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It’s Messed Up How Rambo, G.I.Joe And Others Have Shaped Our Idea Of A ‘Real Man’

More from Shambhavi Saxena

By Shambhavi Saxena

Can pop culture cause violent behaviour in men? In a Time magazine article, James Poniewozik argued that it cannot program or direct people’s behaviour, but pop-culture can influence what’s already there under the surface. “If it’s bloody, it advocates violence. If it has sex, it advocates sex. List the curse words, count the bodies, measure the fluid ounces of blood and you got your answer.”

The relationship between masculinity and violence has been a much-discussed one. Certainly, crime statistics reveal something disturbing about it. According to Indian social justice series Satyamev Jayate, “95% of incidents of violence in India are committed by men.” In the U. S., the number is over 85%, as reported by The Boston Globe. With perhaps a few exceptions, cultures across the globe expect aggressive behaviour in men. And considering that popular culture has such a vast hold over so many people, it must play a role in creating violent masculinities.

Idolizing Violence

Because the gender binary is so tight, boys and men are encouraged to enjoy hyper-masculine expressions of power, and often pop-culture is the perfect production centre. Young boys are reared on Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, or Rohit Shetty hijinks. In a larger global context, even if young boys are not explicitly told to be like G. I. Joe or Chuck Norris, they are actively told not to take interest in ‘girl things’ – no Barbies, only monster trucks. It’s only in recent times that popular media has begun to treat gender in more nuanced and multidimensional ways, but a lot of us grew up with an action-film genre that is guilty of idolizing violence where the bigger the explosions and the harder the punches, the more heroic or manly the protagonist, and the greater the likelihood of arm-candy. Sigh.

Amitabh-Bachchan-In-DeewarAnger = Man

In the 50s, a play called ‘Look Back in Anger’, by English playwright John Osbourne, gave rise to the figure of the Angry Young Man. This figure was popularized in Indian cinema by Amitabh Bachchan, and was continued by actors like Dharmendra and Sunny Deol. The Angry Young Man figure harboured a lot of disgruntlement with twentieth-century society, and Billy Joel even wrote a song about it, that goes: “He’s proud of the scars and the battles he’s lost, he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross.” But while a lot of that defeatism has been left behind in the last century, the association between being a man and being angry remains. Remember Amrish Puri’s angry father in DDLJ? Anger has in fact been masculinized. Even when expressed by women it has masculine overtones, often seen in portrayals of female cops.


sylvester stallone rockyEarly Exposure

A study published in the early 90s found that seeing televised violent behaviour between the ages of 6 and 10 influenced aggressive behaviour in both male and female subjects. But, given that characters displaying verbally or physically aggressive behaviour are predominantly played by male actors, it is easy to see why more boys than girls identify with these characters. Think about it. How often have you seen women throw some significant punches – and not dainty little slaps, mind you. Uma Thurman and the other warriors in Kill Bill; Hermione Granger’s epic takedown of Draco Malfoy in The Prisoner of Azkaban; Imperator Furiosa in this summer’s blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road. I tried to come up with a larger list. But maybe I know I’ll be shown-up by the guns-blaring, adrenaline pumping, jugular punching of Rambo, 300, Terminator, V for Vendetta, American Psycho, Hannibal, Rocky, Fight Club – well you get the drift.

Name Calling

“Strong”, “powerful”, “tough”, “muscular”, “athletic”, “in control”, these are the words commonly used by men themselves to define masculinity, which anti-violence educator Jackson Katz examines in the popular documentary ‘Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity‘ (1999). If men fail to embody each of these attitudes simultaneously, then the terms “wimp”, “chhakka“, and even “aurat” (or “heroine”, in those delightful Snickers ads) are used to shame them and make men conform. Let’s not forget phrases like “man up”, “nut up, and shut up”, “boys don’t cry” and “don’t hit like a girl”. Oh, and who could forget, “mard ko dard nahi hota“. Several of these derogatory terms, while used in real life, are greatly amplified in movie scripts and episode scenes broadcast to billions of people all over the world.

hermione harry potter draco malfoy

It Creates An Hierarchy Within Masculinity

Katz also explains how race and violence intersect when it comes to the construction of masculinity. American films and television shows often portray both black and Latino men as members of violent street gangs, or inhabitants of the seedier parts of town where the crime rates are high. Asian men have a hard time shaking off the image of the violent martial artist or assassin. These representations of non-Caucasian manhood solidify particular images for both minority communities in America, as well as its white-majority. Additionally, pop culture amplifies the idea that a manly masculine man must constantly assert themselves as alpha-male. To do so, they must ‘call out’ defaulters – homosexual men, trans men, men with certain body types, men who are ‘sensitive’ or ‘effeminate’ or have different interests etc. And when you can’t escape what the idiot box tells you (and everyone around you) who you are, you find it difficult to get jobs, to get an education, to live with dignity, or even walk down the street without being violently assaulted by someone trying to assert their own masculinity.

