"Why would I go to a man hating event?"
My friend Chris has just made this remark and at first I assume he must be joking. He isn't. I blink in disbelief. He continues, "It'll just be a load of people pushing their own agenda and telling us everything men are doing wrong".
I've known Chris for a while, he's intelligent and 'switched on', we often exchange recommendations for talks and events. I'd just excitedly recommended Being a Man (BAM) festival, taking place at The Southbank Centre 25th - 27th November.
Surprised but undeterred by his initial reaction, I read Chris the opening blurb from the festival's homepage: 'Being a Man celebrates boys and men, and addresses the pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century'. Already I can see him softening a little. I continue reading, 'With discussions and debates on everything from shared paternity leave to shyness, from video games to transgender identity, BAM invites you to join a conversation about the shifting frontiers of masculinity - and how it will affect us all'.
By the end of the paragraph he's sold on the event and agreeing to check it out. Hurray! Success!
But why, I wonder, the initial scepticism? And he's not the only one. I had almost the exact opposite reaction from my friend Nick when I suggested he would enjoy the festival. He was wary that it would be full of macho attitudes and tired stereotypes of masculinity. "It's not like that at all!" I pleaded (it's at the Southbank Centre for goodness sake!).
What is it about an event entitled Being a Man that can cause such initial reservation?
My friend David inadvertently shed some light on this during a conversation we were having about a men's group that had recently started in his local area. Knowing him as I do, I would have expected him to jump at the idea of getting involved but he admitted that he hadn't attended. After firing off some initial excuses about practicalities, being too busy etc. David admitted the real reason that was holding him back from attending: Fear. Fear of what he'd find there, of the expectation of what he'd be required to do or say. What if he had to 'talk about his feelings'? and in a way he felt uncomfortable with?
For me this highlights something really exciting about why I would have no hesitation in recommending BAM to literally everyone I know regardless of gender, age or anything else. Like I said to David, you don't have to have it all 'figured out' or know what to expect or where you stand on everything to take part. All you have to do is simply get in the room. Get in the room and the rest will take care of itself. You have nothing to lose by doing this - how liberating!
I'm not for a second suggesting that fear is the sole driving force behind why one might not attend BAM, but if the idea of an event about masculine identity makes you feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable, or if you find yourself saying "that's not for me" then I urge you to please attend Being a Man festival and give yourself the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised.
There's something about the way this festival is curated that expertly presents important topics in a way that is accessible, non-threatening and welcoming to all - not to mention often highly entertaining. It is after all a festival! Southbank Centre Artistic Director and founder of BAM Jude Kelly is keen to make the distinction - this isn't a conference or a symposium, it's a festival, a celebration. The way the event is set up means you can engage with it at exactly the level you feel comfortable - whether you purchase a day or weekend pass, giving you access to a full programme of varied events, go to an individual show or talk or simply browse the stands in the BAM market place (attendance at which is free).
I've been going to BAM festival since it's launch two years ago and I've found it to be one of the most deeply inspiring, relevant and needed events I've attended in recent times.
And it is needed, desperately needed. You only have to look at examples such as the fact that in the UK, suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under the age of 45 to see that many of our ideas of masculinity are not working. Not working for any of us in fact. Women: We love the men in our lives. We raise boys to be men. We need to get in the room too and be part of these discussions.
One thing that's evidently clear, it is time to start having conversations about the changing landscape of masculine identity, how it looks now and how we'd like it to look going forwards. These conversations are vitally important and urgent and they can't happen without you.
So come to Being a Man festival, get in the room, be part of the conversation and just see what happens...