In the 43rd edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), a panel discussion that was held on 1 December tackled the topic of portrayal and representation of men in Egyptian cinema. The panel was moderated by May Abdel Asim, Editor-in-Chief of “What Women Want” magazine.
Danish anthropologist, Dr Christian Groes began by offering a definition of toxic and fragile masculinity as well as their impact on adolescents. “Toxic masculinity means showing an aggressive attitude towards women and society in general,” she explained, “a trait that can be transmitted from one person to another, creating an atmosphere of dominance and exclusion.” Fragile masculinity, however, is a certain kind of anxiety that men can feel if they do not live up to the norms of masculinity. How can these two types be improved in society? Groes acknowledged the impact of role models who can encourage values of generosity, inclusion and respect for younger generations.
The statistics of one gender’s opinion on the other in the Arab world are staggering. Frederika Meijer, a United Nations Populations
Fund (UNFPA) representative commented that 55 percent of men see that the priority and accessibility to job opportunities is for men rather than women. Another surprising find was that both men and women in Egypt associate masculinity with strength, dignity and fortitude. What is even more shocking is that women highlighted the importance of masculinity to impose one’s will and stand one’s ground.
In recent years, the conversation surrounding portrayals of traditional gender roles onscreen has gained traction. The Egyptian screenwriter Mariam Naom commented that the decision to depict more versatile and vulnerable men in her recent work was not a conscious one. “I always try to create humane characters whether they are men or women, characters that go through moments of strength and weakness.”
Naom added that what looks like men controlling women in the Arab society is the consequence of men’s own social oppression, pushing them to impose themselves on their own family. Naom pities young males who need to fulfil a certain image of manhood and hopes that she can change this mindset through her work.
But doing so can come with its challenges. Prominent Egyptian filmmaker, Karim El Shenawy, speaks to the difficulties of portraying men in a non-stereotypical way in Egyptian Cinema. “The issue lies in how today’s films take influences from older ones that display these stereotypes, and not from real life.” But El Shenawy believes that we now have more opportunities to portray real human characters that audiences can relate to and even debate about.
On the flip side, Safei El Din Mahmoud, an Egyptian producer, highlights the importance of portraying toxic men in films because having a controlling and a commanding character such as “Se El Sayed” makes people aware of these threatening types and repels them. “Creating controversy is what leads to massive change in a society.”
In conclusion, Egyptian actor Ahmed Magdi criticized Egyptian cinema for depicting an unrealistic version of society in films, saying that “it is the duty of filmmakers to be truthful and honest as much as possible and to abandon the stereotypes of both characters and stories.”