What Does 21st Century Masculinity Look Like?

27/04/2016 16:05

For decades women have been debating what it means to be female as part of the fight for gender equality, but it's been relatively quiet on the male front. That's starting to change. Last year BBC Three aired Reggie Yates' Extreme UK, which stated that "being a British guy in 2015 is not easy" and proceeded to look at men standing on the "extreme edge of modern British masculinity". This included a lot of angry men (feminism has gone too far, they said) and the so-called pick-up artist Roosh V, who called for the legalisation of rape in certain circumstances.

Taking this conversation one step further is Channel 4, who will air Grayson Perry's All Man this May. Perry, an artist and father of one known for cross dressing, will introduce three types of modern man: the "hard man" aka cage fighters; the "top man", police men and drug dealers; and the "rational man", traders and hedge funders from the City of London.

Perry's show will explore and challenge the notion of man as protector and breadwinner. Bear Grylls this is not. In fact, Perry recently called Grylls' style of masculinity "useless", a "hangover" from a more violent age.

Perry is not the only one who thinks Grylls is in the dark ages when it comes to masculinity. There's a whole cohort of men who are starting to advocate a more dynamic and varied type of 21st century man - and they're doing this as much publically as privately. One such person is artist and performer Shane Solanki. A former artist-in-residence at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, who has performed at Southbank and Tate Modern, Solanki doesn't concern himself with men at the extreme end, but instead wants to look at those who are less stereotypical.

He is currently working on a show about gender fluidity, which will preview at Asia House next Friday and later at Southbank's Alchemy. The piece is set within the framework of a fairy tale (girl meets boy and falls in love), except all the characters have multifaceted gender identities and it quickly becomes complicated (and very funny). In an interview about the new work, Solanki tells me:

"Men are hungry to explore modern notions of masculinity, which deviate from the word alpha. Modern masculinity is being redefined today."

Solanki acknowledges that there is a conflict at present - as can be seen by the angry men exposed on shows like Reggie Yates' and by those whom he calls "chest beaters". Solanki's looking at you Donald Trump. Sure they make for good news and hence dominate the headlines, but they are a minority. "Gentle men" are becoming widespread.

"I'm engaged in a 60-person strong all male choir. It's amazing the community that has arisen from this choir - it feels like the zeitgeist. People are hungry to witness and be part of men singing their hearts out with gentility, softness and grace, rather than bravado," he tells me.

There are many reasons to care about this conversation. For women, a reassessment of masculinity is integral to gender equality. It's this belief that led Emma Watson to launch the #heforshe campaign at the UN in 2014. Then there are initiatives like Walk In Her Shoes. They all aim to bring men into the forum.

"Women are embracing feminism; they know what it's like to have to deal with harassment and inequality. It's men who have to be exposed to it and to champion it," Solanki says. Previous shows of his, such as Superheroines I Have Known and Loved, have also addressed gender equality from a man's perspective.

Another reason for talking more about masculinity is that these conversations directly benefit men. Without wanting to be as alarmist as saying masculinity is in crisis (though plenty have argued just that), there are some pretty dire stats out there when it comes to men. They're three and a half times more likely to take their lives than women; they far out-number women in terms of harmful alcohol and drug consumption; they're more likely to be homeless. How these issues intersect with broader questions of gender and identity is essential to explore.

Looking at the landscape, it's no wonder that Southbank Centre created BAM (Being a Man) in 2014, a counterpart to WOW (Women of the World Festival).

Still, for people like Solanki it's not always easy discussing these topics. Many salute his work. Some though are less happy and that includes a handful of women.

"I almost stopped making work about gender equality because so many women were angry at me. They said the issue doesn't belong to me. When that's ever said to me the most I can do is listen. But I should really say that they're wrong - everyone needs to talk about these issues to democratise them rather than polarise them."

Moving back to Perry, in an interview with the Radio Times ahead of All Man's release, he said "men might be good at taking the risk of stabbing someone or driving a car very fast, but when it comes to opening up, men are useless." He added:

"Masculinity is a decorative feature that is essentially counter-productive."

So how can we be productive? Carving out more room for discussions on masculinity is certainly a start.

Shane Solanki will perform his latest work on Friday 6 May as part of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival. More information on the event can be found here.