In the search for equality between the sexes, the first few waves of feminism focused almost exclusively on women’s experiences and voices. In recent years, feminist projects have increasingly incorporated the study of – and the idea of toxic masculinity in particular – into analysis of gender. Toxic masculinity is the ideals and norms of what it means to be a man that are both constraining and harmful. It creates rigid expectations that guys should be devoid of emotion, stoic, dominant and aggressive. It is contemptuous of men “acting like girls” and loving other men. It is fostered by telling boys to “toughen up” because “boys don’t cry”. Exploring toxic masculinity is exploring manhood in this world and opens our eyes to that fact that while men as a social group have power, many individual men feel powerless. The privilege that comes with being a man, also comes with harm.
From Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign to recent films like Moonlight and Mid90s, effort is being made to explore men in complex and nuanced ways. Men’s voices and experiences are being incorporated into the feminist project in the hope of creating a political freedom; to rearrange what it means to be a man or woman along more equitable lines and to create a more livable world for all genders.
This is not an easy task, as the recent backlash of the Gillette advert illuminated. Whilst the advert was widely praised it was also met with defensiveness and scorn, revealing the necessity for a wider and more in-depth explorations of what toxic masculinity is in fact all about.
The recently released short film Heroes (born out of a collaboration between spoken-word artist and writer Leyla Josephine and film-maker Dylan Moore) looks at these constructed expectations that are placed on guys and just how damaging they can be.
Art Editor Amy Rodgers caught up with them ahead of the release to discuss the project in more depth.
GG: Can you tell us a bit about the project and how it came about?
Leyla: I’ve been involved with Vox Liminis in quite a few different ways, their KIN project and also with the Distant Voices project in HMP Polmont, in which musicians write songs with people in the criminal justice system about their lives. After that session I was asked to respond with my own piece about the project and I came up with Heroes inspired by an image by Barabra Kruger and another shorter poem which was more directly about the group we worked with. Heroes always felt like it had a wider range and wasn’t just about prison but masculinity generally.
Dylan: Like Leyla, I’ve been working with Vox Liminis for a while now, initially as part of the creative collective KIN which makes work around the experience of young people who have a family member in prison. As I’ve started to progress through art school they’ve been really supportive and have offered me opportunities to engage with their other projects creatively, with Heroes being a prime example of that. Leyla and I have known each other for years, and I thought the poem was really powerful, so when Vox asked us to collaborate on a film I was really enthusiastic about us coming together to produce it. Weirdly enough I got involved with Vox Liminis initially through something Leyla had shared on facebook, so it’s nice that it’s kind of come full circle in a way.
Leyla: I was chuffed Dylan wanted to get involved because it felt like validation of the poem in a way, he’s had first hand experience of being a man and the criminal justice system so that was a real bonus for me and for the work.
GG: (For Dylan) Did Leyla brief you on what she was looking for in the video or did you have quite a lot of freedom with it?
Dylan: Everything Vox Liminis does is really about creating a conversation through music and art, and I feel that we totally adopted that ethos in our collaboration. Leyla gave me a lot of freedom to respond to Heroes and conceptualize the film in my own way, and then we bounced ideas off each other during the filming and editing process to strip it back a bit. Sometimes my work tends to have quite maximalist qualities (which really wouldn’t suit a poem like this) so it was good to have Leyla there to help keep it concise! The whole project just felt very natural and we’ve hopefully created something that will start more conversations amongst other people.
GG: (For Leyla) Did you have an idea in your head of what you wanted the video to look like or did you give Dylan a lot of freedom with it?
Lyla: I really trusted Dylan and was happy for him to take the lead. I think at the start I maybe gave some brief ideas but nothing major. You have to trust the process in collaborations, somethings happen that are unexpected but work out really well like I imagined it happening in a really small space but actually the room we filmed it in was huge so instead we marked out a box in which all the action takes place, it symbolises the confines of a prison and masculinity itself. We also lost all the light throughout the day but that actually became a cool effect, gradually changing alongside the progression of the poem.
GG: Toxic masculinity is being spoken about a lot more (see Gillette advert) but it also looks like the concept is being misunderstood (see comments and dislikes on Gillette advert: “this advert is tarnishing all men and masculinity with the same negative brush!” etc). Why do you think a lot of folk (mostly guys) are getting so riled up when we talk about toxic masculinity?
