I went to WOW festival last weekend – Southbank Centre’s annual celebration of women around the world, which coincides with International Women’s Day. Tickets sold out and the Southbank Centre was awash with women, men and children of all ages – gathering in the sunshine before making their way to various talks and workshops.
The first talk I went to was called Men Talk. It didn’t feel quite right going to hear a panel of men talk at a ‘women of the world’ festival but I wanted to be open-minded about males contributing to feminism, and to hear what they had to say.
The group of men on the stage participate in a weekly therapy group, meeting up and sharing fears, anxieties, worries. It’s a trusting space where they can all open up in a way that they find difficult in every day life. So to bring the group on to a stage in a room of feminists was brave, and generous. HOWEVER. I couldn’t help thinking, the whole way through, why exactly are you here?
As they discussed how difficult it can be showing any vulnerability in front of their fathers/ wives/ daughters/ sons/ employers I thought: this isn’t specifically a male problem, this is an issue faced by both sexes. They said: imagine the reaction if a man started crying in a board meeting. I thought: imagine if I started crying in a board room.
Females aren’t born with the ability to cry openly, share their feelings and not worry about the consequences of being so open. It’s something they learn. Some of them. Others, like me, don’t cry in public, don’t often talk about fears/ anxieties and do worry about the consequences of doing either of those things in public.
The guys on the stage were funny and engaging but it felt like even they didn’t really know what they were doing up there. A telling moment was when a woman in the audience asked how we, as women, could help these men to feel more at ease with their emotional selves and they answered: it’s not up to you to make us feel better.
BINGO. There’s nothing we can do to help these men with their (fairly common) feelings of inadequacy, need for reassurance etc. So it seems there’s little to gain from giving them a platform at a women’s festival.
Men Talk was organised by Sam Roddick, founder of Coco de Mer – an upmarket sex shop. She wanted to invite her ‘gonzo therapist’ friend in with his therapy group to discuss their experiences of women. But I found the most interesting parts of the talk were when Roddick shared her own feminist views, and when she talked (very briefly) about sex. If she’d claimed that stage herself and the discussion had centred around her experience of women and men, it would have been brilliant.
You see, middle-aged, middle class white men have the world as their audience, so when they need to raise awareness of something that affects them they can do it through any medium they like. Women, on the other hand, aren’t given centre stage in life – they’re under the glass ceiling, locked indoors, or hidden behind a male majority – and so just occasionally they need a festival (like WOW), or a day (like International Women’s Day) dedicated to giving them a voice.
Of course men have issues too. And that’s why Jude Kelly – Southbank Centre’s artistic director – organised a festival just for them called Being a Man (BAM). But the notable difference between the two festivals is that BAM didn’t have any all female panels giving their views on male (or female) issues and yet WOW had two male panels on just the Saturday.
On the Sunday, Grayson Perry gave a talk about men’s rights. I can’t really comment, as I didn’t go to the talk, but it sounds as if it was along the same lines as the Men Talk I did go to (see here). When there are so many issues that women face (some of those covered at WOW include: FGM, porn, body image, trafficking, sexual violence in conflict, women and faith, fertility myths, rape) it seems a shame to share one of the few opportunities they have to discuss and debate these issues by looking at men’s problems. That’s what BAM’s for.
The question is: are men forcing their way in, or is it so deeply ingrained in women’s minds that men are vital to all debate – that we can’t help but invite them along to participate?
I can’t help but think that white middle class men are feeling a little left out. I don’t know if it’s a joke, but someone posted a link to this White Men March on Facebook. If it is a joke – then it’s a parody of the fact that white men have nothing to march about. If it’s not a joke – then it is utterly ludicrous. The reason minority groups and groups of people who are discriminated against come together to march, have festivals and dedicate days to their cause is to show solidarity, and to show everyone else what they have to offer. As I said earlier, white men are given a stage from birth – with the world as their audience.
To conclude, I’d like to reiterate that it was enjoyable being in the audience of Men Talk, and for those men to voice their fears in front of all us wimmin took some guts – I just think it would have been better placed outside Women of the World festival. Like, during Being a Man festival.