Breaking the Mould

I want to start my second post with a caveat.  This is not a blog on feminism or gender equality. It is a blog on critically looking at things around us --- things that we often take for granted. I just happened to use masculinity as the topic of my first post, hence, in this post I want to continue and finish that conversation, at least for now. So please don’t switch off, thinking “there she goes talking about men and women again”. I promise you, future posts will have a range of other things.

I ended my last post with the need to break the mould, especially for boys. Thanks to feminism and feminist theories, the position of girls is very gradually getting better worldwide. It has become politically correct in many circles to advocate gender equality. The social media too is quick to pounce on anyone or anything that pulls women down. But the way gender equality is perceived is one sided. It is about enabling women to do whatever they want --- girls are encouraged to do everything boys do. However, for true equality to happen, the reverse should be happening too. This is a massive cultural change, requiring shifting of mindsets in the context of two genders.  Therefore, to be successful and fair, it will need changing socially constructed perceptions of both the genders.  This is not a one-way street.  Today, a woman is encouraged to go out and work, do what was traditionally seen as a man’s role. However, a man is not really encouraged to venture into roles conventionally occupied by women --- stay at home and look after the house if he wants to, do embroidery if he wants to, cry in front of others if he is sad.  A growing body of academics and non-academics are now beginning to strongly feel that a discourse on redefining how a woman is perceived will be incomplete without redefining masculinity and how a man is perceived. A case in point is this 2014 speech by Emma Watson at the United Nations, which went viral. 

Just this afternoon, as I was walking around a mall, I saw a couple who were openly flirting with each other. The girl was in a salwar kameez while the boy was in a pathan suit. Men and boys wearing pathan suits is not uncommon in these parts, and I hardly noticed the boy’s attire till I looked at this face.  He was young, with a small tuft of beard, and had kajal lining his eyes! For a moment, I just stared at him; then, I pulled my eyes away.  I realized I was doing exactly what I was questioning and critiquing in this post! So why can a man not wear make-up if he wants to? We are very comfortable with girls wearing pants and a shirt, a typically male attire. But if a man or a boy decides to wear a skirt, or make-up, it becomes drag, often with a derogatory connotation. My most basic explanation is that wearing trousers for a girl or a woman has the implication of going up the gender ladder --- approaching men. Wearing a skirt does the opposite for a man or a boy --- pulls him down that ladder, making him more like a woman.

I recently came upon a new term that is doing the rounds --- toxic masculinity. This is a set of ideas that says that societal expectations of adhering to traditional attributes of male behaviour --- being strong, fearless, not-showing emotion, except anger --- end up being harmful to boys as they start learning the ropes of living in society.  Especially those boys whose temperaments are against these attributes. These expectations are manifested, especially in their teenage years, through sports, aggressive behaviour with each other, doing daring acts to prove themselves, and so on. Boys who do not show these attributes often get side-lined and looked at as not quite fitting the mould. And consciously or unconsciously, we as teachers and parents help push them into these moulds whether they fit into it or not.

Stanford professor Judy Chu, in this article addresses just that. Titled Boyhood Is a Battlefield: The Dangerous Expectations of Early Masculinity, she tells the story of her own son Xander, who though above his class in many academic areas, was seen by his teacher as lacking.  He was shy and preferred to sit and watch while other boys chased each other; when asked why, he said that the boys’ games were too rough.  Since Xander’s mild manner did not match his teacher’s expectations for boys, it made her uncomfortable. Rather than question her own assumptions about what boys could and should be like, this teacher decided there was something wrong with Xander. Besides talking to his parents about his perceived inadequacies, the teacher also showed her discomfort in her interactions with Xander himself, which the sensitive boy noticed.

In my own interactions with teachers, I have seen similar concerns and ‘corrective’ efforts by teachers.  At parent teacher meetings, it is not uncommon for a teacher to show concern about a boy’s shyness while taking a girl’s shyness as nothing unusual, unless it is extreme or debilitating. Similarly, a girl’s aggressiveness could be of concern, while a boy’s aggressiveness will be seen as normal, unless it becomes disruptive. I have also interacted with parents who proudly talk about their daughters pushing the envelope, breaking boundaries.  But the same does not apply to their sons. A boy wanting to do Home Economics, for example, is often frowned upon, despite the fact that the boy may be very interested in the culinary skills or may want to go into hotel management later on, where these skills will be needed. Talking to students in the art and design institute that I teach in, it is obvious that boys have a much harder time convincing parents about their decision to do Art and Design than girls. All these parents and teachers are very sincere --- they only have the child’s welfare at heart.  In the process, however, they could be taking their son or their student away from what he really wants to do or what he is really good at.

