men

We asked four men to discuss modern masculinity. Here’s what they told us

They hate stag dos and want to talk about feelings – what else is on guys' minds today?

Nish Kumar, 33, is a stand-up comedian and host of BBC Two’s The Mash Report; James O’Brien, 46, is a journalist and presenter on LBC; Professor Green, 34, is a musician; and Benjamin Zand, 27, is a documentary film-maker. Here, they chat about everything from mental health and #metoo, to women, friendship and equality, while Tracy Ramsden listens in

Men on feelings

Benjamin Zand: I wouldn’t feel comfortable crying in front of my male friends, would you?

Nish Kumar: I’ve noticed a relief among a lot of men I know about being able to talk about this. I can’t tell whether it’s because society is progressing or because I’m now 33.

Professor Green: Kids in schools now use the term mental health, and that’s progress. When I was a kid, there was Mad Matthew who used to walk along muttering to himself.

James O’Brien: The last time I cried was meeting 
a Chelsea Pensioner at an event for Combat Stress, a charity that looks after military veterans who have mental-health problems. He said to me, if it wasn’t for them, he would be in prison or dead. He was violent towards his partner and damaging to himself. They helped him recognise his PTSD. I cried talking to firefighters after Grenfell, too. These 
are men who are professionally macho, admitting that they’re vulnerable.

‘I thought that if I became successful then all my problems would go away’ – Professor Green

BZ: But we are privileged, working in the media and feeling like we can talk about emotions. If I go back to Liverpool with friends I went to school with, it’s a different ball game. I experienced depression at the start of this year and felt like I’d lost control. But people make assumptions that you’re doing well so you can’t be depressed.

PG: I had that stupid idea that if I became successful in music then all my problems would go away. But I grew up in Clapton [London] and I can’t go back there now and say something’s wrong because the small violin comes out. ‘Feeling a bit down are you, mate? My heart bleeds for you.’ I think humour is a good way to engage people.

JO: What are your biggest regrets? Mine would be trying to win every single argument. Being right and silent is a much underrated virtue.

NK: I’d say about three years of my mid-twenties when I was unhappy and I didn’t need to be. I was in denial about being able to talk about being depressed and I now feel so sorry for that version of myself.

JO: I think the best advice is that everyone else is frightened, too. Except the sociopaths [laughs].

PG: You’ll spot them because if you yawn, they won’t [laughs].

tracy ramsden

Photographs by David Titlow

On dating

NK: Most of my bad dating experiences were about being too afraid to ask women out, which comes from being young and insecure and stupid.

BZ: I had a period where I just slept with a lot of people and pretended that I liked them. I’d like to forget that period because I feel like I made a lot of people sad.

NK: I feel like somewhere between you and me was a happy young man [laughs].

BZ: When I was dating, I often said to women, ‘Is it cool if 
I kiss you now?’ People say you’re ruining the mood. No, ruining the mood would be forcing myself upon you.

JO: I think that’s quite sweet.

PG: That would kind of creep me out! [Laughs.] That awkwardness can be beautiful. I think there’s something polite in the right type of persistence. It’s all about context. 
I was brought up by my grandmother and, holding a door open for someone, I’m not doing that because you can’t open the door, I’m doing it because in the back of my head 
is my nan going, ‘I’ll give you a clip round the ear if you 
don’t say “please” and “thank you”.’ Kindness shouldn’t be gender-specific.

men

Photographs by David Titlow

On anger

NK: I’ve never really heard people talk about how easy it is to be angry.

PG: Especially when you think we produce 40 times the testosterone of a woman. How do you fight that?

NK: Regardless of how far we’ve come, we still live in a society that is governed by rules that were built and coded 
by men. So male anger is still something that is kind of impressive, but if a woman gets angry it’s hysteria. On a racial line, Barack Obama spent eight years being controlled at every point because if he slipped into anything approaching anger, he was the angry black man.

PG: Toxic anger builds up. If I let something slide once, then you keep doing it, by the eighth time I get angry and my response is disproportionate. I think it’s important to say ‘ouch’, acknowledge that it hurt you, instead of holding on to it. What is anger but adult fear?

NK: You get to a certain age where there’s a cultural expectation not to show fear.

On masculinity

BZ: Would you guys say you are manly?

PG: Maybe I’m manly in that I don’t feel the need to be an overtly heterosexual male, going ‘look at the tits on that’.

BZ: Manliness was always dictated by being in control – of your wife, your job, your emotions – and if you relinquished that, you were seen as not being manly. For me now it’s about being compassionate, but for so long it was the opposite.

PG: For some it still is. I interviewed Billy Moore who spent 20 years in jail. He never felt like he fitted in or had enough love as a kid. He looked for validation in the wrong places.

JO: He was the kind of person I would’ve been frightened of, but he was terrified on the inside as well.

PG: There’s a difference between being strong and being hard. People see the person who doesn’t [cry] and don’t realise they’ve put up walls so they can’t engage with emotion.

‘After the Me Too thing, I felt a degree of shame for not knowing my wife and her friends put up with this stuff’ – James O’Brien

JO: Often those who are most obnoxious about people who do talk about their feelings are the guys who need to start talking shit through. It’s the Donald Trump supporter who feels he’s been standing in line waiting for his share of the prizes and now women get them, and ethnic minorities, and gay people, trans people… Then comes rage.

