Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!
Just like sex or gender, our understanding of masculinity needs to expand beyond our binary understanding of what is considered masculine and feminine. Our cultural and societal impositions on the ideas of masculinity and femininity have made them rigid, and any complexity in them is deemed unacceptable. Gender expressions have been limited to what most consider “appropriate”.
For example, growing a beard is a masculine trait, but many people identify as men but can’t grow beards. Does that put a question mark on their gender orientation or identity? Does that make them any less of a “man”? Then why is Harry Styles wearing a dress such a big issue? Why does it make people uncomfortable?
Hetero men are comfortable wearing lungis, holding hands in public, watching two men in their underwear wrestle (Kushti), but a man wearing a dress is too far?
The “infamous” Gillett advertisement that took a swipe at what was being normalised in the garb of masculinity was also contentious for some. Is advocating against bullying and sexual harassment anti-men?
Our ideas of masculinity often surround a person’s physical appearance — one of the most common perceptions being that men are strong. And this idea leads to insecurity in a lot of men. We aren’t born with six-pack abs, then why is having a chiselled body a sign of masculinity? Our ideas often tend to tell us what a man should be instead of what a man is. Thus, these ideas aren’t natural.
Another trait that is considered masculine is being the breadwinner of the family. If a man doesn’t or cannot earn for his family, he isn’t a man. Other such ideas include being confident, having a “manly” voice, not showing emotions, etc. These ideas are born out of societal expectations, which makes our understanding of masculinity a social construct.
Failing to live up to these societal expectations affects men physically and mentally. These ideas are toxic, hence the term toxic masculinity (a critique of these ideas rather than men themselves). Men and women alike are guilty of perpetuating these ideas. For example, short men are often made to feel insecure.
These ideas lead to many men feeling targeted by society, which results in these ideas mutating into something worse. One such group being incels, (involuntary celibates), who believe sex is an obligation and that women owe them. Adhering to these ideas promotes a sense of entitlement, not adhering leads to resentment towards oneself.
Until now, the article talked about cisgender men, but what about the LGBTQI+ community that does not conform to these societal expectations? Gay men usually do not come out with their identity right away because of the enforcement of these ideas, which often leads to self-hate and harm. And people who are comfortable with their identity are often looked down upon by society.
Gendered stereotypes have also created an idea of femininity that puts pressure on men not to act a certain way and women to conform to social norms that present them as second class citizens. Patriarchy reinforces toxic ideas in both men and women. For example, the idea of women being weak affects men when it comes to issues of assault and rape by women being reported and not taken seriously.
Most of our problems are rooted in the rigidity of society. Men’s rights often take a regressive form.
Intersectional feminism considers every person’s experiences irrespective of gender, class or religion. Thus, an intersectional approach can help us understand and solve these issues.