Blog: Ben Tagoe

The writer of new play When We Were Brothers says talking more and driving slower is the answer to toxic masculinity

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It is an interesting time to be a bloke, because it feels like society is going through some major changes – and change is, of course, often a difficult and challenging thing. This is particularly true when we talk about transformation on a societal and institutional level. And this current period of social flux is certainly scaring some people – especially those who seem to have enjoyed the most privilege from their gender.

However, for men, there are positives in the current examinations of gender and privilege. Over the past couple of years, the subject of masculinity and male mental health seems to have become an increasingly prominent topic of conversation in the media. With suicide being the biggest single killer of men under the age of 45, it seems bizarre that it has taken so long. But for a host of reasons, it has always been something of a taboo subject.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve been writing and researching my new play When We Were Brothers. During that time, I have been thinking about what it means to be a man: more specifically, about the expectations that are placed on us and the expectations we place on ourselves. It has struck me just how many of my male friends and acquaintances have ended their own lives. The writing process has also been difficult for me, because it has coincided with some serious challenges in my own personal life.

I remember a few years ago watching the film Drive, which stars the heartthrob Ryan Gosling as an emotionally crippled borderline mute, who is brilliant at driving cars very fast. A few months later I watched another film called The Place Beyond the Pines. That also starred the heartthrob Ryan Gosling as an emotionally crippled borderline mute, except this time he was good at riding motorbikes very fast. He was still devastatingly good looking and emotionally stunted in the second movie. The only thing that had changed was his mode of transport – two wheels instead of four.

You watch those films and you start asking yourself questions. Is this what we’re all supposed to aspire to? Is this what sexy and alluring looks like in a man? Because it is undoubtedly a very dangerous archetype. The inability to unburden yourself of your anxieties is clearly a big problem for the males of our species. And driving very fast is dangerous, whether on two wheels or four – just in case you didn’t know.

These representations do, of course, have a knock-on effect for everyone, including women, because women obviously suffer just as frequently as men from the fallout a lack of emotional intelligence can cause. Yet, many women are guilty of lauding that type of representation as something attractive and desirable.

We live in an age of social media, where the toxic quest for perfection is a pernicious and dangerous thing. However, there is at least a conversation about the pressures of body image expectations on women. I think we often forget that the tall, dark and handsome trope can be just as damaging for men – as can the strong and silent one. And we’ve been peddling that ridiculous image since way before James Dean came along with his smouldering good looks and his dangling cigarette.

The dangers in that kind of portrayal are clearly borne out by the number of men who choose to end their lives rather than share their problems and look for help. Women have been struggling with unrealistic expectations for years and years too of course – any discussion about toxic masculinity should always acknowledge that. But it seems that a bit of balance and equality in the discourse could be a very helpful thing for everyone. The two conversations should be much more closely aligned than they currently are.

In writing When We Were Brothers I wanted to celebrate those male friendships that go beyond the usual small talk and joking. I certainly didn’t want to write a misery fest that focuses on the negatives. And I hope and believe I haven’t – the play is funny, warm and poignant. The friendship between Tommo and Danny is something that should be aspirational.

The truth is, there are lots of guys out there who have learned to talk about their feelings and offer sympathy when their peers are struggling. I know that because I’m blessed with a lot of brilliant mates myself and I strive to be one myself. But we could certainly do with more positive representations of male emotional intelligence in the media.

There are undoubted benefits for us all in this brave new world of proper equality, because the current discussions about consent, representation and equal pay mean that genuine parity at least seems to have a chance of becoming a reality in the years to come. And a more equal society could be a great thing for us blokes, if it makes it easier to share the burdens that come with modern life. Because modern life isn’t easy – regardless of your gender. We’d all be a little bit safer if we could be more open about our struggles. And drive a little bit slower too, whether on two wheels or four.

When We Were Brothers is at the Underground, Bradford, 22 April-5 May (also at the Reveal Festival in Bolton, 25-26 April). For tickets and info visit

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