Man Up? review: A muddled exploration of what it really means to be a man

Television: Jordan Conroy presents show exploring toxic masculinity, but what is RTÉ trying to say?

Jordan Conroy

One of the smartest aspects of last year’s Barbie movie was its takedown of toxic masculinity – a damaging worldview that held poor Ken in its pincer grip until he recognised the only person he had anything to prove to was himself. The approval of his “bro” friends was meaningless, and how freeing it was to realise that. Kenough was kenough – and, once Ken comprehended this, he was on the road to becoming a happier, better person.

Man Up? (RTÉ 2, Monday, 5.30pm), a new documentary series presented by Ireland rugby sevens international Jordan Conroy, wrestles with similar themes. It sees the amiable Conroy take a group of 12-14-year-old boys from around the country under his wing and ask: “What does it really mean to be a man?”

In an age where young men are receiving all sorts of toxic messages about masculinity on social media, the question is undoubtedly timely. Unfortunately, Man Up? is muddled in how it explores the subject and obtuse as to the precise point it is trying to make. Sometimes, it leans too far into cliche – such as when it requires one of the young volunteers to stare moodily into the camera and say, “boys don’t cry”.

Boys do cry, of course – so why have a kid gaze into the lens and declare the opposite? What is RTÉ trying to say? Have these teenagers been told crying is bad? If so, why not say so outright rather than expecting the viewer to fill in the many blanks?

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The kids are a bit awkward, as is the way with those in early adolescence. Charlie describes himself as “outgoing... sometimes funny, sometimes not”. Asher says he was bullied in primary school. Jamar recalls feeling like an outsider in rural Wexford until he took up hurling.

They are introduced to Paralympic table tennis player Colin Judge and later divided into sides for a game of rounders. They have great fun, but the series is never explicit about what it is attempting to achieve. Are the kids supposed to learn life lessons about winning and losing? To bond as a team? All sorts of ideas – boys don’t cry, etc – are put in front of us yet never satisfactorily unpacked.

That’s no reflection on the kids or Conroy, a natural in front of the camera. But the show nonetheless veers towards unhelpful stereotypes. Front and centre is the idea that the best way for teenagers to express themselves is through sport. But what if you hate sport and have found your tribe through, say, manga comics, the Magic the Gathering card game or the music of Taylor Swift?

Man Up? arrives at a timely moment when teenagers of both genders are besieged by a world that wants them to grow up too quickly. But while the show is admirably earnest, it lacks the vocabulary to deliver a coherent message and, like teenagers across generations, ends up tongue-tied and unsure of itself.

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