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“Grow some balls” – Challenging male stereotypes | The Great Initiative

When Emma Watson launched the United Nations’ He For She campaign in 2014, many people’s misinformed views of feminism changed.

This was not an invitation to ‘man hate’, rather a plea to men directly: to acknowledge that gender equality is their problem too.

A profound and yet simple concept –in order to achieve a society where women are treated equally, men must speak up and do their bit.

However, I couldn’t help feeling that part of the equation was missing. Yes, gender inequality against women is rife – the statistics speak for themselves:

  • Just 1% of the titled land in the world is owned by women
  • Over 130 million women living in the world today have undergone Female Genital Mutilation
  • An estimated 1.2m children are trafficked into slavery each year; 80 per cent are girls

But what about the men? Does sexism towards men contribute to the problem? Do male stereotypes have their part to play in gender inequality?

A chance conversation with a friend from dance class (who incidentally, taught me about vagina art and dinahvagina) introduced me to The Great Initiative and the Great Men project.

The organisation was founded in 2009 by broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, international lawyer Jason McCue and writer Karen Ruimy, who noticed a lack of initiatives championing men’s voices.

Its aim is to challenge male stereotypes. Through exploratory workshops, it’s found that these views are usually a result of misogyny. For example, vulnerability and emotion are often feared for being ‘girly’. Instead men are expected to “man up” and “grow some balls”.

These attitudes can be hugely problematic. Day-to-day, men can be dissuaded to follow their interests in case they are branded “feminine”. In more serious cases, sexual assault against men can be dismissed as trivial.

In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 35. It accounts for deaths of more young men in England and Wales in 2011 than road deaths, murder, and HIV/AIDS combined.

Something needs to change.

I spoke with David Brockway, the Project Manager of the Great Men Project to find out more about the Initiative’s work and how it’s influencing the next generation.

What is ‘The Great Men Project’?

We work in schools around the UK and internationally, providing 3-hour workshops in secondary schools for boys aged 12 – 18. Particularly for the younger boys, this is a valuable age for a preventative approach, providing the opportunity to address issues that might affect them in the future, before they start to manifest.

In the workshops, we explore what it means to be a boy and to become a man. The aim is to start conversations, encouraging boys to find their own answers.

Common themes discussed include violence and male identity; asking why as men do we feel that we have to fight? What is it about male identity that if someone challenges me to a fight, I have to say yes?

Do the boys speak openly within the session?

It is important that we create a safe space that boys feel comfortable in. By ‘being a man’ you are not expected to talk about your feelings. Through the workshops, the boys learn that it’s OK talk about your emotions and you don’t have to put up this front of being strong and tough.

The project has a very open approach. No-one’s being told what to do, but we encourage boys to have conversations. The approach is key – not treating men as perpetrators, and women as victims, rather offering conversation that are useful for boys to have.

Why did you get involved?

I noticed that lots of people were talking about the issue [of gender equality] but not really doing anything about it. I’m also a believer in the ability of small organisations to facilitate change.

Do you think the word ‘feminism’ is helpful, or do you think it reinforces gender stereotypes?

I don’t think it does either. It depends on the person using it and what they understand of it. It is a very complex issue, and research is key. Often, people attack something they don’t understand.

What is the future for gender and equality?

I see a lot of potential change, although I don’t think gender will go away completely for many decades. For now, encouraging men to talk about their feelings is a huge step forward.


For more information on the work The Great Initiative do, please visit their website. Thank you to David Brockway for his time and insight.

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