Boys will be Boys – Birmingham Literature Festival

On Saturday 5th October 2019, the Birmingham Literature Festival hosted a panel discussion entitled; Boys will be Boys: Confronting Power, Patriarchy and Toxic Masculinity.

The event was chaired by Dr. Fen Coles who is a co-director at Letterbox Library, a not-for-profit children’s bookseller specialising in equality, inclusion and diversity which has also partnered with Let Toys Be Toys in their Let Books Be Books campaign challenging gender stereotypes. Dr. Coles is also a contributor to What is Masculinity?: Why does it Matter? And Other Big Questions curated by Jeffrey Boakye and Darren Chetty.

The panel consisted of; Darren Chetty – who also contributed to Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant, Iesha Small – another contributor to What is Masculinity? and author of The Unexpected Leader: Exploring the real nature of values, authenticity and moral purpose in education, Clementine Ford – an Australian feminist and the author of Fight Like a Girl and Boys will be Boys, and Jamie Thrasivoulou – a spoken word poet, author of the poetry anthology Our Man and the official poet of Derby Football Club.

From right to left; Dr Fen Coles, Clementine Ford, Jamie Thrasivoulou, Iesha Small, and Darren Chetty

Once the panel had been introduced to the audience, the event began with a reading from Jamie Thrasivoulou of his title poem Our Man which is based on harmful and toxic masculine traits. Holding the book up to the audience Jamie joked, “I know the poem but it’s good product placement isn’t it.”

During the event, the panel discussed a whole range of topics under the arc of gender, equality, patriarchy, and toxic masculinity including; how the patriarchy weaponizes stereotypes of masculinity, mental health in particular in men who are often raised to suppress emotions, and how parents can ensure their children are surround by only ‘good’ male role models by assessing who they surround themselves with. Iesha Small explained that because her partner is a woman, she has ensured that all the men around her are good role models for her children, cutting out anyone who displayed toxic masculinity. “My own views on masculinity affect others around me,” she said.

The panel also discussed violence, in particular male violence against women which Clementine Ford explained is often overlooked as committed by men, instead the onus in on the female victim and what they need to do to stay safe. She added that women know how unsafe the world is for them without being told over and over again. By removing the face and gender of the perpetrator, we make this violence a problem that women have to solve rather than the men committing the violence.

Clementine Ford also added that while second wave feminism changed a lot of legislation such as the legality of rape within marriage it did not manage to change attitudes quite so quickly, this is perhaps why we continue to see so much violence towards women especially from men they know. She suggested that while we may not be able to change this problem quickly and easily, people can begin to challenge the people in their lives when they express attitudes of inequality.

The panel also discussed class and how this affects the way masculinity is performed. Darren Chetty explained that class, and often race, allows men to conceal traits of toxic masculinity using the example of powerful, white politicians who make decisions on war and violence for their country.

Jamie Thrasivoulou, who grew up in a working-class background in Derby was particularly vocal during this segment of the discussion. He explained that working class men often display as more hyper-masculine drawing from his own experiences of fighting in the playground to avoid being beaten up himself, Jamie suggested that this toxic masculinity is a survival technique for living in these areas. Thrasivoulou stated, “If societies are going to create such inequalities how can you expect people to behave that well?”

Overall, the event was extremely interesting, combining similar views from a range of diverse voices all talking about the patriarchal society that we live in. The only downside to the event was due to the one-hour time constraint and the five speakers involved it was perhaps not long enough to hear everything each panellist had to say, and even when the audience questions had ended and event was bought to a close, the panellist were all still trying to fit some final words in, including Clementine Ford’s heartfelt praise of single mothers raising young boys.

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