Is masculinity in crisis? Singer Billy Bragg and director Topher Campbell have their say...
Fighting, football, feminism… The singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, 57, and the theatre director, writer and film-maker Topher Campbell, 42, discuss what it means to be a man today
Sunday 26 January 2014
Is there, as Diane Abbott claimed last year, a 'crisis of masculinity' in Britain?
BB For straight white men, we've been at a cultural apex in England. We've not run up against the barriers that women have as a gender, that people of colour have, so the need to analyse ourselves hasn't really arisen. A lot of men are acting with hostility towards the current wave of feminism because they can't tell the difference between a personal accusation of sexism and a structural critique of the way sexism is endemic in our culture.One of the issues is that there is no single place where we talk about these things, similar to the way that Mumsnet works. We have to give credit to women; coming up against various glass ceilings, they have spent a lot more time discussing how they fit into society than we have. These debates aren't going on anywhere that I can see within male groups.
TC I think that if there is a crisis of masculinity, it's a white crisis and a heterosexual crisis. I think that perhaps Diane, as a black woman with a son, was talking a little bit about the way in which the traditional behaviour of certain guys is under scrutiny. For black men, this has always been the case; and the idea of identity has always been explored in a lot of different ways for gay men because we have always been in opposition to certain ideas that perhaps would be the best-received ideas of masculinity. The idea of examining or understanding masculinity, if you're gay or gay-identified, might be something that impacts you from a very young age. So while, as a gay man, you might get involved [from youth] with organisations where people do have these conversations, a mainstream forum for lots of diverse men to get together just doesn't exist.
BB Is there a Dadsnet? Sort of, but it's only for new dads. There's no practical Blokesnet or Geezernet or whatever you'd want to call it.
MP Diane Abbott claimed last year that there was a 'crisis of masculinity' in Britain (Getty Images)
So what defines a contemporary male identity?
TC For me, it's very difficult to enter this debate from a central point of view. As a black person and as a gay person, I come from a very marginal place, away from the rut of a perceived black masculinity, which is very narrow, of a certain machismo; and away from mainstream ideas of the kind of David Furnish-Elton John kind of gay respectability. You know, I'm not respectable. I come in a very conventional framework, in the way that I look, but to be out and gay and queer is very disruptive, because what you're saying is that my place in society is equal to your place. And it's disruptive because you hear, in the tunes of my brothers who make rap or dance music, words such as "faggot" and "batty man", and that it's not right to be a batty man because it's a white thing.
Then you hear the heterosexual idea that you can only really be acceptable if you have a loving relationship in a nice kind of parameter around professional, middle-classness. Actually, some gay lives are very messy. We get chucked out of homes, we get bullied at school, we don't get promoted at work, we can't choose certain professions, we can't even travel certain places or we get beaten and killed in certain countries. The whole notion of conversation around masculinity is very interesting to me for that reason because it's that question of how we allow for difference; and if we're talking in terms of left-wing politics or feminism, the idea of "difference" can become very narrow.
BB For my generation, and for my son's, there has been no formal event that has shaped our masculinity. It's not like my father's generation – my father was 15 when the Second World War broke out, so that defined his masculinity. The same goes for my grandfather, whose life was defined by working in a factory and the First World War. For those of us who haven't been through some sort of ritual of manhood like that, our markers go right back to the playground. There, ideas of masculinity came about by identifying outsiders, and at my school that was the black kids, the Asian kids.
We actually had more in common with the black kids through music and football; the Asian kids didn't seem to be into that so much. And if you ended up at a school where there weren't any black or Asian kids, it was then ginger people. Of course queer was a big one, defining people as queer, even if they weren't, because they didn't match up to our ideals of masculinity. The problem is that as that is our primal experience in k declaring masculinity, sometimes when provoked we return to these playground impulses, we turn to the identification of outsiders. We're not just identified as men; we're identified as particular types of men that do particular things in the playground.
Bragg says: 'You need figures such as Tom Daley (pictured) to be able to come out and I think it's the same with masculinity' (Getty Images)
TC It's interesting because also tied in with that is the notion of violence, fighting your way into a status, a place. I used to fight at school and I'm sure you did a bit of fighting as well.
