Is masculinity in crisis?

As a ground-breaking festival devoted to men opens, Archie Bland asks psychologists, teachers and thinkers about what it means to be male in 2014, and what the future holds

Share

Not long ago, I was sitting over a pint with a good friend and jabbing him in the chest to emphasise the validity of my point about Shia LaBeouf when he interrupted me in an uncharacteristically abrupt fashion. Alex, as I’ll call him, is not prone to emotional outbursts; I can count the number of previous such incidents in the course of our friendship on no hands. So it was surprising when he raised his eyes from his pint and told me, almost apologetically, that his brother was ill.

He fell silent, and in my surprise, I didn't say a great deal back. Gradually, though, he explained some of the circumstances. The diagnosis had come more than a year earlier; his disease would ultimately prove fatal. His family was having a hard time holding things together. And Alex hadn't been able to discuss it with anyone. How are you feeling, I asked? And Alex shrugged, and asked me if I wanted another drink.

This, sitcoms and adverts have always told us, is how it is always bound to be: men are not good at expressing their feelings. And so when Jude Kelly, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, asked hundreds of men to gather and discuss how they understood their masculinity, you might not have expected them to be forthcoming. As it turned out, though, once they got started, you couldn't shut them up. "It was massively welcomed, from all these diverse backgrounds," Kelly says. "There was a very common theme that, with a few exceptions, men don't talk to each other emotionally about their problems. But they sort of have a hunch that they need to."

The result of those discussions is the Being A Man festival, which starts today and seeks to fill a problematic cultural gap. Over three days at the Southbank Centre's Thames-side campus, people including Jon Snow, Nick Hornby, Billy Bragg and Grayson Perry will lead a series of discussions covering a dizzying range of the problems and pleasures of modern manhood. From fatherhood to football, pornography to prison, the men attending will be encouraged to take what may be a rare look inwards. "Women have had a huge amount of time, necessary time, to think through where they want to be in society," she says. "It's something that women all talk about together. But for men the platform for that discussion just doesn't seem to be there."

Remarkably enough, despite constant media thumb-sucking about masculinity being in crises of one sort or another, Being A Man (BAM) is the first festival of its kind. Partly, that's because it hasn't historically occurred to men that their status is anything but default and such cultural habits take a long time to change. Andrew Samuels, a professor of analytical psychology at the University of Essex, says: "In the past 'men' were a kind of papal balcony from which the whole world was reviewed. There simply wasn't a category of men that people thought about until 40 years ago. Now men are very much the objects of scrutiny."

 

BAM is not the only acknowledgement of this change. Later this year, there will be an inaugural Male Psychology Conference at UCL, as part of an effort to persuade the British Psychological Society to inaugurate a male specialist section to sit alongside its female equivalent, which has been in place since 1988. So why is the male experience in general still so hard to talk about? Part of the answer may be that to begin such a conversation can put well-meaning men in a difficult position where they risk making common cause with those who yearn for the days of unchallenged male domination of every sphere. Martin Daubney, the former Loaded editor who is one of the participants at the festival, heard a resonant description of the problem from a participant at one of the preliminary discussions convened by Kelly. "Celebrating being a man is a bit like having a Union Jack on your gate," the man said. "It's a badge of shame."

And yet it needn't - mustn't - be anti-feminist to talk about male identity, perhaps even for a Loaded editor. Dr Luke Sullivan, a clinical psychologist who specialises in men's mental health and created an online resource called Men’s Minds Matter, points out that the problems that men experience affect "everyone, certainly women". "I recognise that it's a difficult subject to talk about, but we might be able to reduce some of the impacts of these things on other people," Sullivan says. Steve Biddulph, the author of several best-selling books on raising boys, agrees. "The women's movement was the most positive event of the 20th century," he says. "But it's only half the story. If we don't change men, it will all slip backwards."

Among many other things, BAM will feature discussions about violence against women, pornography, and the impact of patriarchy. "You can't be criticising how male violence appears in the world and other things that need changing and then not provide the levers to do it," says Kelly, who previously created the Southbank Centre's Women of the World Festival. "I think a lot of men are saying, 'Why are issues like domestic violence or childcare only women's issues?' They're saying, 'Look, we're embarrassed about the statistics on rape, and we choose to talk about these things and to try and take control of them'."

There are, though, problems facing men in which they themselves are the victims, and the festival has plenty of material drawn from such issues. Perhaps the most striking is the still growing disparity in the suicide rate. Over the past 40 years, as the rate among women has remained steady, the propensity for men to kill themselves has gone up and up. They are now between three and five times more likely to take their own lives. As Jane Powell, the director of the Campaign Against Living Miserably, put it last year: "Gender runs through UK suicide statistics like letters in a stick of rock."

