TEDx Talk by Christoph May | Translation by Sonja Maria Neef
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„How do you become a researcher on masculinity? The perfect birthplace for a researcher on masculinity would be the GDR, the socialism, the sticky male fantasies of Marx, Engels and Honecker.
My father was less fortunate: he was put in a children’s home immediately after his birth. For the first two years of his life, he had no mother and father. The trauma buried itself deep within him, and was never spoken about. Just as my mother could never talk abouthow her father had been a senior Nazi officer.
Later, I was sent to an evangelical boarding school. Belief in the Holy Father and His Son was omnipresent there. Religious services, Bible circles, church choir, and the devil knows what …But did we ever ask ourselves during our religious studies,why the key figures, Adam, Jesus, the Apostles, and God, all of them, are men? The most powerful story of all time is a male fantasy.
At this time, I slid with my brother into the graffiti scene. And we didn’t spray; we bombed. With spray cans, with paint colours, and even with fire extinguishers.
In our fantasy, we snuck into forbidden territories and hunted trains and walls. In our imagination, graffiti conquered all Berlin.The Berlin Ringbahn train ran, with our letters sprayed on it, in a continuous loop around the city.
The sex ratio in the graffiti scene is very well-balanced: all male. Just like their opponents: snarling male security guards, much-too-slow graffiti cops, and pissed-off judges.
At university I studied ancient history. Homer, Hercules, those sorts, all the countless male warriors and heroic legends of the Greeks and Romans.
In my major, German Literature: „The Sorrows of Young Werther“, „Faserland“, „Infinite Jest“. The canon of literature at universities still predominated today by male authors.
At the same time, I was working in the Berghain nightclub, a dark room fantasy of steel and concrete. Thousands of men join glorious sex parties here, and transform the old heating and power generating station into a cave with stalactites.
So, that was my life – as you can see, head to toe, my focus has been directed towards men. Now guess which are by far the least popular topics that men want to talk about: male privilege and feelings or emotions. Of course I can speak about feelings: I feel good! Everything’s great! What about you?
What’s dumbest about privilegesis that those who have them are quite unable to see them. I needed almost 30 years before it was clear to me that masculinity is seen as completely taboo by men. And if men don’t talk about masculinity, society doesn’t say anything about it.
However, if we were to start by critically questioning our privileges, we could massively accelerate gender equality for women. We could be fathers who are not only involved financially with their children’s upbringing, but who are also emotionally present.The more we realise that a positive male image is not to do with power, toughness, and war, but is to do with empathy, love, and responsibility, the faster we can shun the damaging warrior image.
That’s why, two years ago, I founded the Institute for Critical Studies of Masculinity [2 years later I transformed the institute into the network and archive detoxmasculinity.net] to understand, for example, the bizarre male fantasies of startup techies, men on Mars, artificial intelligence, robot women, or – yes, yawn – self-driving cars. If I hear the words „future“, „vision“, or „save the world“ once more, I’ll fall fast asleep on the spot.
Of course, this year , we’ve struggled to get the names Trump, Putin, and Erdogan out of our heads. A rebellion of traditional masculinity is bubbling away, threateningly.
But, back to Karlsruhe. Masculinity researcher Klaus Theweleit lectured here for many years. His most famous work is the two-volume „Male Fantasies“, written in the 1970s, his world-famous thesis on the fascist body armour of the Nazis. My area of research is the male fantasies of today.
Theweleit’s body armour can be seen today, for example, as „Man of Steel“, the current Superman …
… or as an exoskeleton, like Iron Man. The biggest producer of male fantasies is of course the film industry. I’m not talking of the German film industry, but of the American, the major studios in Hollywood, the Big Six.
The problem stares us in the face. Just seven percent of all directors, from Disney to Universal to Paramount, are women. Seven percent and falling. The numbers are similar at Netflix, HBO and Amazon. In other words, almost all films and series from the USA are male productions, from „Lord of the Rings“ and „Star Wars“ to „Game of Thrones“. The major stories that influence us the mostare nothing but male fantasies.
