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The best a man can be: A still from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Naa
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Is This The Best A Man Can Be?

In 2015, the global #MeToo movement erupted and in 2019, Gillette released their new video We Believe: The Best Men Can Be. These two events, while separate in and of themselves, kickstarted conversations on sexual harassment, women’s rights, consent and masculinity. They threw open questions regarding privilege, the silence surrounding the culture of sexual harassment, the impunity which perpetrators enjoyed and so many more. The more these questions were sought to be answered, the more the problem was reinforced.

To get to the bottom of this problem, it’s not enough to simply talk about these factors in isolation but to talk about the symptomatic nature of the issue. There is a culture and a set of behaviours which allow such practices to flourish, and that is masculinity.

When we say masculinity, we’d like to strongly emphasise that we are not saying ‘men’. No, masculinity is a set of characteristics and traits which can be shown by any individual but in a patriarchal setup, it is most often shown by men. What do we mean by that? It means that gender is an intensely personal thing for everyone and how every individual expresses their gender is personal. As so is masculinity – there can be no one masculinity and every individual practices their masculinity differently. Thus, we would like to use the term masculinities in this article, instead of the singular form.

In a patriarchal society, masculinities manifest or show-up as a very particular set of behaviours such as being controlling and dominating, often in violent ways. In fact, the root of masculinities in a patriarchal society emphasises practicing this violence and control.

Masculinity emphasises a very particular kind of man: a strong man who has absolute control over his surroundings and on the bodies around him, especially the bodies of women. It means having control of choices of those seen as socially inferior to them (women, children). For example, deciding where the women of their family (mothers, daughters, sisters, sisters-in-laws – female relatives primarily) may work, who they talk to, what they wear, how they interact with ‘strangers’ and other men, etc. This control is often comfortably put under the garb of protection, which is considered to be a key responsibility of a man.

This control turns to violence when the lines of this control are crossed. When a daughter chooses to not get married or when a wife insists on keeping her pay it means the fragile systems that masculinities rest on are broken and the only way to reinforce it is through the use of different forms of violence. A lot of this violence takes place in intimate partner situations or with family members – in a 2014 report, 60% of Indian men reported being violent towards their spouses.

The desire for this control is also born out of an entitlement: of spaces, bodies, gazes. This can manifest itself in different ways – through the objectification of a woman’s body, through dominance in relationships, and more. It also means that since men feel entitled to spaces, they see the presence of others as an encroachment. For example, a 2017 Women in the Workplace study found that 50% of men think there are enough women in leadership positions if 1 in 10 women are in leadership positions.

The narrative of masculinities is all around us – it’s the people we see in our workplaces, in our families, it plays out in public spaces and in homes. Think about it – how often are people practicing a masculine sexuality (in this case, men) expected to be dominant in every role in life? For example, being the dominant partner in sexual intercourse, sitting at the head of the table (literally and metaphorically), being the only decision maker, being the only breadwinner of the family? The last one is particularly interesting because masculinities dictate that the only breadwinners of the family be men and women are actively discouraged from seeking paid work. This, in the process, puts undue pressure on the man to ensure the economic success of the family and this can have disastrous effects. The 2014 report cited above found that “regardless of age, men who experience economic stress were more likely to have perpetrated violence”.

The way masculinities is performed doesn’t exist in isolation; it is informed by a large number of factors, such as caste, religion, regional identity, gender identity, sexual orientation and class. In India particularly, the way masculinities play out in different parts of the country differ based on what is expected from the men of each region (though the common themes of violence and dominance remain). In fact, this is also reflective in Indian mythology – witness how differently the devas are portrayed in their ‘divine’ masculinity versus the more ‘barbaric’ asuras.

All the above narratives continue to be reinforced in the most accessible of forms – pop culture. It’s easier to recall films in which masculinity is shown as the dominant narrative than not. One that springs instantly to mind is Kabir Singh (2019) – a film in which a man is shown as being violent and aggressive to everyone around him and everyone (including the film) makes space for this violence. Even outside of films like this, the male gaze is heavily prevalent in most films and even in advertisements – look at the advertisements for undershirts like Dollar or deodorants like Axe where the narratives emphasise a certain sense of charged sexuality, control and violence to sell their products.

Here’s the thing: there’s a whole world of narratives out there emphasising a certain sense of masculinities, violence and privilege as the ‘right’ way to be a man. But that narrative can be overturned and, in fact, is being overturned.

In reality, masculinities harms men as much as those around them – it forces them to conform to a narrow box of societal expectations and behaviour traits which may affect their emotional and mental well-being. Masculinist behaviour has little space for accepting diversity or being inclusive; that’s why positive role-models can help change that. We already have a few of those popping up in pop culture: think of Imran Khan’s character in the coming of age romantic comedy Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na or any role where a male character embraces non-masculinist ideals such as Ayushmann Khurrana in Andhadhun.

And we should believe in the best that men can be.

Cover image: A still from the Hindi film Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na  

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Article written by:

Saswati Chatterjee works at Breakthrough as a part of the Media team and is passionate about gender rights and feminism and matches it with her love for all things pop culture. Pauline Gomes has worked on sexuality, gender, disability and human rights. As a part of the curriculum and leadership development team at Breakthrough, she creates products and publications for training, and community action tools, and facilitates interactive sessions.

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