Show – Big Boys Don’t Cry
Venue – The Stand Comedy Club
Star rating – ***
Reviewer – Sarah MacDonald
Content Warning: #MeToo movement, Weinstein, coercion, suicide
“Could being more open about their emotions free men from being stuck in the middle between ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘it’s good to talk’? If so, will men take the risk of appearing vulnerable to escape this messy middle ground, or do they have too much to lose? And would men’s emotional openness really eradicate toxic masculinity?”
Dr Fiona McQueen of Edinburgh’s Napier University discussed the above topics at a segment of the Fringe by the name of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas. The aim of which was to bring academics and their research to a wider audience – whilst making the topics relevant and accessible. Her discussion looked at the impact of gender-based expectations and performance of gender but most keenly focussed on three topics: toxic masculinity, men’s capacity to be emotional and how this has become conflated with vulnerability, and the notion that power (not just that which precipitates from being a man) is a key factor in how people fall victim to abuse and even suicide.
Her presentation started by allowing the audience to contribute what they believed toxic masculinity to be – suggestions ranged from “traditional expectations of masculinity which harm men” to the notion of entitlement. She looked at some potential perpetrators of toxic masculinity, such as Donald Trump, the current President of the USA, and this opened up the issue which really underpinned where masculinity has the potential to become most toxic – which she argued was inherently linked to power.
She discussed her research with modern day couples which suggested that men nowadays are far more open when it comes to discussing emotions but lack the vocabulary to fluently discuss emotion in the same way that women are socialised to do so. McQueen presented the notion that extending the emotional fluency of men need not add to the emotional labour of women, which seemed to strike a chord with the predominantly female audience. The presentation involved a lot of audience participation and McQueen sensitively engaged with the majority of topics raised. An interesting point was raised by an audience member about the impact of men supporting men to enhance their capacity to discuss emotions as he ran male-only retreats, but it was also acknowledged that to support future generations, the topic of developing an extended emotional vocabulary may need to be taught in high schools. I felt that implicitly this would have to fall alongside educational conversations that de-stigmatise men being able to openly discuss their emotions.
Discussing the #MeToo movement McQueen delved into the notion that emotional openness had, in fact, with the case of Harvey Weinstein, been used as a tool of manipulation to coerce young actresses into the various situation where they had been denigrated and abused. McQueen showed with this example that emotional fluency and awareness were only useful if they were not being misused.
McQueen also discussed the topic of suicide amongst men, quoting the figures that show that around three quarters of suicides in the UK are men. Again, a topic which resurfaced during this discussion was power. She noted that the socio-economic groups men fell in to hugely impacted the rate of suicide with those in the lowest socio-economic groups falling prey to it far more predominantly. She iterated that there was much more that was needed to support these men than simply dismantling the notion that “big boys don’t cry”. She spoke about a need to have a social shift that meant men were not trapped into expectations based of performing “as men” but that there were other structures where those in low socio-economic group lack other forms of power and this feeds into a vicious cycles.
To conclude the show, McQueen passionately stated that she did not believe that supporting men to open up emotionally alone would resolve either the issues raised by the #MeToo movement or the rates of male suicide. The final segment of the discussion allowed the audience once more to contribute and this opened up the discussion that structural change will be needed to help us move away from a culture that enables toxic masculinity, but that we need to challenge this daily. Wherever we see instances of women not being treated as equals or have the gut feeling of being patronised (as women) that we challenge this. She called for action – not just acknowledgement.
The show certainly touched on several very serious topics and was made accessible, with McQueen using recognisable examples to discuss these. This included dressing some of her audience up as Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, and a number of other questionable celebrities to explore how toxic masculinity can proliferate all areas of society. She used personal anecdotes to look at expectation of gender performance which made the topic very tangible. The areas that she discussed checked the boxes of being topical and opening the merits of academic study up to a wider audience.
However, the show was too short to fully wrestle with these topics. I felt that she was preaching to a choir that was converted which is understandable given the array of shows available within the Fringe and that this was not a free event. I didn’t find myself leaving feeling like my head had been filled full of dangerous or even controversial ideas. I was impressed by McQueen’s fervour to enable both men and women to be in a more balanced society. I felt she spoke accessibly about challenges faced by men and women in today’s society, and responded sincerely to question poised. Her pace and enthusiasm were engaging and entertaining, and I hope that those in attendance did take the ideas raised with them, and that these escape the confines of the performance and the limited time frame that they were presented in.