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.