"What is a woman?" asked Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal 1949 text The Second Sex. "The fact that I ask it is in itself significant. A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male."
But last month, some 66 years after the publication of that landmark piece of feminist theory, a festival at the Southbank Centre in London set out to do just that - to delve into the question of what it means to be a man, and investigate, as Southbank's Artistic Director Jude Kelly put it, "what conflicts the modern man faces in a world where everything is changing".
BAM speaker Hardeep Singh Kohl (Photo: Belinda Lawley)
An awareness-raising effort recently launched by the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm) reports alarmingly high suicide rates among men in the UK. 4,623 men in the UK killed themselves in 2014 - this makes up 12 deaths a day and constitutes the second highest annual number in 15 years, which indicates that the problem is not diminishing. Three-quarters of suicides in the UK are by men, and suicide is now the single biggest cause of death of men aged under 45 in the UK.
These issues have driven recent movements such as the Being a Man festival, as well as the #BiggerIssues campaign and this year's International Men's Day. The statistics were commonly referred to at the festival as part of the “crisis” that masculinity is facing today. And there was an overwhelming sense at the various discussions that this self-destructive crisis comes from the fact that men are not given the space to be fallible, sensitive – human.
In a time of such heighted militarism and securitisation discourses, the word crisis takes on an additionally potent meaning. As we continually see crises play out from the displacement or fracturing of power dynamics, we are made acutely aware of the violently powerful positions that men struggle to occupy. Participants and attendees across the BAM festival spoke frequently of struggling with the expectation to feel adequate, important, powerful, respected, together, and in control. Indeed, even in times of conflict, men are most frequently positioned in public narratives as heroes and villains – but rarely victims.
So, while women’s movements have largely fought for empowerment, it would appear that what is now destroying men is, paradoxically, the expectation to be powerful.
Who are our heroes?
In a session about the portrayal of male characters in the media, one member of the audience quipped - to the uncomfortable shuffle of some - that every man wants the life of Don Draper from Mad Men.
Mad Men's Don Draper (Photo licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia)
Draper, the whiskey-sipping Lothario of 1960s Maddison Avenue, lives a tortured, decadent life of hyper-capitalist self-indulgence littered with unhappy sexual conquests that are detrimental to his character. He operates in a world where double standards are consistently applied to men and women's behaviour in professional and personal life.
The desire to live vicariously through such a troubled figure reveals an unsettling truth about the condition of contemporary masculinity - that we are still refusing to let go of a brand of manliness that we know is bad for the world. If anything, characters like Draper represent the tragic self-destructiveness that Calm and BAM aim to redress.
One wonders, then, where the progressive role-models of “positive masculinity” are to be found. And as we enter the Christmas period, many will suspend any faint hope for progress, braced instead for an onslaught of advertising that relentlessly reinforces backwards binary stereotypes of gender. Women are celebrated as heroic homemakers while men are affectionately mocked (and ultimately forgiven) for their incompetence in the home space. These aspects of commercialised Christmas, which tell men that it is better or more empowering to be useless than to be responsible, are, in many ways, masculinity at its most fragile.
The internet is now peppered with brilliant documentations of such instances of fragile masculinity in consumer culture. Soaps for men, tissues for men, shower poufs for men, hair combs for men, throat lozenges for men, coffee mugs for men, chocolate for men, pencils for men - the list goes on.
Still from Twitter (Photo: Agnish Ray)
But while the #fragilemasculinity
hashtag on social media provokes guffaws across the country, from people
exasperated or baffled at why products like these are assigned a gender, the
suicide statistics signal that the fragility of masculinity is no laughing
Furthermore, while it is indeed a national horror that so many men are at risk of taking their own lives, the violence perpetrated by men onto others is equally horrific. 150 women were murdered by men in 2014; 1.4 million women suffered domestic abuse, primarily at the hands of men; and out of 64,205 sexual offences, the majority of the victims were women. Women are still the primary victims of sexual violence and men the primary perpetrators.
It is therefore not only the damage that individual men are enacting on themselves, but the damage that men have historically enacted and continue to enact on others – on women and on other men - that should be of concern and act as a motivation for change.
One of BAM festival's speakers David Llewellyn, for example, through the Good Lad initiative, runs workshops with young men in schools and universities across the country to identify and undo destructive behaviours in themselves and their peers - behaviours like harassment, assault and everyday sexism. And it is by facing up to these realities that men can find freedom - because questioning and unlearning negative behaviours isn't unmanly.
The tough questions
In a discussion about male body image it was established that young boys "buff up" in order to feel respected; yet a question remained – why are boys made to feel that they need more respect than girls? And in a discussion about war, the notion of eliminating sexual violence against female soldiers was referred to by a panellist as “feminising” the armed forces – but why would opposing sexual violence make a male soldier less of a man? Does this mean that militarisation is, by default, masculine?
It seems that there is still room to ask the really tough questions. And at the sole session addressing equal representation of men and women, Sophie Walker, leader of the recently formed Women's Equality Party, said she found it "deeply depressing" to have to spell out why men should care about gender equality – known to some as feminism, or human rights.
Walker's party is campaigning for equal representation of men and women in the House of Commons by 2025, by way of affirmative action, and at the BAM festival she criticised other political parties for not putting gender equality high enough on the agenda in this year’s national elections.
For while BAM gathered some fine proponents of
"positive masculinity", the exclusion from our wider society’s
masculinity debate of issues like gender-based violence, equal pay, and equal
representation in the workplace and in government, reflects an unwillingness to
recognise that equality is ultimately good for everyone it concerns.
In Walker's case, by the very definition of the word equality, "women's equality" really means "men and women's equality". And more broadly speaking, if it is a question of a destructive crisis of masculinity, then it is the gender equality movement – the feminist movement, the human rights movement – that holds the answers.
Despite the opposition
quota-based systems like Walker’s have had from those clinging to the idea that
the concept of meritocracy is untouched by gender-based discrimination, efforts
like hers triumph in their straightforward objective to set out deliberately
equal expectations for both men and women. They
cut straight to the heart of the masculinity crisis by removing the unfounded
expectation of men to achieve certain things for the simple fact of their
And it is by applying this sort of approach to all areas of life that we can eliminate what Jude Kelly describes as the "pressure to demonstrate heroism, be daring and ‘man up’" that men suffer – which, as the statistics show, can have such catastrophic consequences.
Get our weekly email