Retelling and rethinking masculinity
Why are gender-based issues primarily considered “women’s” issues? Josie Lehrer founded the Men’s Story Project (MSP) to rethink this faulty truism. Intended for local replication, the MSP uses performance and dialogue to create public spaces for men to share their experience of male gender norms and masculinity. Below, Dowser talks with Lehrer about creating platforms for men’s less-often-heard stories and how sharing more of these stories can contribute to broader health and justice.
Dowser: Why look at social change through the lens of masculinity?
Lehrer: I believe that dominant-culture prescriptions for ‘manhood’ and gender relations are a key part of the system shaping many local and global preventable challenges to well-being, health and social justice. Traditional ideas about manhood are often entwined with other oppressions. Men who buy into traditional ideas about manhood are more likely to engage in harmful behaviors. And when men who buy into hazardous gender norms hold positions of power in male-dominated institutions, gender inequality and patriarchy become entrenched through policy — affecting the ability of all people to live to their fullest potential.
There are few public forums where traditional masculinity norms are critically examined, and where more healthy and human approaches are highlighted. The MSP helps fill this gap through educational films, public story-sharing, and a growing Youtube library. We want to create a counterpoint to the limited and often oppressive messages of the mainstream media, and to highlight more sustainable forms of male gender expression.
How did the idea for MSP emerge and how has it evolved?
I was working as a community educator at San Francisco Women Against Rape in 2008, and sent out an email inviting people to a benefit presentation of the Vagina Monologues. At the end of the email, I added: ‘…and if you’d like to help me put together something similar for men, let me know!’ People responded with enthusiasm, so I put out a formal Call for Submissions. As the submissions came in, I quickly saw that this could be a great, replicable way to bring men’s less-often-heard stories and critical reflection on male roles into public forums.
The first MSP event had a hugely positive response. We were invited to present universities soon thereafter. Our first film was in the San Francisco IndieFest, and I was invited to speak about the MSP on CNN. It’s been gaining momentum ever since. Our first film is being used around the country for teaching purposes. Our second film is almost finished – it is of an MSP production I directed in Chile, sponsored by Amnesty International. Several groups are currently developing MSP productions.
How do MSP’s performances and community dialogues work?
In each presentation, a diverse group of local opinion leaders, artists, activists and first-time presenters share personal stories with an audience, followed by discussion. They discuss things men don’t often publicly talk about, and challenge stereotypical notions of manhood. We recruit participants through a combination of open calls and targeted recruitment. In Chile and California, participants’ stories have addressed topics including fatherhood, violence, homophobia, HIV/AIDS, bullying, aging, disability and sexuality, and the healing power of self-acceptance, community and love. Mediums have included slam poetry, prose, music and dance.
What do you think is most innovative about your work?
The MSP helps meet a widespread need to collectively examine and transform male gender norms, by fostering men’s public reflection on masculinities and gender relations. Few public projects have overtly addressed this area. The structure of the MSP model is innovative — it’s replicable and adaptable, is grounded in research and social change theory, bridges public health and the arts, and views people as having a fundamental orientation towards goodness. It brings real men of different walks of life together, in public acts of self-revelation and solidarity.
Why did this project have to emerge at this place and point in time?
There is a steadily-emerging global movement of work to foster healthier gender-equitable masculinities. This movement stems from and stands in solidarity with women’s movements for empowerment and rights. There’s an increasing awareness that issues often referred to as ‘women’s issues’ are at least as much, if not more so, men’s issues.
What is key to a presentation of the MSP being useful or successful?
It needs to be real and presenters themselves need to give it gravitas. It needs to be locally and culturally relevant, and involve respected opinion leaders so that it can’t just be written off as marginal. If presenters discuss changes they made it’s important they describe what led them to change and how they did it. It’s also important to include genuine humor and celebration, so people can laugh and breathe and not be overwhelmed.
Paint a picture of where you envision your work in five to ten years’ time. What is your strategy for getting there?
I envision the MSP as a live discussion and film initiative created and evaluated in thousands of places around the world. Regularly-occurring MSP events, such as yearly productions on college campuses, will contribute to normalizing critical dialogue about masculinities as part of the mainstream social landscape. Over time, MSP films in different countries will yield a global-view film series on masculinities, health and social justice. Funds raised from live productions will support aligned causes. (You can support us now at our Kickstarter campaign!) Evaluation of local projects will help ensure that we are always a learning enterprise, creating relevant and effective initiatives.
This interview has been edited and condensed.