Obviously, the culture of violence, to which men are constantly being recruited, needs to end. We often talk about how violent behaviour in men affects women, but we should also talk about how it affects other men, in this system of hierarchies. “Two-thirds of homicide victims in 2011/12 were men,” reports The Guardian. “Statistically speaking, the victims of men’s violence are other males,” says Katz in the documentary, arguing that both men and women have a stake in these problems.

People will usually prevent their kids from seeing sex on TV or in film, but their attempts are not so rigorous when it comes to scenes depicting violence. This is how we reinforce social taboos about sex, but we don’t reinforce visual content that emphasizes gender equality. Pop culture does influence children and young adults, their choices and the behaviours available to them, and parents, educators, or the average consumers of media need to be aware of this every time we watch, read or listen to something.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.

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  1. monistaf

    “Masculinity is oppressive and exploitative” is such a repulsive, arrogant and absolutely reprehensible statement in part because it claims that everything feminine must be good. Contrary to feminists beliefs, Masculinity is NOT a disease and does not need to be eradicated. It is exactly this type of rhetoric that qualifies as “man-hating” and claiming that it is bad for men as well does not justify it. Have you ever even considered for a moment the “other” qualities of masculinity? Risk taking, Competitiveness, Physical courage, Problem solving, Rationality, self reliance, daring, curiosity, Purposefulness, independence, self-confidence, adventurous, assertiveness, self-discipline, determination, endurance, leadership skills, courage, loyalty, persistence, decisiveness, inventiveness, ambitious, dependability and provider to name a few that “may” have benefitted both genders? Or, are you saying that these are virtues and truly not masculine traits? I do not think that anyone devalues femininity and is calling for its eradication because of their “bitching, jealousy, whining, Frivolousness, neediness, vanity, naivety, overly sensitive, squeamishness, prudishness, clingyness, helplessness, dependency, excessively emotional, obsessed with personal appearance, primping, lacking self-confidence, indecisiveness, excessive passivity, insecurity”. Instead, we value it for “Compassion, empathy, intuitiveness, cooperation, communication, kindness, calmness, thoughtfulness, graciousness, warmheartedness, emotionally expressive, able to be happy for others, sustainer, peacemaker, gentleness, patience, nurturing, helpfulness, open mindedness, empathetic, neatness, attentive to detail, creativeness, and life giving”. You have to realize that BOTH genders complement each other, have their strengths and weaknesses and must be celebrated for their contribution to what we have achieved together as a species. Advocating one sex to obliterate their proclivities and concerns for the benefit of the other is both absurd and preposterous.

    1. Akshat Seth

      You actually are the epitome of the difference between clarity of expression and clarity of thought. You wax eloquent everything that is prejudiced, strereotyped and reactionary.
      You think these qualities are innate? Surprise, surprise- read some anthropology dude. Gender is a social construct. These qualities are NOT gendered

  2. monistaf

    Oh, and one more thing, I do not think masculinity is about “manning up” or being “real men” just as much as I do not judge feminism based on their twitter hashtags #killallmen or #banfathersday. Articles like these only serve to support such hateful hashtags and the feminist narrative that everything about being a man (Masculinity) is considered a burden on society. Please stop to take a look around you, the vast majority of things you rely on would not have been built without some of the core masculine traits like curiosity, innovation, ambition and drive. Check out the video for a much better explanation, in case you have some doubts.

    1. Akshat Seth

      And one more thing- your eloquent primordial approach derived from third grade novels, bad videos and 'self help' books is basically reeking of infantilism and zero understanding of Gender.
      Had women been given half the opportunity men were, you wouldn't be saying that. Innovation is not a copyright from birth- it is a social construct.
      This is what engineering college mentality does to people- they become reactionary dotards.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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