a Man Festival takes place Friday 27 November – Sunday 29 November 2015. It features three days of talks & debates, performances and workshops with contributions from over 150 speakers and performers. See www.southbankcentre.co.uk/bam for further information.
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