Maria Paradinas reviews the panel discussion ‘Mandem Don’t Cry 2.0’ and interviews the creator of MANDEM, Elias Williams, on the multifaceted nature of masculinity.
‘Mandem don’t cry 2.0’ was the second in a series of panel discussions, hosted by
MANDEM, on how notions of masculinity manifest themselves in men of colour. The event was held at the Arnolfini and led by filmmaking student and creator of MANDEM
Elias Williams, who was joined in conversation with Vince Baidoo, Vicaas Hussein,
Olamiposi Ayorinde and Daniel Edmund.
Mainstream discourse about masculinity has been narrated by white men and the
experiences of men of colour often get lost; this panel offered a space to discuss what is
considered a ‘fringe’ conversation and amplify marginalised voices.
The panel was asked to define masculinity – a multifaceted term which can be
unpacked into its apparent variants: toxic masculinity, progressive masculinity,
Daniel eloquently affirmed that everyone who identifies as a male must come up with
that definition themselves for themselves. Masculinity is a notion that is at once elastic
and fluid, not only differing from man to man but also along the trajectory of one life:
how expectations or expressions of ‘masculinity’ manifest themselves throughout a
man’s life will differ at different stages. Daniel defined his masculinity as the ability to be
responsible, loving, kind, caring, sensitive, and possessing the power to allow himself to
be vulnerable and open up to those close to him. Masculinity was loosely redefined as
an individualised notion and an active personal endeavour of self-discovery.
Vicaas highlighted that when high profile black men are outwardly open and speak
about their feelings it is often conflated with arrogance. The media’s representation, or
lack thereof, was heavily inculcated in the crisis of masculinity that men of colour face.
The limited representation of black men in the media – and much of that representation
being athletes and musicians – extends a reductive expectation of black manhood. This
avenue is perhaps narrow for all men, but certainly narrower for men of colour. Who a
man actually is has to be mediated with who they are expected to be.
Elias mentions Bell Hooks, an author he researched as part of his dissertation, who
argues that the only avenue of validity offered to black men is of hyper-masculinity.
Black men are inclined to take this avenue, as they are denied other routes to valid
‘Progressive masculinity’ is a term used to describe the modern man: sensitive and
emotionally available, he practices yoga and can cry at the movies. This trope, though,
is not equally available for men of colour. It was raised that the image of a black man
crying is one mostly present in comedy: men of colour – especially black men, who have
for hundreds of years had fantasies of hyper-male virility, strength and sexual prowess
projected onto them – are not allowed the same access to progressive masculinity.
Standards of masculinity differ between white men and men of colour.
The aestheticised image of the sensitive black man often adorned with or surrounded
by flowers is one that has been featured in publications such as i-D. Vicaas asserted
that although on the one hand this can be considered positive and progressive
representation, ultimately, it leaves behind the black men who do not ascribe to that
aesthetic. We have to ask ourselves who are the photographers, and who is profiting
from this image? A one-dimensional and heavily aestheticised representation of black
male sensitivity may serve the companies and publications that use it more than the
men who need it. It is imperative that we identify the intersection with capitalism.
This has clear implications for mental wellbeing, and contributes to what has been
dubbed a ‘crisis of masculinity’. The pressures on men of colour are manifold. Daniel
talked about the implications for the mental health of black males when they see
someone cower away from them in the street – this says: the first thing I see is a threat.
This microaggression strips an individual of their selfhood, as what is seen is simply a
threat. This dehumanising and demonising act, and others like it, are often internalised
by the men who experience them.
It was raised that homophobic slurs are employed to ridicule both straight and gay men
with ‘feminine’ attributes, and a question was raised that asked if this actually signifies
an attack on femininity. Speaking about masculinity is fundamental as part of a feminist
discourse: women often bear the brunt of toxic masculinity in platonic and romantic
relationships in the form of sexism.
Elias read out an excerpt from his dissertation: “as Grayson Perry argues,” he said,
“men who feel isolated and alone can do harmful things to themselves and others. The
appalling ubiquity of online sexist and racist abuse speaks of lonely, angry men. If we
don’t teach them emotional literacy they might well end up living lonely, unhealthy and
I spoke with Elias further about his platform, MANDEM.
He tells me that masculinity isn’t a specific enough term. Men don’t have the tools to talk
about or understand it, as nobody has taught men how to do it. Using the term
‘masculinity’ simply isn’t clear enough – masculinity is something that society defines,
characterises and imposes.
His dissertation is on hyper-sexualisation and hypersexual imagery in mass media. As a
symptom of a patriarchal system, Elias expresses the necessity for us all to be not only
feminists but radical feminists: not simply changing women’s position within the
patriarchal system, but changing the system itself.
His research has directly fed into his work with MANDEM. As a filmmaker, Elias is
committed to pushing marginalised narratives and perspectives into the mainstream.
MANDEM seeks to provide an alternative perspective and engage people with social
issues through innovative channels such as art.
The aim is to involve people with social issues who have perhaps been alienated or
disenfranchised, and to make information more available to those who don’t have
access to it, or the privilege of going to university. Elias expressed an awareness that
people of colour living in Europe potentially experience more isolation than those living
in the UK, and hopes that MANDEM will branch out to Europe and reach those who
need it most.
He addresses the chasm between extremely successful black people in mainstream
media and black people who are still struggling in a system that frustrates our
opportunities in nuanced ways. I see MANDEM as an offering bridging the gap.
Illustration by Maria Paradinas.