Could we tackle male suicide rates by better understanding masculinity?
Every week, 84 men take their own lives in the UK. Health experts suggest that one of the underlying factors in self-harm is the internal struggle of men unable to share their feelings. After generations of masculine repression, and being hardwired into believing emotions correlate with weakness, some men are unable to come to terms with their own vulnerability.
Alpha Who? is Matt Franco’s exploration of his struggle with society’s expectations of masculinity – combining theatre, dance, and visual art, this is a physical performance that engages with questions around gender identity, vulnerability, and the binary restrictions of the masculine and feminine ideals.
I caught up with Matt Franco for a behind-the-scenes look at the production.
You’ve drawn extensively on your personal experiences as your inspiration for this work – was it therapeutic in some way to bring all of that to the surface through the creative process?
It was indeed deeply therapeutic, fostering my process of healing of certain topics, that I experienced both directly and indirectly. As many individuals do, both the ones labelled as artists and those that aren’t, bringing unresolved knots to the surface allows us to metabolise them, make sense of them and digest them so that we are freer to carry on with the next challenges life throws at us.
In this process, we learn how to respond to what is thrown at us rather than feeling ‘luckier’ for not being thrown something that we might perceive as negative. Everything that happens to us, happens for a reason. So, the game, in my view, is to learn to make the most out of it for our individual and therefore societal growth.
In Alpha Who? you’re presenting us with different versions of masculinity – ‘Truthful Self’, the ‘Control Freak’, the ‘Laid Back Guy’, the ‘Invasive Avoider’ and the ‘Child’. Are these manifestations of masculinity mutually exclusive, or are they phases that we progress through, or are they different facets of the man within us all?
I believe humans are like diamonds, made of multiple facets that, if lit with the right light, all shine. These different versions of characters in Alpha Who? are an attempt to give labels to some concrete thought and behaviour patterns. These patterns, I believe, are within us all – along with many others I don’t explicitly mention in Alpha Who?.
In my opinion, if we voluntarily let these different manifestations of humanness out in some way, then they learn to coexist. If we repress some of them, then there is the risk that they are going to bite us to claim some attention. In my direct and indirect experience, the sooner we give attention to them the better. If Thich Nhat Hanh is right by saying that ‘Attention is Love’, then we have to learn to love all the different sides, positive and negative, dark and light, of who we are by giving attention to them.
I believe that some patterns of toxic masculinity might manifest when we hold on to the limiting concept that the beings inside us are fixed and of a definite number. We are always changing and morphing, and not only us humans, but the whole universe. And in today’s society, it is quite easy to fall in this unhealthy dynamic that we are fixed and the same as a week ago.
‘Doing this is more of a man than of a woman, or doing this other thing is vice versa’. What if the soul inside us is androgynous and wants to be free to choose what to do and how to do it, regardless of gender and social pressures?
Are you exploring cultural differences in the way that we acknowledge and share our vulnerability as men?
I’m originally from Rome, Italy, and I have been living in London for most of my adult life. Next to this, I have been exploring Belgium and Berlin as well for work. Moving around Europe has allowed me to study what is common to all the people of these countries, and what is more particular to a single country. The cultures from the Mediterranean Sea are keener to freely express their inner lives, while those from Northern countries, such as the UK and Germany, might have the tendency to repress it sometimes.
So yes, I believe in the UK, where there is one of the world’s highest suicide rates among young men, how we acknowledge and share our vulnerability as men has to be tackled more and more. As many are struggling, many others are falling into the cracks of society.
This is not to say that the way of acknowledging and sharing our vulnerability as men in the Southern regions is perfect. Not at all. The way to reach an effortless and sustainable approach to it, is long there too. It is a disease of all Western societies.
One of the points of Alpha Who?, born from a collaboration between multi-disciplinary, multi-nationalities and multi-talented artists, is that we all have something to learn from each other. All the time. Regardless of cultural background, nationality, religion, and anything else. And we have to put our egos aside to accept this. How to be better at acknowledging and sharing our vulnerability is a key question.
Are there any role-models of masculinity who you feel are getting it right?
All those individuals that embark on the journey of questioning what they have been indoctrinated with are to be looked to. This takes courage. It takes courage to re-question acquired beliefs to build your own opinion. It takes courage because, on this path, you might often feel like you don’t fit, don’t belong, don’t sit in the right place because you are different from the majority which hold onto those beliefs.
In my view, all the human beings who, on a daily basis, embrace this path of questing for self-authenticity in their beliefs, whether men or women or anyone in-between, are to be looked to for inspiration.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Alpha Who?
That not knowing, sometimes, how to be in this world is okay. That not being sure how to live that situation, that question, that inner conflict, sometimes, is okay. Accepting this is accepting our vulnerability as human beings.
For men, it’s harder to accept this indecisive and darker side of themselves. It’s seen as weak. But, as Socrates used to say, ‘gnothi sautòn’ – know thyself in your limits, accept the fact that sometimes you do not know, and it is human not to. We all go through the same inner conflicts, much more than we believe. Knowing we are not alone in this journey makes the difference from making it through and not making it to the other side.