Being a man is tough but planning a festival on it is even tougher

WOW festivalGuys, we let the side down on Sunday. I’ve been thinking about the session at the excellent Women of the World festival that was about men, and I can’t help but feel disappointed. I have nothing against the people on the panel. They were all articulate and thoughtful. But there was a complacency to the panel and the session as a whole that I think came through in how the chair, Helena Kennedy, kept making succinct political statements. It was because she wasn’t getting clear answers from her panellists—and that’s not so much to do with them as the format of the session.

The title was Being a Man, the same as the Southbank Centre’s nascent festival, first held in 2014 and due again for November 2015. Southbank boffins are planning BAM 2015 as I type. And I’m sure they know how big their job is.

It is not hard to think of topics for discussion. At the think-in on 24 January, designed to collect ideas for the next BAM, my group filled two sides of huge sugar paper with ideas. Some of those and the ones I’ve thought of since include:

  • A history lesson, in which a historian talks us through representations of masculinity through the past few centuries and how they have influenced and been influenced by the politics of the day. This session could be similar to a talk by historian Bob Mills at the Queer Zoo event in December, describing how artists have used images of animals to portray human sexualities in different periods. The speaker should expect to spend half the session answering questions from the audience.
  • A debate about sex and power, perhaps with two sides debating a motion such as ‘This house moves that sex between two or more people always requires a power dynamic and cannot be enjoyable without it.’ This is of course a riff on one of Grayson Perry’s assertions in his lecture last year (repeated at the think-in). The audience should be just as involved as the opponents. A sexologist or sociologist of sexuality could provide the debate with research findings.
  • Die HardA journey through different representations of masculinity in popular culture, with interpretation of what they mean. This could be hilarious and enlightening at the same time, similar to the session about queer TV characters as part of the BFI’s scifi season last year. Let’s show clips of action heroes snogging supporting actresses while shooting off their guns at the terrorists, or Captain Jack Harkness snogging a man while shooting his ray gun at an alien, or the ridiculous contortions the men on Take Me Out have to make to their identities, or Damian Lewis’s Henry VIII from Wolf Hall and his sense of entitlement to women. Let’s remember the male screen idols we looked up as boys, and for the first time think about why, and what they told us of our developing masculinities. Let’s wonder what the kids these days will make of Channing Tatum in eye liner and hover boots.

The point of these sessions is simple: to open up a space to talk about masculinities. Men have still got so far to go in feminism that we still need to do basic things like realise how much of a construct masculinity is, as well as how it affects us. In the feminist reading circle I’m in, us men still struggle with this. BAM needs to lock onto this idea in the topics it approaches in November.

Anthony AnaxagorouBut really what I want to say here is a boring point about format. I did not get much from the session on men at WOW, and I think the BAM planners should think about this. It wasn’t clear what the WOW session was intending to achieve. What it did achieve was a rather closed discussion between five people on a stage, with a couple of hundred people listening in. Most of those listeners surely learnt one or two things (I did) or heard views they already hold reaffirmed in novel ways. For me, Anthony Anaxagorou said a few things that switched some light bulbs on.

But generally the conversation was unfocused and so it became circular. Kennedy did well to hit a few appropriate topics, such as whether greater tolerance to homosexuality will mitigate men’s sexist behaviour, and how sexism is a symptom of patriarchal capitalism. She may have overstepped her role as chair, but her interventions were welcome as she did more to crystallise the feelings in the room than anyone else. She seemed to be grasping for an outcome, if not a solution. She wasn’t getting it from her panel, so she made her own points instead.

The panellists (all men) didn’t seem to want outcomes. I don’t blame them for that necessarily, because there was no goal for the session. If the organiser had thought of a goal, the only thing it could have been was: let’s find out what ‘being a man’ is and why sexism persists—in 90 minutes. You can see now why that’s a daft goal. It’s just impossible.

It’s far better to have a focused discussion with a stated aim. If it is to be a panel discussion, the aim could be something like ‘how to spot crappy representations of men in the media and how they harm us’ or ‘practical things men can do to challenge sexism when they see it’ or ‘how to condition boys away from sexist behaviour’ (Anthony did actually have some great suggestions for this at WOW). These are three extra ideas to add to my three bullets above. Wait, I have another one. The aim could be intimate (as some of the best sessions at BAM were), such as ‘let’s hear from a couple of men who grew up in abusive households and how it’s affected the masculinity they perform’.

A panel session with a stated aim would need a rigorous chair to corral the panellists and audience into achieving something concrete. In the first example, it is a theoretical framework. In the second and third, a mere list. In the fourth, an emotional impact.

But I think panel organisers tend to shy away from goals like this. Having a goal is more inevitably controversial because it creates argument and debate. Instead, the intention of the WOW session on men seemed to be to have a cosy discussion in a safe space, even though this ends up just being a circle jerk.

BAM logoI’ve run lots of group discussions and organised debates, and it’s always better when there’s an aim, when the chair has a steady hand on proceedings, and when everyone in the room feels involved. These are hard standards to reach. Even harder is succeeding with a session about masculinity or men’s sexism that actually comes up with something. But the first BAM, in 2014, proved that there is a group of men and women who want to get together to talk about this stuff, and they can do so without sexist ‘men’s rights’ idiots taking over. BAM is still a long way from being like WOW, and in fact it shouldn’t get upset about that.

WOW is rightly a celebration as much as a political rally. BAM needs to be much more reflective and practical. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun or funny. Getting the format of the sessions right is a boring technical job, but it will be essential if BAM wants to achieve half the success of WOW.

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