Boys won’t be boys

A few years ago I came across a poem by the poet Nayyirah Waheed. Never before has a piece of text summarized so well the danger of the beliefs and stigmas that we as a society have about masculinity. There is a clear picture of what masculinity should be. And that image is dangerous for everyone.

The theater company Boys won't be boys dares to take a critical look at the term and the meaning we have given it as a society. In various art forms, they show the public what that stigmatization means to them. The company consists of twenty makers who tell their story from different perspectives.

As a woman, I can hardly imagine what it’s like to grow up with the pressure of an internalized notion that you have to be a "man". But I have seen that that pressure causes a lot of suffering. Suffering that may not be necessary if we look differently at the social construction of masculinity.

Why is this social pressure upheld when we know it is not healthy for anyone? And what can we do about it?

I talked about this with theater maker Ferhat Kaplan. He recites a monologue in the play, and I am curious what drove him to this, and what he is trying to expose with his work.

The title gives a glimpse about what the play is about; am I correct when saying that it is about being who you yourself want to be?
In a way, yes; Rikkert van Huisstede (creator and artistic director of the production) felt the need to talk about masculinity. And especially about what exactly we mean by that. It felt like a quest for him, and he wondered if there were more people, men, who were struggling with that too. He then posted an inquiry, asking whether there were more men who had difficulty with that term, and especially the limitation of that term. He felt the need to talk to others about it.
The piece is about the norm that we as a society have developed about being a man. That standard is not correct, there are so many men who do not agree with the general conception of masculinity. In this piece we ask ourselves: is that standard actually good? Is it healthy?

"There are almost 8 billion people in the world, but apparently there is just one formula for how to be a man."

What was your reason for joining the company?
I happened to see this production twice last year. The first time I was invited by someone, and I honestly did not know which play we were going to see. Later, it turned out that I had already bought a ticket for it myself.
I remember finding it very interesting. After the play, I really started to think about the many privileges that I have as a man, but those privileges also have disadvantages. I talked about it with a friend, and she advised me to go and talk to Rikkert. I did; we went out for dinner, and we hit it off right away. Then I decided to join the company.

What privileges have you enjoyed by being a man?
Well, if you conform to the norm, if you are tough, so to speak, and dare to take risks, then you will move up higher in your career, for example. But I believe that being tough like that is also just an act. There are almost 8 billion people in the world, but apparently there is just one formula for how to be a man. That doesn’t make sense.

You recite a monologue in the play; where did you get your inspiration from? And did you learn things about yourself while creating that piece, maybe things that you weren’t previously aware of?
The monologue is inspired by a song; in the intro of that song, the singer speaks a short text about masculinity. That inspired me to write my monologue called the shield. I hired a dramaturge Sarah Schaeffer, and she interviewed me on the subject. As a result, I learned a lot about my own experiences. I performed the piece for the first time last week, and a lot became clear to me then. It was crazy to hear myself speak my own experiences aloud. And to hear from people in the audience that they recognized themselves in it too. I have received messages from people telling me what my monologue brought forth in them. It also became very clear to me how the stigma surrounding masculinity has had, and still has, an impact on my life.

You indicate that you receive messages from people who have seen your piece. Do you think there should be follow-up?
Creators and artists are there to inspire; as a theater maker, I think you bear the responsibility to raise certain issues and make them open for discussion. And if people then recognize themselves in your piece, and that brings out unresolved trauma, it seems to me that they should look for care for themselves if they need it.

"... I actually think that art can be a good form of antidepressant."

Can art and health care reinforce each other?
Sure, I actually think art can be a good form of antidepressant. We can find happiness in music, in a painting, in a walk outdoors. I think we should consider these more.

How do your loved ones view the theme of this work? Do you have conversations with them about it?
I have talked about it with some friends; the monologue has been an icebreaker to discuss this theme more in-depth amongst ourselves. I have also discussed this theme with various family members. I am open about my emotionality. In reference to this piece specificically, I have not yet discussed it with everyone. I really see this monologue as a process. Actually, I've worked toward it all my life. The monologue begins with my childhood, I speak about the experiences I had, and then walk through my life up to the present. I enjoy making this journey with Boys won't be boys.

What is the earliest memory you have related to this theme?
Well, I remember I was never allowed to cry. When I cried, I was silenced by those around me. "Don't cry, stop it."
You actually learn in childhood, "oh I feel sad now, but I am not allowed to express that by crying."
Crying was seen as a nuisance. I also learned that from television series and films. I learned that crying helped when I wanted to get something done, so I associated crying with the wrong emotion, and I understood that I could use it as a means of power. But what it should be, which is a way of expressing your feelings, was not always encouraged.

What does masculinity mean to you?
What I find masculine is being there for your partner. Really being able to talk through problems and work things out together.
My relationship with masculinity is a special one. I like to go against the rules. For example, if I wear a shirt that people say is not manly enough, I want to wear it even more. So, in that sense, to me, masculinity also means that you don't restrict yourself to what society thinks the term means.

"…masculinity has a very negative connotation. It is quickly linked to the term toxic masculinity."

Should we do something about the terminology?
Yes, masculinity has a very negative connotation. It is quickly linked to the term toxic masculinity. The term is very restrictive, there is only one option. The concept is boxed in too much, whereas it is actually a very large concept.

So is it more of a construct than a given?
Exactly. We do this as a society, not only men, but women too. I have known women who say they want a sensitive man, but if you show emotions, it feels too uncomfortable for them. I find that a pity.

"In the Turkish culture, sensitivity is also appreciated."

We both come from a culture where clearly visible masculinity is highly valued. Does that affect how you have experienced the pressure of being male?
For me, masculinity has no cultural stratification. It is a white perspective to think that guys of color are more masculine than white guys. In the Turkish culture, sensitivity is also appreciated. For example, in Turkey, having a sensitive nature is positively affirmed in certain circles, as it is associated with being intelligent.

"When I raise my voice it is immediately said that I am aggressive."

How does racialization (i.e, how society views a particular group based on their ethnic origin) by the outside world relate to your concept of masculinity?
I have actually been stopped by the police because they thought I might have done something. White people are quick to assume that I am a hoodlum. When I raise my voice, it is immediately said that I am aggressive. I have to admit that I used to like all that. Back then, I thought it was good that people thought I was tough. But it also at times influenced me, that I actually started to behave in the ways others expected of me. And that was not always positive.

What would you wish to say to young boys?
Listen to yourself first, then look at what other people think of you. There is no formula for being a man, there is no manual. Just pay attention to what you like. Learn from your mistakes; certainly make those mistakes, but learn from them. You will always meet people who have an opinion about you, but as long as you understand yourself, you will be fine.

Boys won’t be boys was scheduled to be shown at Parktheater Eindhoven on October 16. However, due to the Corona measures being tightened on October 13th, the performance at Parktheater has been canceled. The performance can still be seen in other theaters: