Developing Men - Documentary
By Kevin Gilligan
A discussion of contemporary male friendship, masculinity, isolation, community and legacy through portrait photography, video and narrative.
Why men? Men have been the center of attention for centuries. History was written primarily by men. Why should we care about men now? Doesn’t the future belong to women? Isn’t this the time to support women and girls? The exploration of what it means to be a man today does not negate the importance of supporting women and girls. This is something different.
Right now many men are silently and deeply struggling. Many men put on their game face every day, get up, go to work, do their best to support their family, but inside many are filled with doubt, anxiety and depression. Men are falling behind in college enrollment and earnings. Women are also under increasing stress. More and more women are the primary earners in their family, and many of them are also feeling the pull of working and supporting children and parents. And yet, women seem to be handling the stress better. Could it be that that their social networks are better? Does women’s propensity to be more open to discussing how they are feeling somehow better inoculate them from stress?
Men kill themselves at 3.6 times the rate of women, and men between the ages between 45 and 64 face the sharpest increase. The suicide rate says a lot about expectations on men and internalization of those expectations.
In 2018 and 2019, it seemed like there was a mass shooting every other week. Undoubtedly, the extraordinary number of (automatic) guns in the U.S. has something to do with the number and type of shootings. We have more guns than people in the United States. Regardless of the number of guns, what stuns me is that men are the perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of mass violence in the world. Approximately 95% of all mass shooters are male. Clearly, all is not well with men. One suspects that isolation and lack of community are driving factors behind gun violence.
Do women have a role to play in helping men?
Women and feminists have a role in this discussion too. Women can positively influence boys and men just as they have helped support young girls and women. Society has developed a scaffolding of sorts for girls, on line and in real-life spaces to help them grow and escape sexism but we have not done the same to help boys. Perhaps there is an unconscious feeling that boys don’t need the help; a feeling that boys will be “just fine.” Do elementary school teachers, overwhelmingly female, encourage or even allow rowdy boy behavior, or do they expect young boys to sit quietly, comply and learn as young girls are more wont to do? Sarah Rich recently wrote in the Atlantic, “While society is giving girls broader access to life’s possibilities, it isn’t presenting boys with a full continuum of how they can be in the world.” Some argue that this gap makes boys susceptible to misogynist hucksters, not because boys and young women hate women but because they are desperate for community and answers in a confusing time. Society is evolving at a mind-bending pace. Many men are struggling with changing expectations and their role in society. Many younger men of dating age don’t know if they should even hold a door open for a woman anymore. Will that simple act, once seen as gracious, now be perceived as sexist? The old hyper-masculine world is dying, and a new model of man is needed. In some ways, this is a very good thing. A one-dimensional, hyper-masculine man, easily offended by slights to his honor, too often led to misery.
In search of a new framework
Many of the men I know are acutely aware of the damaging hyper-masculine legacy and are searching for a new internal framework in a complex, rapidly changing world. They seek a framework where they can be masculine and supportive of the people in their lives, including women and girls. Self-aware fathers want to pass on a healthy, masculine confidence to their own children. Male energy has too often been pathologized. You may have even heard or used the phrase “toxic masculinity” which some scholars have argued is a vastly over broad brush with which to paint all men. There is a place for this discussion without being a racist, or misogynistic. These are vignettes of lives across a wide variety of groups and backgrounds. We can and should ask questions while being FOR something and not just AGAINST something? Creating strong, independent, supportive and well-developed men is in everyone’s interest.
You might ask “Why are you qualified to ask these questions and tell this story, Kevin?” One might legitimately ask, “What does this privileged guy have to contribute to the discussion about struggle, what does he know?” I asked myself the same questions. Admittedly, this perspective is also of Western (straight) Men, in the United States circa 2018-2019 and is therefore affected by that perspective. Having raised these caveats, I would argue that many of these issues are nonetheless universal. Once you get past the basics of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food and shelter to start, the issues of where do I fit in and how do I support my loved ones are universal. Indeed, one of the prime drivers of the global migration is moving for a better life.
Before you pre-judge me as a self-absorbed, cave dwelling, self-pitying, knuckle-dragger, who is blind to my own good fortune, you should know a few things about the experiences that have shaped me and helped me to ask better questions about our world.
A smart, hard-working single mother raised me. I am a husband to a wonderful hard working, dynamic woman. I am a father, and my wife and I are raising a strong, intelligent, self-confident girl. We are also raising a wonderful son, who we love for many reasons including his inquisitiveness, sense of humor, determination, care for the environment and strong sense of justice.
In one of my professional lives, I am a prosecutor. I have prosecuted domestic violence cases and hired and mentored many women. I’ve also spent nearly 15 years working in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I joined the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office in my early 20’s while attending evening law school. I was a community organizer helping to improve neighborhoods struggling with drugs and gangs.
