And so it was that I grew from boy to man with a very clear image of what a ‘Man’ should be, and a sense that I fell short of being that ideal. In adult life I began to question what is actually meant by a ‘real man’. Obviously he has to be fitted with the male equipment, but the world in which I grew up seemed to demand much more than that. I have studied Psychology and trained in Counselling, a field which attracts large numbers of women both as practitioners and clients. Men, it seems, don't need counselling, even though they feel exactly the same things women do. But my real concern here is the arts, particularly the performing arts.
I well remember watching the old John Wayne films in the heyday of the Westerns, where the hero was as 'hard as nails’ and did his 'dooty to the flag', as he defeated both the Confederacy and the Cheyenne before sweeping the Leading Lady off her feet and riding away into the sunset; and an invisible band played the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I remember trying to smoke a cigar like Yul Brynner in ‘The Magnificent Seven’! And choking back tears as James Cagney died in the arms of Gladys George in ‘The Roaring Twenties’.
Wayne, Cagney, Bogart, Brynner, McQueen et al; you didn't mess with these guys, they were ‘real men’. And up on my shelf today is my treasured collection of Errol Flynn movies, wonderful entertainment and yet, like all such art, sending a very clear message about what ‘real men’ (and women), are supposed to be like. These films were made long ago, but have the arts, have we, changed? Some modern films like ‘Braveheart’ and Gladiator’ still portray this glorious, testosterone charged, male archetype; and they are still wonderful entertainment.
I do however, have very serious concerns about gender-role stereotyping, which I have always thought is a desperately bad influence for boys and men. Of every five people who take their own life in the United Kingdom, four will be male; and suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45. I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, that this is at least partly due to the messages we send to males about what they should ‘be like’, and that failure to measure up renders them less than human. Just yesterday I was with my Grandson at football training, having watched my Son a generation earlier. Still I hear the same old comments to little boys: “Don't cry like a girl”; “don't be a woman”. One young Mother actually said to her child: “Oh come on! You're not a girl, so don't scream like one”. Heaven forbid that any man or boy might be in touch with his feminine side, because he really needs to “man up and grow a pair”.
Where then does this leave Shakespeare's tortured Prince Hamlet, who questions the meaning of his life and his own weaknesses? Is he ‘whining like a girl’, or a 'limp-wristed little poof who needs to pull himself together'? When former United States President, Barack Obama publicly shed tears at the reports of dying children, was he anything less than a 'real man'? Because I would have thought that a man who fought for the rights of women, of gay people, of black people, of ALL people, was everything a MAN should be; and is certainly the kind of man I aspire to be. But is this the kind of man we see portrayed on screen and stage? If not, do we not have a duty to think about the characters we write and portray, and what effect they might have on future generations?
I am male, married, a Father of three, a Grandfather of four, (soon to be five); and I still cry when Errol Flynn says goodbye to Olivia de Havilland in 'They Died With Their Boots On’. I'm not a perfect Husband, Dad, Granddad, or Man. But I am, with all my strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears, a real man. Sanford Meisner famously said: “Don't be an Actor. Be a human being who works off what exists under imaginary circumstances.” So if you ever see me acting in a lead role, I hope you go away knowing that you saw something entire in its humanity. A real man…
“In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.”