We’re delighted to bring you this conversation with Ashley Thomson, the incredible Aussie whose just founded Homer, a magazine on masculinity. We also hit up Norwegian artist Anders Røkkum who gives us an extra ‘edge’ to the narrative.
Interviewee: Ashley Thomson | Interviewer: Milly Arsic | Artist: Anders Røkkum
North: Why did you establish Homer?
Ashley: When I was 24 years old I was spiralling badly after a breakup, and as I began to recover I wondered why it was that all the people around me who seemed to be emotionally resilient, in a way that might have prevented spiralling, were women. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with all social programming of gender, but the social isolation and lack of emotional reflexivity that comes with mainstream ideas of what it means to be a man really got to me. I came to the realisation, a little late, I think, that all the truly stimulating conversations my peers and I were having about gender, not to mention the ones taking place in online spaces, tended to be had by or with women and revolved around women and feminism.
So I started wondering what it would look like if masculinity got the same treatment. Right now there are practically no conversations around the construction of male identity—at least and especially ones driven by and including men (usually by men’s own choice). So I wanted to start that conversation, to deconstruct masculinity, to challenge the concept of what it means to be a man, and confuse it, all with men on board. Rather than affect change on an interpersonal level, I wanted to create a website, talk to men, and get to the root of the problem.
North: Why did you call the website Homer?
Ashley: Homer is responsible for one of the oldest narratives in the world about a problematic male protagonist. Odysseus cries all the time and makes strange and rash decisions. When he returns home he practically tortures his wife to ensure she’s been faithful to him, while in the meantime he’s been off having years-long affairs with gods. He’s pretty fucked up, and at the same time he’s meant to be your guy. But also, Homer—I just liked the sound of it and the connotations it evokes. It’s durable; it sounds like something and nothing at the same time. People can put their own meaning on it, and I’d invite them to.
North: What would you say are the main pillars of Homer?
Ashley: Homer believes there is no ‘real man’. We’re trying to expand on ideas of what a role model for men looks like beyond the alpha male stereotype—the GQ or Esquire cover model, the actor/sportsman in a thousand-dollar suit, whose sole preoccupations seem to be looking really good, drinking whisky, dating beautiful women and wearing Tag Heuer watches. Finding men who are good role models for real, meaningful, complex reasons and holding them up as specifically gendered examples—like, these are men, too, and you should aspire to be them. That’s pillar one.
The other key one is that masculinity exists on a very, very fluid spectrum, and it’s experienced, interacted with and even played with by everybody. It’s culturally specific, it’s ironic, it’s adopted and challenged universally. For example, women can validate or invalidate certain concepts of masculinity; they are as much a part of its construction as anybody. So for that reason Homer (and any dialogue about gender) would be incomplete without exploring notions of masculinity through writing from women, LGBTQI writers and writers of all races and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. As much as Homer hopes to set itself apart by getting more men involved, it is not and will never be a space by men, for men.
North: Who is Homer?
Ashley: Right now it’s literally just me. A couple of kind folks have offered to do some distance editing, though—that’s been nice. This year I’m actually very conscious of needing some support, logistical and emotional. When it’s just you, on days when you’re energy levels are low it’s easy to neglect the project. You need someone there to reassure that it’s worth doing, or just offer to do it for you. (Which is not to discount all the people who’ve said wonderful things about the site or the people who’ve reached out and submitted—that’s meant a lot.) So yeah, hoping to grow the team but right now this is my four-month-old bub and I’m single parenting the crap out of it.
“I wanted to start that conversation, to deconstruct masculinity, to challenge the concept of what it means to be a man, and confuse it, all with men on board.”
North: Do you think our misconceptions of masculinity are grounded in universal or cultural values?
Ashley: Well, my conception of what it means to be a man (which is not the same as, but is very similar to, what it means to be masculine) is based on a mishmash of Western masculine norms. I grew up in Australia so I got that blokey, sporty thing, I spent years in England which gave me a sense of how a man had to be quick-witted, and I spent a year in the States where I definitely got a sense of having to be clean, well-presented and respectful. This isn’t to say I took these things on—in fact in many ways I consciously rejected them—but even my conscious rejection of them was an acknowledgement of their power and my insecurity in their presence.
