Recently I was at the Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival; an annual event established by the current artistic director Jude Kelly now in its second year. I heard talks from doctors, fathers, teachers, journalists and artists covering topics of fatherhood, gang culture, body image, sexuality, and mental health – there was a lot to cover. As fantastic as I found the weekend I want to open the discussion on why a festival like this exists – something that has been highly contested.
Why do we need a festival dedicated to being a man? The simple answer would be that there’s never been one, and this event is totally unique. We can also say that men’s issues are something that are seldom given attention, assumed to be unchanging and rarely touched upon. The fact that no one is speaking about it can be reason enough to begin the conversation.
The more complex answer delves into issues of gender that we currently have very few set views upon. The overarching problem addressed in these events is the fact that society holds a very restrictive view of what constitutes ‘being a man’ and that many men within society cannot align themselves with this view. Whilst we may find ourselves in a generation that is seeking to throw off labels and reject boxed in categories of identity, many of the expectations of what makes a ‘proper man’ remain intact.
Feminism has given rise to an ability of women to communicate issues of identity, worth and their wider place within society both on an individual scale and as a community. That dialogue has been wholly absent from male groups and assumed to be unnecessary. Men have not been swept aside in society but they have been regarded as being without need of the same debates women have held. One of the challenges facing festivals like this is bringing a new dialogue into previously unexplored territory.
One thing that must be praised of the festival is its triumph in creating a location where men are unafraid to talk to each other about issues beyond the regular gym talk, work talk and banter. The trolls on Twitter, of which I received a small personal experience, are in a minority – but they are a very loud and vocal minority. Thankfully, the atmosphere within the centre as the festival went on became more and more open, fun, relaxed and explorative. I can honestly say that I have never been in an environment where I’ve felt more comfortable to strike up conversation with perfect strangers and I think I can walk away from that weekend with some good friends and connections.
If you are still questioning why such a festival exists then I’ll have to go to my fall back argument. Again, this is something I heard repeatedly during my time at the festival and that is the statistics which indicate towards some of the issues men are facing.
98% of convicts are male. 95% of prison visitors are female. (Saturday keynote speech by Jude Kelly)
White British boys are the lowest achieving group in London schools. (‘Boys Education’ chaired by Sandy Ruxton)
Only 11% of men aged 18-50 in the UK feel they have a male friend they can speak to in time of crisis. (‘All in the Mind? Men’s Mental Health’ chaired by Dr Christian Jessen)
Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 45 and under in the UK. (Campaign Against Living Miserably [CALM])
12 men take their own lives in the UK every day. (CALM)
Dialogues on gender are always going to be heated and contested and pulled apart. But the reality is that men are in need of the same discourses that have been made available to women. The Being a Man festival exists for one very simple reason; to further explore what makes us able to identify as individuals. To me, that can only be a good thing.