BZ: I made a film about wife-beaters in Papua New Guinea and the scary thing was not only that the men treat the women like shit, but they’ve managed to make the women accept it as ‘the culture’, like it’s her responsibility not to get beaten. It made me wonder if men are just inherently dark?

JO: I’d like to think not. You have to remember that physical force was the most valuable attribute a man could have until around the 19th century, so we’re unpicking thousands of years of social evolution. I hope that as physical force becomes a less valuable attribute, other things will become more valuable.

BZ: But it’s not surprising because if you’re a man and you can do anything you want without consequence, you can understand why many don’t want to move away from that. JO: When we had kids, the way things transpired for my wife and I was quite traditional. I take pride in being a provider but I look back and think perhaps I was manly in a bad way. I thought I was doing her a favour, but she sacrificed her career. I always thought she had choices, but she didn’t really.

BZ: I think it’s unlikely any of us sitting here would give up our jobs to stay at home.

PG: Would you feel emasculated?

BZ: Probably. Or I’d go insane with boredom.

JO: After the #MeToo thing, I felt a degree of shame for not knowing my wife and her friends put up with this stuff.

NK: Men in comedy are reeling right now – we’ve discovered a man can talk a good game, Louis CK talks about feminism on stage while acting reprehensibly behind closed doors. Cosby talked on family values, Weinstein donated to the Democrats. They said the right things when people were watching.

BZ: I don’t get it when men say, ‘You can’t kiss a girl now without being accused of sexual harassment.’ If you can’t judge when you’re making people feel uncomfortable…

NK: When Henry Cavill said, ‘I’m afraid to ask a woman out now’‚ I’m like, did you think Bill Cosby asked someone out too persistently?!

tracy ramsden

Photographs by David Titlow

On friendship

JO: Are there any traditional male bonding activities that you suspect men actually find quite tedious?

BZ: Stag dos. I despise stag dos!

PG: I can’t think of anything worse than a fucking stag do.

JO: Does anyone enjoy a stag do? It’s four out of four!

BZ: I never go on stag dos with proper friends, it’s always some random guy I met 11 years ago. I went on one last year and the anthem was ‘sleep when you’re dead’. I just wanted to go to sleep.

JO: And you can bet every single one of them felt like you.

‘I didn’t even enjoy my own [stag do]! Genuinely, it just filled me up with dread’ – Professor Green

PG: I didn’t even enjoy my own! Genuinely, it just filled me up with dread. And I was right [laughs].

NK: When they’re on a stag do, lots of people think it’s like being on international waters, like the laws of society no longer apply. You’re like a human Monaco. So people who would never normally behave like that are all of a sudden throwing up on trains.

JO: I love it when you’ve got a single mate who’s still dating and your married mates say, ‘Oh man, I wish I was still single.’ And you’re like, hold on mate, I knew you when 
you were single and you went for 11 months without talking to a single woman. Believe me, you are so much happier now [laughs].

BZ: I think men individually are quite rational but when you bring them together, the tone drops.

NK: My friend Aisling Bea once said that men have an emotional reading level that’s six years off their actual age. She’s right because the women I knew in my mid-twenties were capable of articulating how they were feeling and only now am I in the position that my female friends were in six years ago.

BZ: I’ve fallen out with five close friends in the last five years because of my inability to communicate. I do with my girlfriend but it would feel weird to phone up a guy and talk things over. It’s easier to just leave it. I don’t think I’ve ever said sorry to a man.

JO: I had one good mate about five years ago who told me he’d been on an EDL [English Defence League] march. I said I have to leave, and I had to get out of his flat. He called me afterwards and we talked it through and he’s come out the other side but that was a moment when I thought, I can’t be friends with you.

NK: It’s very difficult for me to be friends with people in the EDL, as a general rule.

men

Photographs by David Titlow

On women

BZ: The women in my life have always been more compassionate than the men in my life.

PG: I nearly got wrapped up in a bad situation that could have dictated the rest of my life and it was my girlfriend who went, you’re a fucking idiot if you do that.

JO: You all have that mate, when you come out of a club, who runs across parked cars or climbs up the scaffolding. 
A woman would never risk her life to make her mates laugh.

BZ: For a long time, I was irrational in relationships. I was quite jealous and insecure and I ended a lot of relationships because I felt somebody wasn’t there for me.

JO: I’ve got one mate who called women ‘it’. He was talking and he said ‘I banged it’, and I was like, come on, I’ve got daughters. I know him well and there were only three of us in the room, but I’m not sure I’d have called it out in a more crowded environment. When I was 16, I worked on a building site and the guys drove the long route so they could lean out the window and shout at the secretaries. It was profoundly sexual stuff and I thought that was the funniest, most manly and cool thing. I don’t now, so you do progress, if you want to.

PG: I don’t like it when someone says ‘just a mum’. That pisses me off. I feel like there’s been such a push in the other direction that it’s not celebrated any more. My nan wasn’t just a mum to her three children without the help of her partner who fucked off, she was also a mum and a dad to me.

JO: No one says ‘just a parent’. It’s very gender-specific.

Nish Kumar’s new tour starts in September;  Professor Green is a patron of anti-suicide charity CALM. James O’Brien’s book How to Be Right… in a World Gone Wrong (£12.99, Penguin Random House) is out in November. Benjamin Zand’s documentary World’s Most Dangerous Cities is on BBC iPlayer now

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