The debate on traditional masculinity has been raging on social media ever since Gillette posted its new advertisement on YouTube. The ad challenges the long held notion that ‘boys will be boys.’ It exhorts boys and men to give up mansplaining and sexual harassment among other sexist behaviours. Expectedly, there are supporters as well as critics of the ad which seems to have been conceptualised in the wake of the MeToo movement. The concern around traditional masculinity has also translated into courses on ‘Rethinking traditional masculinity’ in some North American universities. These courses are designed for undergraduate students, particularly young men. They aim to challenge the idea of traditional masculinity, seen to be associated with a range of sexist and misogynistic attitudes and practices.
More recently, the guidelines on working with men and boys released by the American Psychological Association (APA) has led to a fierce debate among psychologists and psychiatrists on the meaning and importance of traditional masculinity. The report cites research which suggests that “socialisation practices that teach boys from an early age to be self-reliant, strong, and to minimise and manage their problems on their own yield adult men who are less willing to seek mental health treatment”. It suggests that the expectation that men are supposed to be tough and brave at all times is leading to lower success in school, and higher rates of suicide and violence. It is interesting to note that the report fails to, at the very least, acknowledge some of the benefits of toughness and bravery, traits typically associated with traditional masculinity. Critics of the report also point out that it is these very traits of traditional masculinity that have played a critical role in ensuring national security and defence. Also, as the psychologist B. Christopher Frueh points out in his critique of the guidelines, masculine qualities like rugged individualism, courage, stoicism, ambition, and a willingness to protect and sacrifice for others helped secure the freedom and prosperity that so many now take for granted.
Stoicism, a philosophy founded in Athens in early 3rd century BC by Zeno of Citium has advocated the adoption of qualities such as strength, steadfastness and self-restraint. The philosophy is effectively captured in this quote by Marcus Aurelius, one of the most well-known Stoic philosophers: “It’s time you realised that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet”. Giving in to the feelings “that affect you and make you dance like a puppet” refers to the failure of mastering one’s emotions in the face of challenging scenarios. Stoic philosophers would argue that it is unhelpful to succumb to these feelings if one has to perform physically and mentally demanding tasks on a daily basis.
Earlier this year, Uri: The Surgical Strike, a mega hit 2019 movie about Indian Army’s surgical strike on terrorist camps along the Pakistani border that popularised the phrase “How’s the josh?” made a strong case for stoicism to be the axis of identity formation for men and women. In the movie, the lead actor Vicky Kaushal displays an engrossing mix of stoicism (for most part) punctuated with occasional moments of emotional vulnerability. He displays the capacity to suffer searing pain without losing mission-focus to get back up from the forest floor, and eliminate terrorists in North-Eastern India. His warrior’s hardness mellows for a few moments into an affectionate yet restrained compassion when he tends to his ailing mother and plays with his niece. But that glimpse of a nurturer’s mellowness is quickly overwhelmed by Kaushal’s firm chastising of Yami Gautam, the intelligence agent masquerading as his mother’s nurse, for losing track of his mother. His restrained anger then makes way for the grand ‘stoic versus emotional’ clash at his brother’s funeral as his face contorts with a deep anger and his eyes well up with tears when his niece shouts his regiment’s war-cry. That particular moment is Kaushal’s dam wall of stoicism being tested against the tsunami of his emotions. The wall holds but some emotions are just too hard to conceal. Thereafter, comes the tough macho gunslinger combined with a hard-as-nails determination as he leads the surgical strike.
Interestingly, both the female protagonists in the movie, played by Kirti Kulhari and Yami Gautam also portray stoic qualities. We see this trait in the intelligence officer (played by Gautam) who doesn’t bat an eyelid while torturing the prisoner during the interrogation scene. The audience also sees the quiet strength and determination in the voice and demeanour of the pilot (played by Kulhari) when she reminisces about her husband who was killed in a military operation. Another strong female character in the movie is the Indian spy in Pakistan who resorts to physical intimidation to extract crucial information that would help the Indian army. It would be fair to argue that the movie celebrates stoic qualities through its characters who display tremendous strength and determination in the face of challenging circumstances.
The characters in Uri are by no means pure fiction. They can be found in the blue-collar coal miners who may not be able to hug and kiss their young kids, but who stand beside their beds after they are asleep to gently pat their heads. They can be found in the hardworking kaam wali bais (domestic help) who don’t display overt affection for their children but work multiple jobs just to make sure that they are well provided for. Stoicism helps its adopters suffer through manageable and sometimes unmanageable pain in dignified silence. Stoic men can delay that doctor’s appointment for a non-serious but still-aching knee and pull on so that the money could be better spent towards their family. They can remain emotionally restrained in the face of provocations from their rebellious teenage sons or unceasing criticisms of their wives. They can go down the stairs to check on that suspicious sound in the basement in the middle of the night, in the recognition that the safety of their families is more important than their own physical wellbeing. Being stoic, as the characters in Uri aptly demonstrate, is at its best a deep meditation with open eyes on the myriad challenges that confront the human condition and a steely determination to last through it all. The depth of calm that stoicism produces also eliminates emotional volatility and brings about discipline, ideal for facing a range of difficult situations.
When the APA trains its guns on traditional masculinity, makes universal pronouncements regarding its toxicity and calls for young men and boys to be raised ‘differently’, it is calling for the annihilation of a culture of resilience and of bearing hardship with dignity and grace. Traditional masculinity is not without its problems but to eliminate its component of stoicism is to pull the rug from under a cast of tough and determined characters who make society function.
Juhi Sidharth is Assistant Professor, Public Policy & Gender Studies at Flame University, Pune
Chaitanya Ravi is Assistant Professor, Public Policy at Flame University, Pune
Views expressed are personal
Cover Image: A still from the film: Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019)