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Divya Venkattu discusses the witty, yet blunt, gender commentary.

A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego is the latest in the offering by acclaimed Scottish feminist theatre company Jordan and Skinner. Following a popular world premiere during Edinburgh Fringe 2019, the show has been reworked as a performance for the screen to allow for digital viewing. Directed by Caitlin Skinner and performed by Melanie Jordan, A Brief History of the Fragile Male Ego is a sharp, critical analysis of continually evolving gender dynamics in society. With the backdrop of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, the show uses the plot of a perceived crisis in masculinity to highlight the ways in which women are often socialised to meet the needs of men.

In the show, we see Andrea (Jordan), a volunteer of SMUT (Society of Men’s Universal Truth) explain the plight of the modern man and the burden that men carry in the form of huge, inflated egos. SMUT, although a fictional society that works towards the liberation of men, seems highly plausible in the current climate, which would attract the likes of men who like to passionately lament on Women’s Day, that Men’s day is not celebrated enough. 

Andrea uses the likes of Freud, Poseidon, Julius Caesar, José Mourinho and even William Wallace to render explanations of the male ego that draws from these classic characters’ personal experiences. Freud compares the male ego to a balloon and the female ego to a sponge. Upon pricking it with a sharp edge - say a rejection or a harsh word from someone - the balloon obviously explodes whereas the sponge, after years of conditioning and being asked to dumb down, has a more passive reaction. In the next segment, Poseidon rises out of a roaring sea while brandishing his trident; he then asks someone out on a date in a tone that is so entitled you’d be excused for thinking he’s catcalling. Upon being turned down (surprisingly!),  he wreaks havoc, creating rising tides, storms, earthquakes and other disasters. Julius Caesar laments that it is impossible to live up to the ideals of masculinity in Ancient Rome. The show’s creators also take several digs (not with a dagger or behind his back, however) at King Caesar’s natural predilection to dominate people either by killing them or by sleeping with them (Tommy Shelby, hold your whisky).

"Andrea uses the likes of Freud, Poseidon, Julius Caesar, José Mourinho and even William Wallace to render explanations of the male ego that draws from these classic characters’ personal experiences."

Throughout these different segments featuring historically celebrated men (who are coincidentally prime examples of having huge egos), important concepts are explored. They include, but are not limited to: male entitlement, gender role strain, violence and war as an outcome of the male ego and men’s mental health. Although conceptually sound, the show struggles with execution. Some parts have the intended comedic effect, but the satire is stretched till it’s worn out, creating sequences that are jarring and uncomfortable to watch. In an attempt to convey the “manliness” of the celebrated men, Jordan assumes a boisterous and loud demeanour that is essentially a mockery of such displays of manliness. However, the show appears as an overt and blunt portrayal of the masculinity that it actually intends to criticise.  

Similarly, when Jordan plays the role of Andrea, the female volunteer who hosts the lecture, she is seen to be more and more obsequious as the show progresses. While I understand that the performance is meant to convey what is expected of women in many places - to be apologetic, unassertive, and typically behave like a doormat - the fidgety unsteadiness of Andrea is overdone in some parts and is in appalling contrast to normalised independence that women bestowed themselves with, in part due to increased awareness or 21st century “wokeness”. 

Heavily focused on irony and satire, the show highlights where the fault lines lie in the societal construction of masculinity. But where it fails is in its highly unnatural and superficial attempts to empathise with the men that it antagonised in the first half. It acknowledges that the fragile male ego affects men as deeply as it does women, that it might lead to serious mental health problems and even suicide. It stresses, although indirectly, that men need to be emotionally vulnerable and not being able to express their emotions comes at a heavy price. Despite trying to convey these messages that need hearing, the highly satirised nature of the show makes its empathy for men come off as affected. 

"Despite trying to convey these messages that need hearing, the highly satirised nature of the show makes its empathy for men come off as affected."

The show emphasises that the social conditioning of women to be subservient is dangerous. There are three ways that are suggested (essentially to women) to help men protect their fragile egos: Empathise, Emasculate not, Embarrass never. Being a commentary on gender dynamics in the modern workplace, these steps provide guidelines for women to fan the ego of men by taking measures that would make men feel like heroes. This segment was powerful but rather uncomfortable to watch because it directly antagonises men, instead of having a more nuanced approach and pointing out that the fragile male ego is not an individual issue but several factors come into play. The most disappointing aspect of the show was its failure to convey a rather important, if not optimistic point. Having a fragile male ego is not an irreversible condition and there are ways to actively improve even if your gender historically made huge gains from oppressing the other. 


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