Why that enormous difference? According to Martin Seager, who was the head of psychological services in two NHS trusts and is now an adviser to Samaritans, men "are in the grasp of these very old rules about masculinity. Too many men would rather die than feel shame". These rules are slowly evolving, Seager says. But, strikingly, he adds that in 30 years in the NHS, the great majority of people to seek his help were women." Whereas with Samaritans, it's 50-50. I think the difference is that it's anonymous. There's a clear shame thing."

Seager points to another problem: an absence of a mental-health strategy that links up male-dominated problem areas, from prison to homelessness to addiction. And some trace those diverse crises back to a common root: a cultural education that from an early age denies men the chance to be open about their emotions. As Sullivan says: "We don't develop boys' emotional skills when they're young. And so, if they do come to face mental health problems, they struggle."

Where do men belong in the world now? Where do men belong in the world now? Boys who do experience such struggles may express their pain by lashing out - and, understandably enough, such behaviour is treated less sympathetically than a quiet cry in the cloakroom. Some put that difficulty in processing feelings down to a shortage of role models. "We can't expect boys to be good men if they don't see good men," Steve Biddulph tells me by email. "Schools are for many boys their best and only chance of seeing an alternative way of being a man. So we have to maximise that." Biddulph himself takes part in a programme for schools aimed at encouraging "good" male behaviour. "We directly address a curriculum of maleness how to behave around women, be safe, have goals and work for them, stand for something, be of value to the common good. These things can be taught, and boys lap them up."

Chase High School, in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, was recently rated "inadequate" by Ofsted inspectors. Its headteacher, Victoria Overy, attributes the downgrading from "satisfactory" in 2011 to her policy of accepting more challenging pupils, many of whom have been turned away from other schools. Overy is always looking for ways to help particular groups of pupils flourish. So when she heard the head of Lilian Baylis Technology School, a once troubled inner-city school that's now thriving, ascribe a large portion of the transformation to the institution of "man days", her ears pricked up. Overy's school has already split the genders for lessons in English and maths, with some success; she thought that perhaps a similar approach could help here, too.

The school's "man days" are yet to start but, Overy explains, they will not have a particularly arduous programme. Boys will be taken out of their regular lessons and helped with such grown-up banalities as rewiring a plug and cooking a meal for four for less than £5. But the point is not the activities. "While they're doing all this stuff, there's a lot of chatting," Overy says. "As a rule, girls have more of a propensity to explore their feelings and relationships and things. With boys, I do think it helps to have a vehicle to talk it through ... and I want to connect them with male role models. For some of them, they just don't have any they have absent fathers, or fathers who they wish were absent."

Overy and Danny Chaplin, the art teacher charged with leading the activities, are confident that the days will have a beneficial effect on the boys. "I think they'll open up a little bit more," says Chaplin. "I remember leaving school and how much it would have helped me, then, to have something like that. And when I was their age you could just be the hunter-gatherer type, the Marlboro Man, someone from The Sweeney. Where do men belong in the world now?"

Not everyone is convinced about the usefulness of such schemes, or the idea that a shortage of male teachers is a concern. "You can't reduce it to, if they're talking to a man, boys are more communicative," says Christine Skelton, professor of gender equality in education at the University of Birmingham. To Skelton, there is also a whiff of special pleading about the degree of concern over boys' school performance. "When all these girls were not doing well in science and all the rest of it, nobody gave a stuff," she says. "It was only when the natural order was subverted that there started to be a concern about anyone being left behind."

On the other hand, Chase High School is now planning to institute a parallel programme for girls. And, to Andrew Samuels, the aim of a restoration of that old order is very far from the point. "The idealising stuff about all these male heroes, soldiers and athletes, it's all very difficult for normal men," he says. "And then there are the denigrating attacks on men as violent, sexually abusive, laddish and stupid and horrible. Where's the man who's somewhere in the middle? Where's the man who's good enough?"

The "good enough" man is, perhaps, the point of the Southbank festival. And it has struck a chord. "This discussion seems to be so welcome," says Jude Kelly. "I'm hearing from men of all kinds saying: thank goodness this conversation is finally happening. It's unusual, but it feels right."

Back in the pub with my friend Alex, he returned with those drinks and steered the conversation to more manageable territory. But later, as we stumbled towards the bus stop, a bit the worse for wear, he began to talk again. This time, somewhat less inhibited by eye contact and sobriety, the conversation took a different turn. And in terms quite unlike any I had ever heard him use before, my friend spoke about his love for his brother, and his debilitating fury at the prospect of his loss.

His brother, on the other hand, had never heard it for himself. Their relationship, so conditioned by toy soldiers and board games and football matches, turned out not to have a great deal of space for the expression of emotional complexity. Standing by the bus stop, Alex softly kicked a lamp post. "Of course, I want to say this stuff to him," he said. "Why does it get so hard?"

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Payment Developer (Swift, FOX, Vigil, .NET, SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Payment Dev...

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A strong currency isn't everything  

A strong pound is a great tonic, but it's not an end in itself

Hamish McRae
Left in limbo: Refugee children in a processing centre in Brownsville, Texas  

Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Rupert Cornwell
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?