BAM! OUCH! Being a man

A festival in London allowed men to see other men outside the confines of a narrowly defined masculinity that limits their ability to navigate their emotional lives. Ironically, the event was held together by women.

Andrew Schonfield
14 December 2015

The London based Being a Man Festival is in its second year. The Southbank Centre’s answer to their own Women of the World Festival is a weekend of art, discussions, and performances that aims to “explore the challenges and pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century”.

In order to attract a crowd, the branding department has been let loose on Being a Man and Women of the World. The names have been abbreviated to BAM! and WOW! with the graphic design of an over-excited 70’s comic book.

Last year, the festival was criticized for either giving shelter to male entitlement or patronizing men with feminist propaganda. This year, Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre rightly pointed out that the majority of that noise was missing. So what’s different this year? There isn’t the same hysteria. It may be that there are fewer ‘high-profile speakers’ or simply that it’s not The First Time. Maybe what’s left is a more considered forum.

Ahead of the weekend, Kelly laid out the festival’s aim:  "[This is] an opportunity, amidst all the debate about men, for men themselves to come together to share stories, discuss the pleasures and challenges of being men, and look at what kind of world they want for themselves and others.”

It can be argued there is an inherit benefit for men to display themselves and their diversity to one another. It may be stating the obvious, but for the benefit of clarity, I believe mass-produced representations of masculinity and dominant cultural expectations on men can have a restrictive effect and create an unhealthy environment for men.

A debate can be had about who is maintaining this unhealthy environment, whether it is individual men or a power structure, which is separate but controlling.

Regardless of what perspective one takes, presenting alternative role models is often spoken about as a key way of breaking down societal barriers. Show a man another man who is sensitive and still has time to follow football and he might believe it’s possible too.

If nothing else, that is what Being a Man Festival can be seen as: an opportunity for men to see other men outside the confines of a narrowly defined masculinity, an array of role models, opening up what masculinity is and can be.

The unintended consequence ended up being a forum where the hampering effects of ‘society’s idea of what it is to be a man’ was seen as the primary subject. The power and privilege enjoyed by men in a world which values their time, thoughts and actions over women’s almost seemed like a myth when the context of the discussion was always breaking down the barriers erected by the concept of an ideal masculinity.

This resulted in a fair few missed opportunities and some moments where things fully descended into dangerous territory.

It’s Friday morning, 11:00am. The session on men’s mental health has about 100 people in attendance, a mixed audience, but mostly over the age of 21. Brightly coloured plastic seats line the floor and lighting equipment hangs overhead, so the place feels like a rehearsal space. The panelists, both male and female, speak eloquently on the theme of a “framework for masculinity which is not fit for purpose”, one that limits men’s ability to express, navigate and negotiate their emotional lives.

The discussion on men’s mental health is an urgent one. It is predicated on facts such as that in 2013, over 6,000 men took their own life and suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35.

But the moment that stood out in this event, and in the event overall was when Poorna Bell, Executive Editor and Global Lifestyle Head of The Huffington Post UK spoke about the tragedy of her husband taking his own life only six months ago.

Her speech carefully parsed through the emotional terrain that she had navigated leading up to and following this event. How she had tried to help, how she had understood and misunderstood the experiences he was going through, how she did and didn’t blame herself for what finally happened. It was the kind of raw honesty, capacity for self-reflection, and care for others that the weekend was looking to encourage from men, both on the panels and in the audience.

The reaction to this was as swift as it was shallow and dismissive. The chair pleasantly thanked Bell and encouraged the audience to share their stories. The next thing anyone knew a man was standing and giving an account of his untreated rage issues, culminating in his killing someone in a car.

This was also quickly skipped over.

In what sometimes felt like a weeklong question and answer session, the weekend seemed to hinge on the outcomes of small interactions like this as much as presentations.

Later that day, another moment in which someone faced their own subjectivity and unfolded their truly vulnerable self was during the film ‘Jihad: A British Story’. This time a man, Abu Muntasir, an Imam who along with others convinced a generation of young men and women to travel and fight in Afghanistan.

The film speaks to its subjects, not as players in a political struggle, but as men who in their younger years filled a gap by finding a purpose through a struggle they later regretted entering.

It also shows Alyas Karmani who as an Imam is now passionate about engaging young Muslims in sex education.

By the end of the film, he and the others have changed their ways, while maintaining their faith. They explain how their lives changed and, in one of the most moving moments, examine their past actions.

The screening was followed by a Q&A session in which the audience roundly ignored the honesty and vulnerability that those involved in the film had showed and instead proceeded to question them on Saudi Arabia’s geo-political position.

What both these interactions had in common were the roles played by women  enabled reflection: the most vulnerable moment in the film was when the filmmaker – a woman – asked the Imam if he had forgiven himself. Another sinking feeling that came from what should be an overall uplifting event: the thing seemed to be held together by women.

Deeyah Khan (photo: Southbank Centre)Jude Kelly is top of the list, having instigated the endeavor, but she also chaired the most engaging of the sessions. Equally the filmmaking of Deeyah Khan, the contributions of panelists, and most tellingly, all the behind the scenes staff gave the overwhelming feeling that men were being given (through many womens’ unacknowledged labour) a space in which to widen their horizons in the hope that they would become ‘better men’ as a result.

Rather than take the opportunity to do this, the men in attendance seemed more interested in exploring the difficulties they face in a society that in their eyes focuses almost solely on women to the exclusion of men.

There was some resistance to this idea. David Baddiel when asked about superheroes as silent, unemotional role models, countered saying that Spiderman, Batman and other contemporary superhero stories are full of complex and emotionally engaged protagonists. Elsewhere, in a discussion about fatherhood, one crowd member said that men needed new mothers to “bring them in to the liminal space of parenthood”, to which a woman in the audience later responded “it’s not like new mothers know what they’re doing either”.

All of this, before the idea of gender was questioned. A talk titled ‘Set Your Testosterone Free’ featured Jude Kelly and Tim Samuels discussing the need for men to engage with one another in men-only spaces, bemoaning women who often held men back from their male friendships. A discussion that Kelly handled and counter-balanced well, but it took a slightly nervous crowd-member to question the extremely physiological parameters of the discussion. This was well received, but was a glimmer in a fog where men were biologically determined to need a pint.

When I said to someone later on that I had started looking at last year’s program with some envy they agreed this year’s event did have a “Grayson Perry shaped hole”.

None of this is to say that the weekend did not have positives. One charity in attendance was particularly impressive; the Great Men Initiative “aims to challenge stereotypes of masculinity and engage men and boys in the movement towards gender equality.”

This is what the whole of Being a Man Festival could be. Such a visible and mainstream event could be a powerful tool: a space where men take time to look at themselves, challenge those stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and use that energy to also challenge patriarchy and inequality.

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