With institutions and individuals being exposed on a weekly basis for their toxic masculinity, the moment is ripe for artists to declare time up on fetid machismo
Brexit, Trump, mental health and gender are all popping up as themes for shows coming to this year's festival. But another big 2018 theme rearing its ugly head might join a few dots between them all. 'Toxic masculinity', or the more dangerous, extreme aspects of macho culture are a hot topic in our #MeToo world within in a culture where mansplainers, incels and locker room banterers walk amongst us.
Scanning Fringe listings for shows exploring masculinity's more poisonous sides, you'll find the play Angry Alan about a man 'about to lose his shit' because his girlfriend has just discovered feminism. Ulster American looks at escalating violence and abuses of power while Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair write about playground violence and myths of masculinity in Square Go. The relationships between grandfathers and their grandsons is explored in Old Boy, while Mary Jane Wells writes and performs the solo show Heroine about a survivor of sexual trauma in the US military. And over at the Edinburgh International Festival, Katie Mitchell reworks Marguerite Duras' La Maladie de la Mort, a sex-work thriller about a man who pays a woman to teach him how to love, without her speaking at any point.
To unpack the fetid, bloodstained and athlete's foot-ridden sock drawer of toxic masculinity, I spoke to three performers approaching the topic from cis-male, cis-female and queer standpoints. UK writer / performance artist Katy Dye looks at society's often sinister tendency to infantilise women in her play Baby Face in which she sucks a dummy and climbs into a high chair to examine the niche sexual fetish of ABDLG (Adult Baby Daddy's Little Girl). Birmingham-based dancer Johnny Autin uses spoken word, dance and comedy to tell stories about homophobia, male insecurities and feminism in Queer Words. And representing the most vilified, privileged group of all (the straight, white, pale male) is Canadian playwright Adam Lazarus with his disturbing satire Daughter.
Angry Alan / credit: The Other Richard
'Masculinity itself is not toxic,' Autin clarifies. 'But perpetuating certain myths, that men should "grow a pair" or that "boys don't cry" creates a dangerous culture of suppressed emotions. What follows is a crisis of masculinity and terrible mental health in men.'
'Taking traditionally "masculine" qualities to the extreme becomes toxic, and backfires on men and others,' says Dye. 'I wanted to take these very subtle notions of "maleness" and push stereotypes to the extreme. In the case of "daddy" figures, the urge to protect, or provide or care isn't toxic, but removing someone's choice or control and taking away their power, that's toxic. And definitely not sexy.' Dye believes toxic masculinity often comes from feeling threatened or emasculated. 'As women get more control in more areas, men can react in two ways: they either embrace feminism and evolve, or cling to a nostalgic, outdated sense of identity, and regress.'
Lazarus started writing Daughter while his wife was expecting their second child. 'I was thinking about how we bring up our daughters. Then I realised it's not about teaching girls not to be assaulted while the boys go play basketball. I'd be playing right into that whole trope. It's about raising our sons to think about what behaviour is actually acceptable. From awful "dude" talk to aggression and sexism. These things are still so deeply ingrained, and so problematic.'
Like Dye, Lazarus plays up certain negative stereotypes on stage, pushing into deeply uncomfortable areas, making audiences consider where they draw lines. Just as things get awkward when Dye coyly chats up a man then asks him to spoon-feed her, Lazarus acts out a frazzled parenting scene where he pushes a crying child down onto a bed and shouts in her face, intimidating her.
'The stories get progressively worse,' says Lazarus. 'I ask the crowd if they think stuff is OK, and people drop off as the show goes on. It's a messy, funny show that gets pretty dark, but it's meant to provoke a reaction. It's about calling out stuff that really shouldn't continue. Excusing stuff by saying "oh, you know, boys will be boys!" is not OK. Neither is having zero culpability, zero remorse and zero willingness to change. When men and women don't call out bad behaviour in the workplace, in families and from friends, that's contributing to it too.'
Lazarus says the reactions from men and women towards Daughter have been positive. He doesn't intend his show to provide solutions or quick answers, it's more about opening up a conversation. At the end he hands out a free 'zine with art and writing, pointing people to resources he's gathered from women's groups, Planned Parenthood, trauma-recovery centres and the White Ribbon Campaign against violence towards women. 'I read that [right-wing professor / YouTube celebrity] Jordan Peterson had a chapter in his stupid book called "stand up straight with your shoulders back". Why's it not called "break down and cry for an hour"?' laughs Lazarus.
Autin agrees that a root problem is men often not knowing, or not being properly taught, on how to behave. 'Being unsure what to do with difficult emotions like shame, inadequacy and fear is a huge issue. It's not just about how you treat others, it's about how you treat yourself. Going to the gym to get the six-pack and the iron body, or shopping for the biggest watch is missing the point. Self-care and looking after your own mental health is something we really need to talk about.'
The patriarchy is still alive and well in the LGBT community, sighs Autin, as he remembers seeing a 'no femmes, no fags, no blacks, no Asians' slogan recently on Grindr. 'There's still such prejudice within an already prejudiced group: trans-misogyny and the refusal to accept feminine men is a horrible side of the queer world and another sad sign of toxic masculinity.'
Dye is also keen to point out toxic femininity too: she hates to see TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) shaming trans-women for not being 'female' enough, for example. 'Some women are having an identity crisis too; it's the same thing where people are feeling threatened. So they demonise people that confuse them. Why take those female aspects of your personality so seriously?'
'Why all the fragility?' agrees Lazarus. 'Are you afraid that all your power will be lost? The fact that a woman would make you feel threatened is insane to me! If someone says you're being an asshole or intimidating them, then it's time to adjust.'
All three performers speak about toxic governments and policies, and how those messages trickle down into everyday life. Lazarus wrote his play before Donald Trump came into power; Dye finds certain paternalistic politicians and a certain British reliance on outdated gender roles and industries very troubling; and Autin is worried about the real dangers of banning trans-folk from the military.
Autin has experienced added stigma growing up as a queer man, but remains hopeful. 'You already feel an outsider when growing up gay in a straight man's world. But then, in the queer world, it's also easier to talk about feelings, genders, sexuality. The lines are more blurred, and there can be less confusion and more acceptance. My personal belief is that we are all both male and female: of course, you can be caring and brave, and you can be decisive and vulnerable. In the future, things are going to be way more fluid. We won't talk so much about masculine and feminine: people will be people!'
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