The bottom line, though, is that gender norms around masculinity exist in every culture and differ enormously between them. Dominating a conversation, for example, is intensely masculine in the West. Elsewhere, thoughtfulness and reflection is emphasised. I take this to indicate that gender norms around any masculinity can change in such a way that what it means to be a man can come to mean perfectly wonderful things. It just happens to be the case in the West right now that being a man means controlling women and wealth, having a dick that never stops working, and looking pornographically good. But all masculinities incorporate elements of respect, charity and love. So it’s not so much that we have misconceptions of masculinity—more that mainstream masculinities, at least in the West, are perversions of our best aspirations, which serve to limit and dehumanise us.
North: What do you envision will be the greatest challenges for Homer?
Ashley: Straight men may be too afraid to engage and define themselves differently, or even simply start tapping away. Straight men may be too afraid to engage with their gendered experience of the world and risk appearing foolish. To which I would say, I’m an editor—we’ll figure it out together. LGBTIQ writers who are interested in providing their perspectives may be too narrowly seen as exploring concepts of their (supposedly separate) sexualities, which might limit the impact of their voices on readers who sit in the more mainstream sections of society. But I hope we can overcome these hurdles. I just hope people attach good connotations to the writing and that leads them to do it—to be vulnerable, to dare greatly (as Brené Brown put it).
North: What methods do you hope to use to engage with men?
Ashley: I hope to find a few strong male role models in Australian society, interview them and sort of use their faces and voices to evidence the value of talking about the experience of being ‘made a man’ in one way or another. This could help attract men who might not have felt comfortable speaking up outside of close or intimate relationships to listen, ideally even giving them a voice through interviews and articles. The idea, to be blunt, is to use men to get to men. Men seeing other men vulnerable. This would allow me to host the conversation rather than write it, which would be preferable to me. And the method is having limited success elsewhere—people like Jackson Katz and Michael Kimmel have been setting great examples, same with Michael Flood here in Australia, but there’s much more to be done.
North: Do you think our notions of masculinity are also grounded in biological or social constructs?
Ashley: Well, I’m a big believer in the strength of social forces but yeah, I definitely think biology plays a role. It’s often under- or overstated, but it’s definitely there. For me, though, I think of social forces first. I went to primary school at a Steiner School in Canberra, which—if you haven’t heard of Steiner Schools, they’re wonderful places very far displaced from what might reductively be called the real world. There was lots of singing, painting, being open with emotion—which for a kid is just awesome. Then my family moved to England when I was ten and I went from that—paradise—into the English public school system, St. Egwin’s Middle School, to be precise.
I was bullied pretty mercilessly for being Australian and for dressing oddly, and that world was already confusing. But I started to realise after a year or so in England that I had something most people didn’t—my words. I could outsmart people and out-talk them and that allowed me to display dominance. I became a smart-mouthed little prick, basically, something I have yet to entirely grow out of, if I ever will. The real downside of that is I turned one of my best natural abilities into a defensive and offensive tool, playing just the same role as a bully’s muscles, putting distance between myself and the people with whom I might have become friends.
I don’t think that’s at all unusual, though. What was normative became entrenched without anyone stepping in—it’s entrenchment by neglect. And where women in West can now quite easily find the voices of brilliant, inspiring women who tell them to challenge everything they know, I still don’t think anyone’s stepping in that way for men—because it’s fucking terrifying. It carries through into adult life as well. We need acts of heroism and ingenuity to begin to balance what it means to be a man.
North: Can you comment on our entrenched perceptions of masculinity and links to depression?
Ashley: I sort of think Josh Thomas said it best a while back in an appearance on Q&A: “Up until the age of eight or nine, boys cry the same amount as girls, and then they get taught to stop. They’re not allowed any more. And it’s ridiculous! And this fear of looking weak or looking feminine or looking gay is stopping men from talking about their feelings. And then they kill themselves.” Which is to say, I couldn’t spell out a clear causal chain of influence between entrenched ideas of what it means to be a man and men being violent, depressed or suicidal, but I feel purely from my own experience that there is one. I’m lucky to have had the privilege of being around people who cared enough about me to help me to grow beyond those ideas—and we all have the capacity to become those people ourselves. Homer is about providing another avenue for that to take place.