And one thing I know well as a researcher of masculinity: never underestimate the power of a male fantasy!
The most successful films and series this year come from the action and adventure genre. They make up more than three-quarters of the market. All in all, they reach an audience of almost two billion, so almost one in four of those on this planet.
And don’t forget the body count, that is the number of slain bodies. In „The Force Awakens“, the last Star Wars movie, a so-called „starkiller“ destroys four planets simultaneously, with thousands of billions of people.
So, if your children play with a starkiller ball, then it’s not just a ball, no :it’s nothing less than a weapon of mass destruction, a civilisation destroyer, a genocidal missile.
Modern male fantasies of destruction and violence dominate not only the film world, but also the massively growing gaming industry. At the „Electronic Entertainment Expo“ in Los Angeles, over 80 percent of all new titles operated in combat mode. Fighting and war fuel the entire gaming industry.
Day in, day out, we are bombarded with powerful male fantasies. And because the future is just a projection of the present, our future will play out to a male script. Nothing moulds our notion of the future more strongly than „Star Wars“, „Guardians of the Galaxy“, or „Westworld“.
With my short history of the future that we already have behind us, I want to let you see that we’ve another 2,000 years with the forever-the-same male myths ahead of us, if we don’t do something to avert it.
But just what is a male fantasy to be recognised by? Just what is the kind of story being told by them?
The most frequent is, of course, the son who seeks his father. Luke Skywalker has already found him, Jack Sparrow is still searching for him, and Tony Stark is now a surrogate father for Peter Parker. So much of sons‘ lives of suffering and their absent fathers. Creators simply have no interest in the upbringing of progeny. It seems they’d rather build starkillers and destroy the Universe. Darth Vader, incidentally, comes from dark, death, and invader.(Gives the etymology in German)
The second major story line is avenging your family, or saving the world. Or even better, both together. For this, the same scenarios are always evoked. Families are wiped out, the world is destroyed. Luckily, I’m a war machine! Wolverine, during his long life, commits over 100 kills. John Wick does it with ease in just 90 minutes, and after seven series of „Game of Thrones“, lie, believe it or not, 174,000 dead.
So much of these two long-runners with their hyper-masculine lack of imagination. I’d like to talk quickly about a third, and quite new, male fantasy theme: the emancipation of women.
That is, the emancipation of women as found in male screenplays. Let’s take „Wonder Woman“, which was well celebrated, but is and remains a fetish-fantasy of a guy who liked to dominate his wife and developed relationships with other women.
Or there’s Dolores in „Westworld“, a cowboy fantasy from Michael Crichton in which men pay for android women, like Dolores, to rape and to kill. This evilly wicked male fantasy in which, for the naive Dolores to ever become truly conscient, must allow her body to be abused and killed, over and over and again, for 30 years, almost daily – so, many thousands of times. That is barbaric!
Whether Rey, Jun Erso or Mira Killan, from Daenerys Targaryan to Clare Underwood, slowly, you get the impression that the women’s movement is now a male issue. We have to stop this madness!
I have four suggestions. Firstly, the countless murders on the big screen needs to stop. Mankind has more to say than this.
Secondly, so long as we only show our children snow princesses and star warriors, they will continue to want to be princesses and warriors. Boys may cry too, and girls can fight. It sounds straight forward, but for ages still not yet reality.
Suggestion number three: the film industry should finally address equality, not just among the writers, but also in their scripts. Experience shows voluntary arrangements in the economy go nowhere. A fifty-fifty quota would be a blessing for every script. Not just in terms of women, but also for the multitudinous cultures and ethnicities.
And fourthly: we need a positive, self-critical, and feminist male image.
This is, how we will gain new fantasies!
In Star Wars, it took almost 30 years until the princess might take part in a battle scene. And will Rey become the new Darth Vader? Of course, why not? But will the screenplay for Star Wars soon be written by a woman? We’re light years away from that. Maeve Millay, the barmaid in Westworld, put it best:
„First I thought you and the others were gods, then I realised you were just men.“