BB It's what bonds you; and that's unfortunate and a real problem. There's a lot of macho territorialism in negotiating how to be a grown man. We all struggle to overcome it, most of us don't think of it ourselves, but under pressure, when you're in a bar somewhere and someone starts pushing and shoving, you'd be surprised how close you get back to that place where you felt threatened at schools – or at least I would.
TC Because of my size, I've always had this issue. When I was at school, I was always a bit bigger, and everyone picked on me because I was taller and always looking down at people. Now that I'm older, if I was to go to a bar or club, people would think that I'm trouble because I'm a big guy. But then, of course, [in reality] I'm a sensitive artist, and all the different ideas people have of you dissolve when they actually get close to you. That's kind of interesting, because you're always in negotiation with your masculinity.
BB That's because we're dealing with other people's idea of masculinity, a weird standard of masculinity, a stereotype of masculinity that we either have to inhabit or push against or step back from.
TC That kind of primal playground is very different to what you then get at university. See, when I went to university, my background was quite mixed up; I lived with my mum for a bit in a very working-class community in Coventry, then I fought my way out through education, as I had some very enlightened and thought-provoking teachers. As soon as I went to university, there was a whole different series of experimentation of relationships, both sexual and friends – we call it bromance nowadays. So you had a different kind of playground of finding your way in life, and some of that was because of what people had experienced in that school playground and were trying to get away from.
Insightful: Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry will be giving a talk at the Being a Man festival
What, then, does it mean to be a 'man' today?
TC As a younger guy, I was very much obsessed with how you become a man. All my older brothers were off getting married, women seemed to be the aim, but that wasn't my aim, so how do you live your life, how do you make it work? For a long time I've had this conversation with myself about relationships, and you're bombarded with conventionality. The liberation of queerness and gayness is to go and live your life how you can to be happy. I think one of the things you do is that you make a declaration of love; you say, at the end of the day I will love myself, I will love others in order to find my way forward in my life, because I may not want to be producing children and I may not want to be living the life in a semi-detached house somewhere.
BB We need role models to say that manhood is "this". The majority of men aren't out scrapping every night, beating their wives, getting drunk all the time or watching football. We can learn a lot from the debates that are going on around feminism, if only for insights. Women, people of colour, and of different sexualities, are exploring the ways they can define themselves and look at themselves and be critical of themselves. Men can learn a lot from that. Again, when you want to talk about these things, masculinity rears its ugly head. We should be examining ourselves and questioning whether the way this society is constructed is right or if it could be better structured. You need figures such as Tom Daley to be able to come out and do that, and I think it's the same with masculinity. We need people who come out and make this point, that masculinity exists in other forms, and it's not all just mainstream.
TC The more we articulate the presence and ability of differences, the better. Without making difference work, we can't find commonality.
How do you define your masculinity?
BB I've thought a lot about this: what defines my masculinity? In the end, the only thing I could really come up with were the things that were hanging on the wall in my office. There are pictures of my family, a certificate I got when I was in the Army for being the best intake in 1981 in the Royal Armoured Corps. There's a big picture of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and a West Ham shirt. I even have a picture of my dad from the war in his army uniform. I realised how male-oriented all these things in my office were. I looked at this shit on my wall and thought, "These are the things I've chosen to represent me." They are all bits of me but very male bits of me. I think about the three men I have the strongest experiences with – my father, my brother and my son – and I react to them in completely different ways. I'm sure my sense of masculinity has changed over time. It's not as though it's a monolithic structure.
TC The shape of masculinity is definitely changing. You look around and younger, teenage men, whether they are black, white, Asian, they are wearing skinny jeans. There's a whole shape difference in the gender representation, the way people define themselves, whether they are straight or gay. Self-determination is also an important part of my masculinity, as a black or a gay man or whatever. I feel as though I need to be able to have the courage and have that courage manifest through my life. What I don't want is someone to tell me what I can and can't do; as a man, I find that offensive and difficult to deal with. I will hit back and hit out at it, whether it's authoritative or personal. I think that's important about my masculinity because it's "my" masculinity, not a gay man's or a black man's.
Billy Bragg and Topher Campbell will be appearing at the Being a Man festival , which runs from Friday to 2 February at the Southbank Centre (southbankcentre.co.uk). Additional reporting by Zander Swinburne
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