The point I have tried to make in this post is that without our being aware of it, we all, to some extent or the other, look at the world through gendered lenses.  And though we are beginning to see girls differently, our lenses are still fixed in the context of boys. Why else did I stop in my tracks when I saw that boy in the mall wearing kajal? This, then, is the message of this post --- to be aware of these lenses that we unquestioningly use to view others, especially men or boys.  Have we as parents, grandparents, teachers, unconsciously imposed our own stereotypical perceptions on the boys who have looked up to us?  Please feel free to critique your own thinking on this and post your thoughts.

The first post .... On being a man.....

This is my first post, and I had lofty ideas of kick starting this blog with an amazing offering --- like a brilliant opening chapter of a book. Well, as I waited for the perfect idea to come by, I realized that time, and with it, motivation, was also going by.  Inspiration is at no one’s command.  Starting something is not easy. I always tell my students --- do not to worry about that first sentence and just plunge into your thoughts; just grasp thoughts in your hands while they are still babies, or else they may slip away, and quickly put them into words.  So that is what I am doing --- plunging into my blog, putting words to a range of thoughts that have jumped into my mind from listening to an author, whose novel, Americanah, I am reading at this point of time. 

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite writers as well as one of my favourite speakers. I use her Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, in my classes and workshops. Her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, is remarkable! While I read a book, I have this habit of looking up things that I get curious about, or want further information on. For example, as I read about Nigerian food in Half of a Yellow Sun, I had to look up the recipe for jollof rice, a classic West African dish.  As I am reading about hair braiding in Americanah, I had to look up pictures of cornrows verses regular braids. That’s just me, and of course, the internet makes it so easy to satisfy my curiosity! Anyway, true to form, I had to look up talks by Adichie as I read her book, just in case there are any new ones.  In the process, I ended up re-listening to her Ted Talk We Should All Be Feminists. Mind you, though I teach feminism in my sociology classes, and do get annoyed when women are put down by men, I am not a 'militant' feminist.  My ideas of male-female relations are more complementary rather than confrontational. That is what I like about Adichie’s talk --- she urges us to also look at the other side of the story, to what boys and men go through in maintaining gender expectations. In her words, “we define masculinity in a very narrow way, masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves ….”.

I am going to bring in a bit of sociology here, and please, dear reader, do not switch off. The purpose behind this blog is to bring out connections between ideas emerging from anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, political theory, or even a combination of these into everyday conversation. As a social scientist, I have always felt very strongly that though our work comes out of studying lay people, once our writings get into the realms of academia, they become too complex. They become inaccessible to those very people who helped formulate our ideas and theories. One purpose of this blog is to bring these ideas into mainstream thinking --- to help link things that we social scientists teach, study and research about, with everyday life and behaviour.  That is what being a critical thinker is all about --- appreciating and making associations between diverse perspectives.  So please feel free to make connections with your own experiences and articulate them through your comments.

Okay, so back to masculinity. Ideals of male behaviour are so ingrained in society that we start taking them for granted; they are also almost universal. Sociologist Raewyn Connell suggests that there is not one, but many masculinities that men can be categorized into. The first in this hierarchy is what she calls hegemonic masculinity --- the dominant form of masculinity in society as a whole. Leading capitalists, macho film stars, prominent sportsmen--- anyone who gets looked up to as an ideal man would fall into this theoretical category.  Barak Obama would fit into this very well as would Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  In the Indian context, mythological heroes like Yudhisthir, Arjun, Ram, Krishna, could fall into this category. Amitabh Bachchan, Rahul Dravid, Narayan Murthy, the list goes on.

At the other end of the spectrum is what Connell calls subordinated masculinity --- those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Homosexual men, men seen as ‘mama’s boys’, men called sissys --- these are men seen to be closest to women and hence often also discriminated against and laughed at.

Most men however fall somewhere between these two categories. Connell calls this complicit masculinity --- most men do not reach the ideal status of hegemonic masculinity, but are complicit because they gain from the structures, customs and practices of male dominance existing in society. Just being male gives them advantages, so they accept these as social norms without questioning. Society sees the wife as being responsible to put meals on the family table.  Therefore, immediately after reaching home, a working mother has to see to the cooking, supervising the household help, attend to the children’s’ needs and so on, while the man can come home, put up his feet and watch television. It does not occur to most men to question why they get to sit and relax after a long day at work while their wife, who has had an equally long day, is getting the household organized, supervising the children’s homework, and so on. It is to their advantage to maintain the societal status quo, in maintaining this as the normal way to be.  Men don’t go about consciously conspiring against women. It is just that they do not see the need to question these societal norms, which makes them kings within their own worlds.