My first week on the job was in April of 1992, and I was assigned to a neighborhood in South Los Angeles. That week L.A. burst into flames after the Rodney King beating. During the next four years, I organized and attended hundreds of community meetings with police and community members and learned a great deal about class struggle, racism, communication, and masculinity. After four years of night law school I was so worn down that I got cancer (melanoma) and had surgery one week before the bar exam. I failed the three-day exam by one point. I was broke and dispirited, to put it mildly. It was a low water mark for me, but it taught me a lot about struggle and perseverance.
After passing the bar exam, I was hired as a prosecutor and continued working on community based prosecution efforts, and worked closely with police and many community groups of all socio-economic strata. For two years, I was assigned to prosecute crimes out of three of the largest and most dangerous housing developments in Los Angeles. After that I helped create and supervise attorneys assigned to a new community prosecution program to pro-actively target quality of life crimes like dumping, prostitution and crack houses through a combination of criminal and civil enforcement actions. Each day I worked in challenging neighborhoods that many were trying to escape. For nearly a decade, my office was in South Los Angeles, including several years in Watts. Each night I would drive home to my neighborhood and often pondered the vast differences in one’s life that accompanied their zip code. I still ponder these differences as I’ve seen the homeless epidemic explode in Los Angeles while a fraction of the population attains stratospheric wealth.
During this 15-year period I consciously and unconsciously absorbed an immense amount of information about society, crime, poverty, the law, class and political struggle. I broke bread with many incredible people who radiated positivity, despite the challenges they endured. I found inspiration in places I never would have imagined. Along the way, I met men who inspired me. Some of them are included here.
On a personal level, my father died at 52 and left my mother with five children. I was four when he died, and though I don’t really remember him, I have to imagine he worked pretty hard. He was an attorney in New York City. I’d imagine he had a fair amount of stress, and in the 1970’s men didn’t often share that kind of struggle. That likely contributed to his early death from cancer. I saw my mother work hard and struggle to support her children and get them through college. I lost my best friend to a drug-related death when we were both 18, and lost my amazing, smart, handsome, funny, athletic, 21-year-old nephew to depression. It was devastating to our entire family. The pain from suicide lingers and is not often discussed, because it is so painful.
I turned 50 this year, and am grateful for the amazing life I have lived so far. I am most grateful for my phenomenal wife Noreen. She is the “sine qua non” in my life.
The proximity of my age to my father’s age at death has brought a fair amount of contemplation to my life. At the time I am writing this, my older brother John, is fighting his own battle with stage IV melanoma. He’s always been a fighter, and an incredible role model, and I am grateful to him. Losing friends and family at a young age and having my own melanoma at 25 has made me acutely aware of my own vulnerabilities, and the ticking of the clock. There is so much I want to pass on to my friends, family and especially my children. This work is in part, my legacy.
I have always travelled in many circles. Sometimes that’s because I was uncomfortable in the circles I was in. Sometimes it was because I was interested in what other circles were doing. I’m a man, a father, a husband, an attorney, a photographer, a martial arts practitioner and a traveler. In all theses disparate circles, from MMA gyms, bars, courtrooms, surfing, to photography, I encounter men from many different walks of life. When I talk with these men, really talk to them, I hear and see many of the same things. Most men are good men. They love and support those around them, and are seeking to adapt and thrive in a complicated and ever faster changing world.
Being a “provider”
The men I know strive to be good partners, husbands, fathers and community members. They strive to be financially comfortable and provide for those around them, and struggle mightily while doing it. The arrogant, bone-headed men that take up so much of the media spot light obscure the majority of good men who struggle to make ends meet, save for retirement and to support their families and community.
Beneath the façades of strength and success, many men have anxiety about how to protect their family and loved ones. Financial pressures overwhelm many men who still view themselves as the “providers” for their families, even when their spouses work. Many men struggle to provide in a world where wages are stagnating, college is outlandishly expensive, and the social safety net is not just tattered, but actively being cut to support even greater wealth at the very top.
Technology and its effects on men
Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are sure to accelerate the pace of changes in the coming years. AI will surely displace many careers as automated cars, and robots make whole categories of jobs as obsolete as the horse drawn carriage. Technology will replace many of the jobs traditionally held by men, particularly blue- collar men, truck drivers, and chemical plant employees.
Oxford scholars estimated the “automatability” of each of 702 different occupations, and found that for (oil) derrick operators it was 80 percent, for chemical plant and system operators, 85 percent, for petroleum technicians, 91 percent. Across the nation, jobs that have in the past mostly gone to men are now going to robots. The U.S. Secretary of labor, Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder, praised robots because they “never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.” Puzder’s “perfect” robot may be great for company stockholders, but it is ruinous for many male workers.
