The Real Man is a myth, but a funny one at least

Real men conference image, from
Real men conference image, from

A growing band of people wants to talk about masculinity. Brilliant. It’s still a small group but it seems to be getting bigger, with young campaigns like Great Men all getting involved. Later this month there’s a conference in London organised by Nick Clements and titled Real Men. It’s really gratifying to see more and more people recognising that masculinity is an exhausting and sometimes destructive performance. Clements promises a series of such conferences this year. To top it off, we’ll have the Being a Man Festival at the Southbank Centre in November (I’ve written about plans for this here).

I’m curious about the Real Men conference. (I’ll probably go, btw.) I have a few reservations about some of the language, and I’m not sure it’s easy to put my finger on them. Let me try.

First off, the idea of the Real Man is a bit daft. I’m sure Clements knows this. It is a deliberate play on the term. The conference is designed to deconstruct the dominant idea of what a Real Man is—things like the following: men are silent about certain emotions, capable of various technical jobs, wearers of aftershave, and so on. Given that all that is crappily forced onto men, it makes sense to try to redefine the term Real Man, to say that Real Men allow themselves to be vulnerable, that Real Men can ask for directions. I get it. But it’s a bit naff because obviously the concept of the Real Man is an annoying and damaging concept in the first place. It goes something like this: “Och, your version of the Real Man is not the right one, so let me show you what a Real Man is like.”

You might say that the alternative Real Man is probably a better person than the normal Real Man. I probably do agree with that. But by calling that person the Real Man, you’re now forcing certain expectations onto a version of manhood. I don’t think forcing expectations on people has worked out well in the past, so I don’t think we should continue to do it.

It is just the name for a conference. But I think it says something about how we’re not able to get beyond the idea of certain types of men. I’m sure I share the aims of the organisers: liberty from the performance of masculinity, and fairer and kinder treatment of one person to another. These things will all exist outside of small boxes like Real Men, so why not scrap these sorts of terms now? Maybe you have to start somewhere…

The other thing about the Real Man conference is that it looks emotional. I can only really go on the list of speakers at the moment because the programme isn’t up yet. The emotional stuff is so important. It is almost certainly at the route of a lot of problems with masculinity. If boys aren’t brought up to be able to talk about all their emotions (not just the joy they feel when they score a goal) then they’re more likely to feel the need to conform silently later on to all the tropes of being a man. Silence, distance, self-sufficiency—all of these can lead to the kinds of anti-social behaviour we see men committing again and again. So yeah, let’s talk about the shit. Let’s go deep. Let’s bring up all the nightmares. Let’s have a running commentary, where appropriate, of how we feel.

And I’m sure that the people on the speaker list are really good at that. It looks like they do good work with boys and men. These people aren’t ever going to be celebrities for the work they do, even though it’s so important.

But I look at what they do and I sometimes think things should be a bit funnier. The performance of masculinity is pretty damn hilarious when you think about it. There’s a great scene in a 2014 Argentine film called Wild Tales, in which two men, strangers, feel their honour and their respectability infringed by the other and they fight and fight in a stupid and undignified way. The director strikes the perfect tone with the scene, knowing how much of a dick you are when you want to hit the person who “takes your name”, as Eddie says in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. The Wild Tales director mocks the two men. It’s really deeply and blackly funny.

You don’t get that kind of humour coming across from the earnest and admirable blokes who work in trying to boost lads’ levels of self-confidence and emotional engagement.

I think that’s something that the growing band of people who want to talk about masculinity is missing. Grayson Perry is gleefully sending up masculinity rather well, but he’s spread too thinly. I’m trying to have a go at sending up masculinity in some of these blog posts, and it’s hard. It’s hard because I can look at how Roxane Gay does it for gender and popular culture, but there aren’t many men who do it about masculinity specifically. Oh how hilarious; I’m basically saying that we need better role models. That’s the story writ large.

So maybe I’ll write a few more posts about masculinity and popular culture—I’ll try to be funny, I’ll try to mock without sneering, and I’ll try to explain why Zayn leaving One Direction is the best thing that lad could ever have done.

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