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“We have the festival to thank for the sea-change”: behind Southbank Centre’s Being a Man weekend

Prospect talks to festival organiser Ted Hodgkinson about Trump, sheds—and why this year's festival is truly for all men

By Prospect Team  

Ted Hodgkinson photographed by Daniela Silva.

So, Being a Man (BAM) is returning to the South Bank for its fourth year. What is the festival about this time?

The 2017 theme is “what makes a man?” looking at how male identities are constructed from material as diverse as films and families. Our contributors will examine inherited ideas about manhood giving rise to some of the most serious issues we currently face.

That’s quite a claim! Can you unpack those ideas a bit?

What underpins all these things are cultural beliefs that being a man means not showing some types of emotion unless you want to be seen as weak.

So, in the pub we can rage at our team losing but not express confusion about our career and not get the support we need. On a global level, we are watching hyper-masculine leaders US President and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in a classic “boys and their toys” face-off rather than negotiating with the risk of war at between 25 and 50% depending on which expert you ask. (We will be talking about Trump and Trudeau on Sunday.)

Understanding what happens when we can’t express emotions helps explain why domestic violence is mostly carried out by men, as well—why so many young men are killing themselves and why most terrorists are men, too.

Trump is one (arguably) bad example of masculinity. Another is Harvey Weinstein and other abusers in the “corridors of power.” Do you think these revelations have made it harder or easier for men to change?

It’s a seismic shift and is examples of what I call “infernal inequality.” I think the doings of Weinstein and others make these types of conversations more necessary; it forces us to talk about things like misogyny, abuse and bullying.

So, I think it’s unquestionably a good thing these terrible instances are finally coming to light.

Now, some men will certainly feel threatened or on trial, but we need to hear those voices as well. We don’t want this to be a space where there is just “one” view.

But won’t it just be “new men”—the same old Guardian readers—attending the event, when perhaps the people who might benefit most won’t hear about it or bother to come?

Our programme appeals to people beyond the “liberal bubble.” We have amazing comedians who are great at skewering the kind of ridiculous expectations we have been talking about.

There will be conversations with Simon Amstell, Robert Webb and a whole host of talented comics during our stand-up night.

Secondly, we ascertained that one of the things that made a man was “making.”

So, we are looking at crafting, carpentry and we have the Men in Sheds who like fixing things and you can make your dad out of Lego. You don’t have to talk; you can do stuff, or just listen.

How has the event changed over the four years?

When we started, people said, “Men have festivals every day of the year! We don’t need another,” but most now understand why it’s there.

And I think we have the festival to thank for the sea-change. Recall that Grayson Perry was one of the first of our speakers going on to create incredibly relevant art, a TV show and books, part of an upsurge in such cultural offerings over the past four years.

But it remains, as the Southbank creative director, Jude Kelly, points out, an affectionate space created out of love for men where they can discuss their lives. I look forward to finding out what kind of ripples the event can spread out into the world this year.

Prospect talked on the phone with Ted Hodgkinson as he put the final touches to Southbank Centre’s 2017 Being a Man Festival, 24 – 26 November. The talks, debates and activities address the challenges and pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century.  

Being A Man is sponsored by Gillette.

To find out more and book tickets for Being A Man, visit Southbank Centre’s website.

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