Leyla: Privileged people are scared of losing their privilege. It’s hard to accept because in a way we all feel hard done by society and it can be hard to accept you’re personally part of the problem. I understand this feeling when people pull me up about my class privilege or my race privilege – at first it can make me feel uncomfortable and – at some of my weaker moments – defensive. But I truly do believe that we all need is a bit of patience for people to reevaluate their life and it might not happen straight away within a conversation but you have to believe that you’re planting the seed and somewhere down the line everyone will realise that these imaginary structures we are in really only benefit a minority at the top. I think everyone, especially men will start to see that a different way in the world is possible and in fact, very likely.
Dylan: I think that, as you’ve said, it just comes from misunderstanding of what it means. For some men male privilege doesn’t seem as quantifiable or tangible as something like wealth or class, and it’s also something that’s so inherently part of our culture and always has been. They perceive it as an attack on their gender, rather than a critique of harmful behavior patterns that have no place in a progressive and equal society. They maybe also can’t see that the alternative to this kind of behavior is also a way out of the pressures and traditional gender roles enforced on men. The media plays a big part in this too – for every positive campaign there will be some clickbait fake news article about making ginger bread men gender neutral. This just turns the movement for equality into a caricature, preventing people from being able to understand the real issues at its core.
GG: Historically, it seems like feminism has concerned itself with how harmful men are to women and focused on the damage that women suffer as a result. What I love about the recent conversations going on (your video included) is that we are bringing men into the conversation more and showing that they too suffer from strict gender roles and expectations. Why do you think this is important to do?
Leyla: When I first started writing I was writing a lot about feminism and my experience at the hands of men, then a few years later I started my first prison project I had this epiphany, suddenly seeing the huge disadvantage men, especially working class men have due to the gender roles they are forced into. I remember having to completely reevaluate the ideas that “men are bad”, “men are powerful”, “men hurt women” and acknowledge that actually it is way more complicated than that.
Dylan: Yeah, it’s important because it totally defeats the whole “man-hating” narrative that people love to negatively attach to feminism, and demonstrates that it’s really about equality. It’s also about sharing responsibility – acknowledging that our concepts of gender impact everyone, and that women/trans people/non-binary people aren’t the only ones that have a cause to fight for here. In addressing the route of the problem, the ripple effect can improve the lives of so many other people.
Leyla: We’re at a really sticky moment in history, it’s an exciting time for feminism but we have to include men, we have to include race, class. If we don’t we’re just promoting another structure, another hierarchy. It’s going to be a challenging time for people to balance their anger with empathy and forgiveness.
GG: From straight men to gay men to women to trans* people, everyone is affected by toxic masculinity. It benefits no-one and harms everyone. I’m guessing both of you have been damaged by toxic masculinity in different ways. Can you tell us a little about any experiences you’ve had?
Leyla: Like Dylan my dad has probably had the most impact on my life in terms of masculinity. My dad could be cruel, drank a lot and was relentlessly unfaithful to all his partners. There was a lot of abuse in his own life and his childhood. I have gone on my own journey with this, trying to understand him and the choices he made. I often would find myself in relationships with men also struggling with alcohol and drug dependency, also facing a lot of shame. Expectations on men are so high and when they feel they’re not achieving what they want they tend to tumble and don’t have anyone to talk to about it. My family has had a stream of alcoholics and suicides – all generally men. I never saw my dad cry and that is enough to want to reach out.
Dylan: Yeah, my dad’s been in and out of prison pretty much my entire life and I think that Heroes is a really accurate manifestation of his situation in some ways, and touches on so many things that have affected my family; male pride, repressed feelings, substance abuse etc. That kind of trauma can be hereditary, and can affect people in different ways. Being gay, the familiar pattern of emulating these behaviors didn’t apply to me because they felt threatened, however, it still had an effect on me. I repressed how I felt about my family situation for a long time, and would emotionally check out of any significant relationship as a kind of defense mechanism until I finally reached a point in my life where I felt secure enough to deal with these issues. For anyone going through something similar though, I think the most important thing is not to keep these feelings self-contained. Identify their source, and then decide that it won’t define you. It’s a cycle that can absolutely be broken, and I think that’s the most important message to take away from ‘Heroes’ as well.