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5 key learnings from 5 years of Voicebox

It's been 5 years since we launched Voicebox. Theatre CIC, and we've learnt a lot along the way.

One of the most enriching and insightful journeys has been our experience working with students and young people on masculinity: its pressures, the healthy and unhealthy sides, its ever changing definition, and how we can redefine it for ourselves. 

Delving into the complexities of gender identity, societal expectations, and personal growth, these workshops have provided us with invaluable lessons that continue to shape our work and practice in schools and beyond. 

Facilitator Andy stood with a group of college age students in front of a large interactive whiteboard which shows a purple slide with the logo: Voicebox. Some students are sat crossed legged on the floor. One student is holding up a double thumbs up. Everyone is smiling at the camera.

Whilst we always try to give the young people we work with a better understanding of what masculinity is, half the time our facilitators come away with lessons learnt of their own!

The meaning of 'manhood' in the UK has changed drastically over the past two decades, but even more so in the past five years (since the Voicebox directors set up the company after meeting at university). 

Since 2019, we've worked with over 15,000 participants and 90 schools and organisations, and each and every workshop has given us new insights into what masculinity looks like for young people today. 

In some ways, it's a completely different game for young men today than it was when our directors were at school. In others, the rigidity and difficulties of traditional masculinity are all too familiar. Nevertheless, the last five years have been pivotal in the development of what Voicebox is today. We are incredibly excited to keep developing and working with more and more young people from across the UK.

In this blog post, we're excited to share five key learnings gleaned from half a decade of engaging with young minds on the topic of masculinity.

1. Modelling healthy masculinity must be balanced with authenticity

We've realised that as educators and facilitators, we're also on a journey of unlearning unhealthy behaviours and attitudes ourselves. This process has not only shed light on our own behaviours and attitudes but has also compelled us to reflect on how we navigate friendships, relationships and society. 

By engaging and learning from our own journeys through masculinity, we've been able to authentically guide young people in processing emotions and developing essential skills that we may not have had the opportunity to learn growing up.

This dual process of learning and teaching has fostered a space of openness and authenticity, enabling meaningful dialogue and personal growth for both our facilitators and participants alike.

Another key aspect of our workshops has been cultivating an environment of trust and vulnerability. As male founders of the company, by sharing our own experiences and struggles with masculinity, we create a safe space for young people to explore their own identities without fear of judgement.

Facilitators Cici and Benji smiling and shouting to someone off camera. They are inside a large hall with white walls.

As with so many parts of unlearning masculinity, once one man has the courage to lead the way in breaking free from unhealthy masculinity, others find their courage too.

This openness encourages participants to be vulnerable, share their own stories, and support one another in their journey of self-discovery. Through mutual trust and empathy, we've witnessed profound moments of connection and growth, as participants feel empowered to embrace their true selves and feel more confident in breaking the expectation society has for them. 

This emphasis on trust and vulnerability not only enriches our workshops but also fosters a sense of community where everyone's voice is valued and respected.

2. Social media is powerful, but so are real conversations

There's no doubt that social media is a bigger character in young people's lives than it was in any of their parents', carers' or teachers'. Children aged 5 to 15 are now spending an average of 5 hours and 24 minutes per day on social media. 

Social media content, and more importantly, the influencers behind the content, can shape young people's perceptions of masculinity, gender equality, feminism and women’s place in the world

In 2022 the mention of ex-kickboxer Andrew Tate became more and more common in our  workshops. The vast reach Tate had was evident in just how many of our young male participants would praise his ideologies and lifestyle choices. 

What became increasingly apparent through our workshops is that, while social media provides a platform for influential figures like Tate to disseminate their views, face to face interactions where young people can ask questions to a real, trained person with their best interests at heart, rather than searching for the answer online, hold a unique power in shaping their inquisitiveness about what the concept of masculinity actually is, and how this relates to them.

A photo of Andrew Tate dressed in all black, handcuffed to another man on his left. The two men are walking out of a building with black doors. Andrew has a serious expression on his face.

Despite the allure of online personas and curated images, the authenticity and depth of face-to-face discussions offer a counterbalance to the often superficial narratives portrayed online.

In our workshops, we've witnessed how meaningful dialogue, personal stories, and shared experiences have the ability to challenge stereotypes, foster empathy, and promote a more nuanced, more healthy understanding of masculinity. 

By prioritising real conversations, we empower young people to critically engage with the media they consume, question societal norms, and define masculinity on their own terms.

3. Conversations on masculinity must be intersectional

Masculinity intersects with various aspects of identity such as race, sexuality, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Recognising these intersections is crucial for understanding how different forms of privilege and oppression intersect to shape individuals' experiences of masculinity.

A Southeast Asian working class man's experience is going to be different to a white middle-class gay man's. Masculinity isn't as simple as breaking it down to what society currently deems masculine or not. 

By acknowledging and addressing these intersecting identities in our workshops, and the fact that masculinity can be subtly or massively different in every room we work in, we aim to highlight the diverse range of masculine experiences and challenge the notion of a one-size-fits-all definition of masculinity. 

Through this intersectional lens, we can better understand the unique challenges and privileges that the variety of young people we work with face based on their intersecting identities, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and empathetic approach to discussions on masculinity.

4. Masculinity is fluid

Masculinity is not static; it's always evolving. The first high-heeled shoes recorded in history were worn by the Persian cavalrymen of the 10th century. In the 18th century, it was seen as 'masculine' and fashionable for a man to wear pink. Today in Saudi Arabian culture, it's perfectly normal for two men to walk hand in hand. 

Inside a drama studio. Facilitator Andy is stood in front of a group of students who are sat on the floor. Beside Andy is a life-size cardboard cutout of Ed Sheeran which has several post-it notes with writing on stuck to it. Andy is gesturing with one hand to a student who has their hand up.

The concept of masculinity is flexible and fluid. Masculinity, in its essence, is not inherently harmful; it is the rigid adherence to narrow stereotypes of masculinity that leads to harmful behaviours, and this understanding is at the root of Voicebox's work. (This is a key reason as to why we avoid referring to masculinity as 'toxic' in our workshops).

5. Positive change is happening

Amidst the prevalent challenges, we like to remind ourselves that positive change is not only possible but actively happening. 

Despite regressions fueled by online influencers like Andrew Tate and the pervasive negativity in media discourse, progress is palpable, especially within educational institutions. 

Schools that prioritise and integrate workshops on masculinity into their curriculum, particularly within PSHE/RSE programs, are witnessing significant strides forward on student wellbeing, healthy relationships, sex & consent and attitudes. In these settings, we've had the privilege of witnessing students engage in open, honest, and respectful conversations about masculinity, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of these complex issues. 

They actively seek to support one another and cultivate healthy relationships, embodying the potential for meaningful transformation within younger generations. Through dedicated efforts and institutional support, we're witnessing the seeds of positive change taking root, paving the way for a more inclusive and empathetic society.

Inside a black box theatre space. A busy seated audience face 5 panellists sat at a table. Some audience members have their hands raised. Andy, who is sat at the end of the table onstage is pointing to an audience member.

Our five-year journey of leading workshops on masculinity with young people has been a profound exploration of identity, growth, and societal change. From modelling healthy masculinity to fostering intersectional conversations, our experiences have illuminated the fluidity and complexity of masculinity in today's world. Through genuine dialogue and a commitment to positive change, we've witnessed transformative moments of connection and empowerment. As we look ahead, we remain dedicated to continuing this vital work, knowing that each conversation, each workshop, contributes to a more inclusive and empathetic understanding of masculinity for current and future generations.

Did you know? We've just launched our Gender Stereotypes workshop for KS2! Find out more.


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