Never before has higher education in all its forms—BAs, associate degrees, computer-coding programs, job-retraining—mattered more for all Americans. And never before have American men earned a declining proportion of BAs, while BAs lead to better wages—especially for men. Yet in 2018, our fearless federal leaders proposed cutting over $200 billion from higher education over the next decade, mainly to reduce help to students struggling to pay its rising costs. The proposed cuts were large enough, according to a Center for American Progress report, to “pay twice over for a decade” of estate tax cuts for the rich. While strongly appealing to a certain demographic, this steers money away from the education such men will need for the jobs they badly want.
Men in their 40’s and 50’s, peak pressure
Recently, a friend and I were talking. He is by all objective standards, financially successful. He still has to work, but he has all the trappings of an upper class life. A beautiful house, a beautiful family, they take nice vacations; you get the picture (see what I did there?). When I told him about this photo essay on men he cracked open like a walnut and began telling me about the pressures he was under, how it feels like one slip could make it all come tumbling down. Even well to do families, who appear to have it all together, are often struggling, if not financially, emotionally. I suspect this is all too common.
Many men are either afraid to talk about these issues, or think they are the only ones who are experiencing them. Often men in their late 40’s and 50’s are hit the hardest. That is the time when they typically have peak responsibilities. This is the time they are expected to be lions at work, maximize their earnings, and at the same time be complete fathers and spouses who spend ample time with family and spouse. This often happens while caring for aging parents, and saving for the ever-increasing cost of college, increased health care costs and hopefully, retirement. To be fair, many women in this age group face similar pressures, but as I mentioned above, they seem to be able to handle it better. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that the happiness of men in the 40’s and 50’s tends to decrease, and improves in the 60’s when these pressures are often, but not always, less.
Frogs in a boiling pot of water?
Perhaps this unease is not limited to men? Perhaps what we are feeling is the generational change, and disruption that one experiences with massive transitions. The transition from an agriculture to manufacturing economy resulted in the creation of massive cities as people moved from the country to the City for jobs. Now we are moving from an industrial to computer or technological economy. If you have the right skills, you can now work from anywhere. Are men like the proverbial frog in a boiling pot that does not jump out because they do not realize soon enough that we are being boiled alive in this major transition?
Let me get a few preliminaries out of the way. First, I not an expert on white supremacy. Second, this photo essay is not intended to be a discussion of the angry white (Christian) male, which is part of the reason the subjects come from a broad cross section of society. Nonetheless, a through discussion of men, and the issues they face in 2019 must at least acknowledge the issue of white supremacy and the connections to the themes of isolation and community.
White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has reported that 71 percent of the extremist-related fatalities in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were committed by members of the far right or white-supremacist movements. Islamic extremists were responsible for just 26 percent. Data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that the number of terror-related incidents has more than tripled in the United States since 2013, and the number of those killed has quadrupled. In 2017, there were 65 incidents totaling 95 deaths. In a recent analysis of the data by the news site Quartz, roughly 60 percent of those incidents were driven by racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, antigovernment or other right-wing ideologies. Left-wing ideologies, like radical environmentalism, were responsible for 11 attacks. Muslim extremists committed just seven attacks. Who are the people behind this right-wing ideology? They are overwhelmingly white males. NY Times 11/4/18 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/03/magazine/FBI-charlottesville-white-nationalism-far-right.html?action=click&module=Top Stories&pgtype=Homepage
The causes and effects of White Supremacy can fill many books and the scope exceeds this exhibition. Still, it is not hard to connect economic insecurity as one of, but certainly not the only, cause of their hateful racist acts. I fear that the rapid advancement of technology and AI, will only magnify this economic insecurity. The least educated among us who are the worst equipped to adapt to a society that increasingly requires advanced degrees and high tech training to earn a wage providing at least a traditional middle class lifestyle.
About the men in this project
The men in this project contribute meaningfully and deeply to their respective communities. That is worthy of exploration and celebration.
The men in this photo essay have all inspired me in one-way or another. They are good men who seek the best in themselves and others. They are thoughtful men, unafraid to question themselves and the conventions around them. They don’t quit when they experience hardship, they persevere. I chose these men because each of them has something meaningful to contribute to this discussion, and they are not afraid to speak openly about these issues.
These stories are not an answer or an end point. They are a snapshot as to where we are on the path to “Developing Men.”
Thank you to the exhibition sponsors, Tamron Lenses USA, Manfrotto, Bay Photo Lab and the South Bay Artists Collective.
Thank you to all the men who participated and shared your time and wisdom! Thank you to my wife fabulous wife Noreen, son Connor and daughter Lana who supported me throughout this journey and allowed me the time to pursue this important work. Thank you for taking the time to come to this exhibition.
If you’d like post to social about the exhibition please use the hashtag #DevelopingMen2019.