With ‘Uncomposed,’ White Ribbon uses music to take on toxic masculinity

Who: White Ribbon, with Bensimon Byrne, OneMethod and Narrative for PR.

What: “Uncomposed,” a campaign that shows the power of music to unlock emotion in men as a way of addressing toxic masculinity and gender-based violence. It is built around an original piece of music created by famed Canadian producer Jared Kuemper with support from the Canadian Opera Company’s music director Johannes Debus, and input from North American music cognitive scientists. The music was composed in such a way to be deliberately evocative.

When & Where: The campaign debuted today (Dec. 8) and is highlighted by a documentary style short film showing men reacting to the composition as it played to them in a live setting. The composition, “White Ribbon Adagio,” is also being released on streaming services and as sheet music.

Why: Much of the work done by the White Ribbon in the past has focused on highlighting the systemic and societal issues contributing to gender-based violence (see previous examples here and here), while this campaign uses music to underscore the importance of men expressing healthy emotions.

According to a poll of 1,500 Canadians and 1,000 Americans conducted by Leger Marketing, 80% of Canadians claim that music helps them release emotions, while one-third of North Americans say they are reluctant to cry for fear of looking weak, and at least 30 million people have instructed their son(s) not to cry.

“When it comes to toxic masculinity, you’re really looking at starting a conversation and trying to persuade men who don’t have an awareness of it, and who are capable of change,” said Joseph Bonnici, partner and ECD at Bensimon Byrne. “We’re never going to turn hardcore toxic masculinity around, so this campaign is aimed at people who are open to a conversation, a different way of thinking and acting.”

The goal, said Bonnici, is having men understand that showing vulnerability is actually a sign of strength. “For the men in the documentary piece, that’s exactly what they took away,” he said. “How do we do that on a large scale?”

How: The campaign is built around a nearly four-minute video showing men who had previously expressed misgivings about outwardly displaying emotion and the importance of being stoic. “I try to keep my emotions to myself,” says one man, while another says that he needs to teach his sons to be “strong, assertive [and] decisive.”

The four men are invited to listen to the music in an intimate setting—sitting on a stool on the stage of Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts as a quintet plays the composition just a couple of feet away from them. The men appear visibly moved by the music, with one saying “I got shivers in seconds. I was not expecting that.” Another shot shows a man’s chest heaving and lips quivering as he experiences a visceral reaction to the music.

There are also discussions with opera companies and symphonies around the world to get them to play the song. “We want this music to be widely available, and we’re trying to circulate it in every possible way we can,” said Bonnici.

And we quote: “Our goal is to ignite societal change that promotes emotional literacy and healthy masculinities,” said White Ribbon’s executive director Humberto Carolo. “For too long, society has taught men to be ‘strong’ by repressing their emotions. It has heroized this version of masculinity. ‘Uncomposed’ will start a conversation and encourage men and boys to acknowledge and express a range of complex emotions. We can help end gender-based violence by normalizing and promoting emotional literacy and healthy masculinities among men and boys, and emphasize that strength is the ability to show vulnerability.”

Chris Powell