A group of Polish men are putting up a challenge to ‘toxic masculinity’ by constructing – in men’s circles and, more recently, a theatre play – what they term “tender masculinity”: spending time together in a playful, emotional and empathetic way.
By Claudia Ciobanu
In the play that Grupa Performatywna Chlopaki (The Boys Performative Group) premiered in December to an online audience, the men can be seen caressing, hugging each other, or fooling around like kids. They confess embarrassments experienced that day (farting in public) or earlier in life (a very short “first time” with a girl). They shout out their anger with fathers and express their deepest hopes for daughters. They reassure one another when it becomes sad.
The group of 13 men of the Chlopaki group have been getting together regularly since late 2019 in what they call “men’s circles”, to hang out and talk about what it’s like to be a man in contemporary Poland. Along the way, they have created a safe space where they feel accepted and loved, while sharing their deepest emotions and openly manifesting affection with one another.
The form of male-to-male interaction depicted in the play is rarely – if ever – witnessed in Central and Eastern Europe, and therein lies its radical potential. What would happen, the audience of the theatre play is led to ponder, were men to behave like this on a daily basis?
That this group emerged at this particular moment, and in Poland, compounds its importance.
Women live in patriarchal systems across the globe, but in Poland the governing Law and Justice (PiS) has doubled down on its assaults on the rights of women and LGBT people since coming to power in 2015. Last year, a new red line was crossed when the Constitutional Tribunal handed down a ruling that is leading to a de facto ban on abortion.
A huge number of women – especially the young – have taken to the streets across the country since, in what has been the most powerful civic movement seen in this country since the fall of communism. Many Polish men have come out in support – but more might be needed from them.
“This is a move away from power,” Wojtek Mejor, one of the members of the Chlopaki group told BIRN in an interview in March, referring to the activities of the group, including their relationship with the women’s protests in Poland. “The second wave of feminism was women fighting for power, showing that women can be in leadership positions – this is the next logical step.”
“It’s a move towards solidarity and real equality. We don’t want to reclaim power for anyone. We want emancipation for all living beings. This is not about stepping back and hiding in a hole; it’s about seeking fulfilment in different things than dominance and the rat race,” he said.
The Chlopaki group said they marched alongside women last year, carrying three main messages on their banners: Mezczyzna to feminatyw (“Man is a feminine form”, a reference to the Polish word for “man”, mezczyzna, which is grammatically feminine); Chlopak chlopakowi siostra (“Boys be sisters to one another”); and Jesli nie masz macicy, twoj wybor sie nie liczy (“If you don’t have a uterus, your choice doesn’t matter”).
“We had a lot of discussions around these slogans: the intention was to pay homage to the feminist movement and, at the same time, not to take space for ourselves,” Mejor said. “We wanted as much as possible to make it clear that the women’s movement is now at the centre – that’s the one important thing happening now.”
“When we say, ‘Boys be sisters to one another’, this is a direct reference to feminist support groups and sisterhood,” Kamil Bloch, another member of Chlopaki, told BIRN. “The word ‘brotherhood’ is associated with packs of wolves and warriors, and we don’t like those associations. Sisterhood involves being more empathetic, more democratic.”
“We wanted to say that we, as men, know that we are privileged by patriarchy and are intentionally stepping back,” Bloch added.
Taking its toll
One of the revelations of the play is that, like women, men too can be oppressed by patriarchy. They, too, are fed up.
The pressures of performing the traditional male role – provider for the family, successful in a career, showing no weakness – promoted by, among others, the powerful Catholic Church, have been compiled by the general sense of insecurity brought about by Poland’s post-communist transition to capitalism. Considered an economic success story of the east, Poland has the highest proportion of precarious workers in the EU and many people’s aspirations are still unmet despite rising living standards.
This whole climate has taken its toll on Polish men. According to official statistics, they live on average eight years less than their female counterparts, while 12 out of the 15 people who, on average, commit suicide each day in Poland are men.
The most vulnerable, argues writer Joanna Jedrusik in her 2020 article “Let’s save Polish men”, are those from villages and small towns. Polish women are better educated than men, more mobile and more liberal, which means they eventually leave to seek new options in big cities; back in the smaller towns, men struggle to find wives, live longer with their parents, and increasingly feed their frustrations with nationalist and homophobic rhetoric.
“Many men are considered losers because their wives make more money than them,” Jedrusik writes. “If you learn from primary school that the mother sits at home and the father works and brings home the bacon, then it’s no surprise that, under turbo-capitalism and with the rise of women in the workplace, men will feel, at best, a cognitive dissonance.”
The Chlopaki group have sought to deconstruct those pressures and connect men in non-traditional ways. “Throughout the years, women managed to create all sorts of support structures for themselves – ‘know your pussy’ groups, masturbation workshops, self-defence groups,” Mejor said. “All sorts of groups built around the experience of being a woman. But we, men, didn’t have any of that – there is just boring stuff men do together.”
“All my life I was afraid of groups of men – they felt machoistic, patriarchal,” Bloch said. “I was afraid of them, that I would be assaulted by them – especially that I am a queer person. I’m afraid of homophobia, that stuff is piled up inside of me. And despite all this, I wanted very much to feel myself as a man, explore what manhood is for me.”
Both Mejor and Bloch describe their satisfaction with the experience – as an unexpected and extremely valuable addition to their lives. They speak about being in touch with the others all the time, about feeling protected by the group. The choice of name for their group, Chlopaki (“Boys”) also captures something important about the experience of the members.
“During our process, we realised that if you want to be in contact with some vulnerability in yourself, this is impossible – as a man in a patriarchal system, you can’t do it, you can’t be vulnerable, sensitive, caring,” Bloch explained. “So, you have to regress to this state of being boys, just boys, where – as far as mainstream culture is concerned – it’s okay to be in touch with those parts of oneself, it’s just more likeable than when you do it as a man.”
“Things get very limiting when you grow older,” Mejor agreed. “In Poland, there are very few 40-year-olds who can be playful in any way.”
Traditional gender roles make a comeback
Those in Chlopaki are trying to shake off the limiting ways in which they were socialised, not only while growing up in communist Poland or during the transition to capitalism, but also as young adults in a country where mainstream culture and politics are often nationalist and ultra-Catholic.
While, over the last years, some progress has been made towards gender equality, the Polish government – and others around the world – are now forcefully trying to bring back traditional gender roles (the “natural family” movement), restrict women’s rights and implicitly force men into positions of power in relation to others.
“Our group is a part of the pushback against that fundamentalism,” Bloch said. “This is activism.”
“It would be easy to live in fear, when you see all those horrible posters around Warsaw,” Bloch said, referring to the anti-abortion and anti-divorce advertisements that festooned the streets at the time of the interview. “But I choose not to be scared. For me, it’s such an intense inner feeling that what we do is the right thing – it’s authentic and appropriate, there is no other way.”
At the moment, Chlopaki are raising funds, both through crowdfunding and by applying for grants, because they want to expand their activities. Other “men’s circles” are being founded on this model, and the play has been a hit. The group now want to start doing workshops in schools, as the next logical step in their contribution to changing Polish society.
While they do acknowledge that conflicts between conservatives and progressives in Polish society are sharper than ever before during more than five years of the Law and Justice government, they also see hope in the younger generations.
“There is now a new generation of kids, boys, girls, non-binary people. They know everything about human rights, about climate change and gender,” Bloch said. “I had no idea what gender was when I was their age. But kids today, they know life is politics.”
“Yes, I was dreaming about this a few years ago,” Mejor added, referring to the politicisation of Polish youth. “And now it’s finally happening.”