Masculinity in crisis - Is it time to man up?
How would you cope without your smartphone and your wifi signal? That is what a new series is testing out – in the most extreme fashion. In The Island With Bear Grylls, 13 British men aged between 21 and 70 (including the four-strong film crew) are deposited on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific and left to fend for themselves for a month.
They are abandoned on the uninhabited, jungle-clad Isla Gibraleon, one of the Pearl Islands off the coast of Panama. The results of the men's efforts, showing over six episodes, offer an eye-opening picture about the state of modern masculinity.
However, the series was criticised in Britain when it emerged that four of the men were TV professionals with experience of survival and at least two had worked with Gryll. Also, two species of crocodile were let loose on the island for the group to catch and a water supply was provided. The actions were later defended by programme makers who say they were not prepared to let the men die of thirst or starvation.
Forty-year-old Gryll, a daredevil and former special forces operative, says the aim of the show is to put the microscope on men. "Masculinity in this country is in crisis," says Gryll. "In the old days, you had your bow and arrow. Now? Everyone's just Tweeting and Facebooking. How does a man really show masculinity?" The presenter, who is married with three sons, adds that, "I want to find out what happens if you strip a man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his existence."
Gryll says people show their true selves in such positions. "We're like grapes – squeeze us and you'll see what we're made of. Every man likes to think that if the stuff really hit the fan, they could look after themselves, but the reality is that most have never been pushed. That's why we were inundated with tens of thousands of applicants, because people want to know – beyond the chat and the clothes, the smartphones and belongings – have they got what it takes?"
The contestants suffer all manner of difficulties on the island, including lighting a fire. "Fire is a weird one," says Gryll. "For thousands of years, every six year old in the world would have been able to light a fire with no lighter or matches. But kids wouldn't be able to cook a fish finger nowadays. I don't think we've lost that skill, but the show is more about, 'Have we lost our resourcefulness and our ingenuity?' "
The island experience seemed to take some contestants by surprise. "You couldn't prepare yourself for the heat," says Joe Birch, 23, a Derbyshire farmer. "We've all been on hot holidays where you're sat on a sun lounger, but we were grafting for 12 hours a day, trekking into the jungle to try to find food or water. You do all that on zero calories, on top of the heat and humidity."
When it aired in the UK, The Island With Bear Grylls attracted criticism for its lack of female participants. Ruth England, the presenter of Discovery Channel's Man, Woman, Wild, asserted that, "The basic tenets of survival are the same, regardless of your genitals – and women cope very well. I'm disappointed by this decision, but not wholly surprised."
But Bear leaps to the defence of his programme. "All this stuff saying, 'Bear's new show is sexist' – it's not about that. This is just a study about masculinity, and I'm excited about doing an all-girls one to see what it means to be a woman. Also, the toughest people I know are girls – they have much less ego."
The Island With Bear Grylls, TV One.
- TV Guide