It’s the middle of July and I’m sitting in the sanctuary of a church. I’m surrounded by the cast and crew of Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on our first day of script work. I’m playing Demetrius, who is set to marry Hermia, who actually loves Lysandra (our production has Lysander portrayed as a woman), all while Helena, a former love of his, chases after him even though he scorns her love.
We finish going over a couple of the scenes. Then the director, Megan Watson, asks me: “So, is Demetrius just kind of a fuckboy?”
And I sit there.
Wondering what that idea means to me.
Demetrius is an entitled, possessive, insensitive womanizer who holds a position of power in a man’s world. He has all the makings of a fuckboy. Of who we think of when we think of a “real man.”
Growing up I never really identified as “masculine,” and in this day and age I don’t even know what defines masculinity. But as a kid, through pop culture and school bullies, I learned that masculinity was domineering, defiant, abusive, uncaring, and ignorant. Things I was raised not to be.
My parents are immigrants, as am I. They were strict and controlling over almost every aspect of my life growing up, except for two things: religion and love. They understood what it was like to be told they couldn’t love because of their different religions, so they vowed to let their children love whomever they wanted without judgment or interference. But that couldn’t stop the pressures of a patriarchal society on a young boy.
I was a sensitive kid. I’m still quite a sensitive adult. But as a boy, sensitivity looks like weakness to other kids. There is a narrow idea portrayed in art and the media of what it means to “be a man”—whether it’s James Bond as a strong-but-silent figure, Sylvester Stallone as an untouchable action hero, or Fight Club’s Tyler Durden as an anarchist who uses violence to reclaim masculinity. And that was not the emotional, caring, inquisitive, and desperate boy I was.
I was constantly moving as a child, from Greece to Egypt to Canada to Dubai, and the major cultural shifts that came from those moves were really tough on me. Just as I would get accustomed to the behaviours and interests of a certain social group or culture, I was exposed to a completely different one, where I would be abused or ostracized for thinking or acting differently. So I was in constant desperation for attention, for friends, for love. I would succumb to someone’s will for a shot at being their friend. And what other kids want out of a boy is for them to be tough. To bottle everything up. To be confident. To “be a man.” So I tried that. And it helped.
Outrageous stunts, rebellious behavior, repressed emotions, and an eating disorder to better fit the “shape of a man” actually got people to start liking me. By sixteen I had a bunch of friends. I went to parties. And, unfortunately, it made me happier than I had ever been.
I was constantly seeking the approval of my peers, so much so that I would only ever pursue relationships with girls they would approve of. “Why are you talking to her? She’s weird.” “She’s fat.” “She’s a whore.” And just like that, I would put those girls out of my mind. I told myself I wasn’t interested in them anymore, no matter how much I fawned over them internally. No matter how much I hated that men talked about women that way, I inhibited my emotions to appeal to my peers.
And as much as I like to think that I’ve overcome these societal pressures, from the fuckboys and the media alike, I’ve come to realize they still influence me today.
There is this pervasive idea that men are sexually driven rather than emotionally driven. Emotional men are weak. Sexual men are strong. Sex can define how much of a man you are. Heterosexual men constantly use their number of sexual encounters as a marker for their manhood. “I’ve fucked forty girls.” “What’s your kill count?” “What do you mean you’re a virgin?”
I was repeatedly told that if you stay with a partner from a young age you will “miss out on your twenties,” you will regret all the chances you could have had to be “free,” you will have a midlife crisis and end up cheating on them. Because “men are always driven by sex.”
I couldn’t get those ideas, those pressures, out of my head. “Am I going to regret all the time I lost in my youth?” “Should I just be ‘fucking around’?” “Maybe having meaningless sex will make me just as happy as love.”
I broke up with someone I was greatly in love with because of what other people told me was going to happen. Even though all my instincts told me otherwise.
But at the end of the day, I made that choice. And, as an actor, the best thing I can do for my work is to learn from it.
In today’s world, it’s hard to justify a lot of what takes place in Midsummer: the forced use of drugs on sleeping victims, the racist language used to describe beauty, and, especially, the overwhelming misogyny. Considering my journey as a man, and my developing views as a feminist, it’s difficult to support the actions of my character.
As far as the text goes, and from what I have seen in other productions, Demetrius is a fickle, entitled, misogynistic, borderline-abusive character. He jumps from one girl to another without regard for their feelings and is only undone by a magic potion that has him settle for Helena, someone he didn’t want. He doesn’t even understand how he came to love her.
Demetrius is the epitome of how we teach young men to love. He takes advantage of the male-dominated society in which he lives, and, in the end, he wins.
This is not a story we need to tell in 2017. This is not the type of man that young boys should aspire to be, or that young girls should be willing to withstand.
I sought to justify the actions of my character. For myself. For the production. For my audience.
And one line stuck out to me.
During Act II scene i, Demetrius is being chased by Helena but pushes her away, declaring his love to Hermia, whom he is set to marry by the will of her father, Egeus, and the Duke. Helena keeps declaring her love for Demetrius and after a long back and forth, Demetrius exclaims to Helena: “Do I not, in the plainest truth tell you, / I do not, nor I cannot love you.”
I cannot love you.
This line triggered something for me.
What if Demetrius couldn’t love who he wanted to? What if he does love Helena but has to marry Hermia because of the will of the men in power? This is a man who is scared to go against the patriarchy for fear of isolation and abuse. Not only could he lose his social standing and be mocked by his peers and superiors, but he risks possibly receiving the same death penalty Hermia is threatened with. This is a victim of a male-dominated society. This is a man going against his better judgment because of other people’s influence. This is a man I can understand.
The same fear that drove my teenage self to make choices against my better judgment, to keep my thoughts or desires bottled up, to appeal to the will of my peers and the patriarchal society around me, could be the very fear driving Demetrius.
Looking back at the first scene of the play, we see an arranged marriage going awry, with Hermia defying the arrangement set by her father and expressing her love for Lysandra. But something else really stood out to me in this scene: Demetrius says almost nothing. Even as Hermia defiantly opposes the marriage in front of Egeus and the Duke, and even as Lysandra calls him out in front of everybody for having made love to Helena.
His silence is fear.
He is brought before the other men in power, commanded to marry a woman they deem suitable for him, just as Hermia is commanded. But what would happen if he were to stand up against them? Hermia’s defiance results in a call for her execution. So who’s to say Demetrius’s life is not also controlled by the will of these men?
Demetrius only ever speaks in that scene to beg Hermia to relent, so that she can live, and to ask Lysandra to “yield [her] crazed title to [his] certain right.” That right is dictated by those powerful men who were before them in that court. Their will is something no one else should oppose, or they will face consequences. It’s that fear that keeps Demetrius silent. The same fear that keeps a lot of men silent.
When Demetrius is hit with the love potion, he is freed of the pressures that hold back his true feelings. He’s able to love Helena unabashedly, without fear of what others think. He is able to stand up against Egeus’s orders. He confronts the men in power and influences them to change their minds about the marriage and death penalty.
This is a character I can stand behind as an actor and as a man. This is no longer the entitled, possessive, insensitive fuckboy who happens upon a happy ending. This is a man who stands against the patriarchy and fights for love. He is the type of man I aspire to be.
Danny Ghantous is starring in Shakespeare in the Ruff’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until September 3 at Withrow Park.
For tickets or more information, click here