Whether it’s body image, lad culture, fatherhood or masculinity, men are lacking support and direction as they struggle with the multi-faceted expectations around being a man.
Many are at breaking point.
One symptom of this is the biggest cause of male deaths under the age of 35: suicide. Mental health issues such as depression and anxiety often go untreated and without discussion.
This crisis prompted the launch of the Southbank Centre’s Being A Man festival last year, which returns at the end of November to explore the challenges and pressures surrounding masculine identity in the 21st century.
The event, which HuffPost UK are proud to partner with, takes place one week after International Men’s Day (19 November) and will feature a three-day programme packed with talks, debates, performances and workshops from over 150 speakers, including Akala, Frankie Boyle, David Baddiel and Kellie Maloney.
Talking about why there was the need for such a festival in the first place, founder Jude Kelly said: “I think there are a range of pressures on men but I suppose the overarching one is the idea that to be a man is you have to be able to demonstrate dominance – that can mean physical prowess, intellectual prowess, sexual prowess – they all put pressures on boys and men to do something that is very often not in their nature.
“When you think about how you can be dominant, it’s got to be either by making another man look weaker or, what’s often more culturally acceptable, it’s by making women look weaker. And neither of those things are necessarily healthy or good things for boys and men in terms of them finding out who they are.”
So what is going to help the future and current generation of men? Here, Jude talks further to HuffPost UK about what she hopes the weekend will achieve.
What are some of the pressures facing men today?
Although the conversations about men and women are changing, equality isn’t just about how women are perceived.
Once upon a time, the idea was that men had physical work to prove their masculinity, and that was accepted. But that’s far less available to people now. Also, once upon a time the idea was that the man was the head of the household and that was how he define his sense of self and responsibility, but that far less likely nowadays, too.
Men have quite a hard time because they are also often told to keep a stiff upper lip, not to be too emotional and not to show their feelings. And you can see the result of all that because male suicide is so high and male depression is so high. I believe that’s a result of not being able to freely admit that you’re human, with vulnerabilities, anxieties and insecurities.
Why do we need a festival to discuss such issues?
If you think about the feminist story or the LGBT story or the issue around race, people who have felt like they needed to create a new identity, outside of the identity they’d be en prescribed by society, they came together and they talked about it. The idea for men has always been that men are the static, established figure, and everybody else has to find a place around them, but actually in a way men haven’t been included in many conversations around important issues and about themselves. Men haven’t practised talking about themselves. Some of the men I talk to say it was very different for them to even talk to their fathers – they just don’t have that kind of contact.
If you’re going to change who your sense of self is, you can’t do it when you feel threatened and defensive. I genuinely feel that it doesn’t help for people to feel ‘got at’ at the time. Men, as a species, may have played the dominant role in society in the past. But as individuals often they are in very confused and bemused places.
We need a festival to celebrate maleness while at the same time saying: “There isn’t one way of being a man. There are many, many ways of being a man.”
Are any of the topics covered in the festival particularly personal to you?
There are men in my life that I do love so a lot of these issues resonate with me on a personal level. I’ve got a son, I’ve got a father, an ex husband and a current partner and I think they’re all fantastic men. But they’ve all said to me at different times that the conversation around male identity is quite constrained – you’re either the hero or the breadwinner or being strong – and in different ways they’ve all said that at times they’re almost envious of women. We can talk and share our feelings in a way that men aren’t encouraged to.
One of the reasons WOW (Women of The World) has so been successful is because it’s been very inclusive and celebrating all different kinds of female voices and hearing many different kinds of stories. I think men can also enjoy hearing different versions of what being a man is or could be, rather than just seeing Hollywood roles or men on the football or rugby pitch.
The festival is now in its second year, do you think the conversation around masculinity has changed at all in the last 12 months?
When we started the festival people were nervous and even cynical, saying there would just be metrosexuals coming and it would be full of very touchy-feely young guys talking – but that wasn’t the audience profile at all.
There were men attending the festival who were dealing with becoming a father, dealing with the breakup of their marriage and dealing with depression. But it was also full of men who just wanted to find out what it was like to be a stand up comic – it’s really not all about negative things.
We had thousands of people coming and there’s been a lot of articles in the news on subjects surrounding masculinity since.
Now, we realise that when we talk about gender equality, we’re also talking about men’s liberation. It’s not just about how the world needs to be better for women – of course it does – but it needs to be better for men as well.
I think male identity is a subject that’s on the rise and it’ll become more and more acceptable.
Young men really need male role models, and the role models they currently have are inadequate.
There’s not enough variety of role models – they don’t need role models who say if you’re tough, rich and sexy you can succeed – we need role models who allow men to be individuals.
Men also need to come forward and support boys more. In the way that women have a sense of a sisterhood, I think experienced men need to support young men.
It’s a festival for everyone, women too.
I think it is important for women to hear men being vulnerable and open – it’s not easy for men either.
HuffPost UK have partnered with Southbank Centre’s BAM – Being A Man festival, taking place 27 – 29 November. It will focus on lighthearted, serious and challenging issues facing boys and men in the 21st century.
There will be talks and debates, concerts, performances, comedy and workshops with contributions from over 150 speakers and performers, including Akala, Frankie Boyle, David Baddiel and Kellie Maloney. Day passes are £15, 3-day passes are £35. For more information, visit the website or call 0844 875 0073.