Though complicit masculinity seems to be the ideal place to be, Adichi and others have pointed out that it often puts a lot of pressure on boys and men to keep up the with the masculine ideal.  For example, being a woman, I always had a choice whether I wanted to work or not. If I had decided not to work, and just be a housewife, enjoying my husband’s income, society would not have had any problems. However, if my husband had decided to stay at home and become a ‘house-husband’ while I worked, eye-brows would have been raised. I do know several men who, given the chance, would have loved to be at home, cook, organize things around the house, be a part of each moment of their babies’ lives ---. If this sounds strange, it is probably because men have learned to mask, disguise and hide these sides of themselves --- just as women have learned to hide their ‘macho’ side.

Years ago, one of my students, a boy of class 11, decided to take aerobics for Physical Education (PE), instead of football. Though there was a choice between aerobics and football, there was an unspoken acceptance among students that football was for the boys and aerobics for the girls. The school never encouraged such a division --- it was the students who just drifted into their choices based on what their peers did, which was very based on their gender. Until this brave boy decided to change this tacit division. Though he was openly taunted by both boys and girls, he was strong enough to take it in his stride, even decided to enjoy the situation. So much so that at his urging, we had an open discussion among his classmates on gender stereotypes, where he defended his choice and stood his ground.

Not all boys, however, are that valiant. I had another student, who, though very good at academics, would not devote enough time to his studies. He was into sports, music, spending hours hanging out with friends --- a typical teenage boy.  Studying too much was what girls did, and wimps; it was not ‘cool’. He was not a hegemonic male --- though he played sports, he was not the sport icon of the school; though he was good looking, he was not the class ‘hot guy’ among girls. He was a regular boy, complicity falling into and embracing all the attributes that society conferred on boys and men. I kept telling him to put in more time into studying, that it pained me to see such an intelligent mind like his going waste, especially since the board exams were around the corner.  One day, I was pleasantly surprised to see him quietly studying in a corner of the library. When I walked up to him and congratulated him on turning a new leaf, he asked me not to tell his friends where he was, if they asked me if I had seen him. “I don’t want to jeopardize my image”, he said. We laughed about it, and I sat down in a nearby table to do my own work. A little later, his friends did find him there. “What are you doing, man?! Studying?!” I was of course pretending to read, but shamelessly eavesdropping. His immediate response was that he had several assignments that he had not turned in, and hence needed to complete them. I was stumped --- I know that all his assignments had been turned in! The friends told him to hurry up and finish and not linger over them. They saw me sitting nearby and assumed that their friend had no choice --- he was not there out of his free will, but was coerced by me into finishing his assignments.  And he kept up the pretence. After they were gone, we both looked at each other and he gave me a sheepish smile.  Since he was a sociology student, and since I cannot let go of a teaching moment, we had a chat about it later.  I brought in complicit masculinity, which was a topic we were doing in class anyway. He agreed that he was complicit. He did not want to be ridiculed by others, did not want to be a 'nerd' and hence, ‘uncool’. But his thought provoking comment stayed with me.  “It is easy being complicit” he said, “and a lot more difficult going against the grain and against popular expectations people have about you, especially your peers.” Though the situation saddened me, the teacher in me, however, rejoiced. No amount of textbook reading would have given my student such an insight into life! And over the years, I did see him occasionally stand up to his peers. 

I have given two examples of two teenage boys, one who broke away from social expectations and did aerobics --- something girls do, something closer to subordinated masculinity. But this first boy was in some ways, always different --- quiet, fond of books, a philosopher. So perhaps it was easier for him to break away. The second boy, however, was very much a typical boy, a ‘cool dude’.  He had bought into the existing societal value system, which we all unconsciously do in some form or another, and felt the need to keep it up, even to the detriment of his studies. It is in the category of this second boy that most boys fall into and unconsciously learn to keep up with expectations, whatever those expectations may be at that point of time. Over the years, they too start seeing these expectations as the normal way to be, just as my students saw playing football 'normal' for boys and aerobics for girls.

In her talk, Adichie goes on to state that if we start raising children differently, then in fifty years, a hundred years, boys will no longer have the pressure of having to prove their masculinity. By making them feel they have to be strong and hard (not wimpy and emotional), we leave them with very fragile egos. And then we do a greater disservice to girls, by raising them to cater to these fragile egos of men. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller --- they can have ambition, but not too much. Perhaps many of us can relate to what she says.

Much more than a decade has passed since the boy who chose aerobics finished school. He is a man of the world now; but whenever we meet, we still joke about his ‘deviance’, its repercussions, and what it taught all of us about how difficult it is, especially for boys to break the mould.

Girls have already broken the mould in many aspects.  But unless we encourage boys to bravely break the mould too, we will continue doing them, and society as a whole, a disservice.

This post is just a teaser, and I will end it here --- I do not want to saddle you with a very long piece of writing. But please respond. Can you relate to any of these points? When you look at the boys and men around you, do you see some basis to what Connell or Adichie say?