Q&A Interview The pressures of masculinity

Filmmaker Sam Parker is a budding writer and actor with the National Youth Theatre, whose short film 'Masculinity' explores the subject of 'manliness' and the pressures that men and boys feel to behave a certain way. 'Masculinity' was commissioned as a result of a partnership between the Arts Council England and Channel 4, which works with and develops 16-24 year old filmmakers through a national initiative known as First Acts. Find out more about First Acts here.

Am I Normal spoke to Sam Parker about his reasons for making this film, his concerns when it comes to gender stereotypes, and what we can do as a society to break free from them.

Hi Sam, Can you talk us through the subject of 'Masculinity' and what prompted you to make it?

I wanted to make a film that looked at the rise in gym-culture amongst men. This was something I was a part of, particularly in the latter years of school. I found it interesting how my Dad and his friends did not go near a gym when growing up, and yet for me and my friendship group, it was unusual if you did not go to the gym. Because I used to be an avid gym-goer, I was aware of the benefits of going to the gym and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and conversely, I was also aware that it could turn from a hobby in to a vocation if you let it. I knew a bit about muscle dysmorphia already and I was conscious that I had not read much about body image disorders affecting men, as well as women. I guess I thought it would be interesting to shed some light on that and chart the journey of a male gym-goer, from healthy interest to unhealthy obsession…

And here we are.

The need to look ‘perfect’ is often assumed to be an issue affecting women. Do you think the pressure to fit this stereotype applies just as much to men?

I think there are general stereotypes pushed by external influences as ‘perfect’ examples of men or women, yes. With regards to the amount of pressure faced by specific genders, I think it is hard to quantify, though I am not sure we need to. I would say it is easier to make a generational comparison, and that comparison is more relevant. I am certain that, from generation to generation, there is a growing pressure on people to look perfect, whether they be male or female. This is largely down to the influence of social media.

In what way do you think social media plays a part in putting pressure on men to look and behave a certain way?

Social media allows users to share their entire life with the world. Naturally, the way some users seem to live becomes desirable to others (‘seem’ being the operative word). People can pursue this desirable lifestyle in a number of ways; often by emulation. What usually goes unsaid is that we are seeing these users’ lives in short videos, images or messages. What we are seeing is whatever the user wants us to see, through whatever lens they choose. It is not perfect, it is fake. It is this pursuit of these ‘perfect’ lifestyles that can lead to problems because, ultimately, they are unobtainable.

Do you think there is a lack of support and education when it comes to acknowledging the pressures that men face to be masculine?

Yes. Massively so. What is encouraging is that people are starting to wake up to that, which can only be a good thing. The really damaging aspect of the male gender stereotype is that it promotes the attitude that a man should not need help, and that not asking for help is something to be proud of. That then results in men not asking for help, which translates into there being less of a demand from men for support and education; the lower demand means that the supply of support and education is decreased and the cycle continues. It is a vicious circle.

That all sounds very glum but I am about to be positive, I promise…

What does “masculinity” mean to you?

If I am honest, I am not sure. For me, the beauty of the term ‘masculinity’ is that it is just that, a term. Terms are malleable. Terms can be redefined. A quick google will tell you that the definition of masculinity is ‘possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.’ What those ‘qualities’ are is up to us. Masculinity is whatever we want it to be. It is not a prescription, it can be moulded by the way we behave now. I think it is incumbent on society to help the men of today and tomorrow redefine masculinity. It is important that we communicate to young boys that it can be a positive thing, that masculinity is not inherently negative and that the way they behave can have a positive influence on how masculinity is seen by wider society now and in the future.

What do you think society can do as a whole, to break out from these sexist patterns?

I mentioned earlier that I was unsure as to whether quantifying and comparing gender specific problems was the right way to go about solving them. I think there are certain issues perceived as ‘female’ issues and vice versa. That is hugely damaging. By labelling issues as gender specific, we can give the impression of exclusivity; the way to solve these issues is by making sure everyone is invited to band together and face them down. That is what feminism is about. In the case of body image, these disorders are causing people to suffer. Whether 70% of those people are male, or 70% are female is beside the point. What is important is that we make it clear that those people affected are not just ‘female’ or ‘male’, but are someone’s mother, father, siblings, children, family and friends.

I think when we make issues exclusive to certain genders, we pit them against each other. In some spheres of debate, this is leading people to actually denigrate the efforts of the opposite gender to deal with issues. ‘Why are we dealing with X when Y affects us?’ You can see it all over social media. This breakdown of discourse surrounding sexism and issues with gender is devastating; it is only by unifying around these issues that we will be able to effectively deal with them. I think this was a turning point for me; the realisation that, in apportioning some issues to specific genders, and inadvertently excluding others from said issues, we may be doing more harm than good.

What would you say to any teenage boys who are struggling to express thei­­­r emotions for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­fear of being judged?

It is tempting to go down the tried and tested cliché route and sa­­y ‘be yourself’, and whilst I do think that cliché has merit, we all know it can often be far easier said than done. What I would say to any young people struggling is that mates are hugely important. And with mates, less is often more. Do your best to surround yourself with a small group of really decent people that you care about and who care about you and you will find that when you do need to get something off of your chest, you are surrounded by a small circle of great people who will listen (Yes, even the ones who spend 99% of their time messing about will listen. Especially them). It’s not always easy to find people who you click with, but I guarantee you there will be at least one other person at your school, or wherever you find yourself, that you will get on with. The trick is locating them.

Do you have any other projects lined up?

I am coming in to the latter stages of the Lab Company program with the Theatre Royal Plymouth. This is a year-long program in which myself and eight others have been supported in forming a Theatre Company; I am not being hyperbolic when I say it has been amazing to be part of. Our company is called The Narwhal Ensemble and our first show is on at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in the Lab from the 12th-15th July.

I am also Assistant Directing on Scenes from an Execution with the People’s Company at the Theatre Royal Plymouth; that is directed by Nik Partridge and is on from the 29th June-1st July in The Drum.

Apologies for the shameless plugs…

Apologies for the insincere apology for the shameless plugs.

Body Issues

If you are concerned about body dysmorphia, check out the Channel 4 support site

Channel 4 support site (This link opens in a new window)

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