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How Toxic Masculinity Is Fed To Boys From An Early Age

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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!

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Have you ever been told to pursue a field of study or career because it suits your gender more?
In 2015, I was pursuing my post-grad in Communication for Development from Xavier’s Institute of Communications (XIC), Mumbai when a group of us decided to work on an action-research project to study gender through the lesser-approached lens of ‘Masculinity’. We planned to engage in the underbelly of the ‘Maximum city’ and zeroed on three slums — Dharavi, Chembur & Lower Parel to conduct our campaign focussing on boys from the age-group 7 to 15 yrs studying in BMC schools.

This study+campaign was a group-undertaking with my peers — Sruthy Kutty, Rucha Satoor, Chitralekha Dhar, Sarthi Gupta and myself. We reattributed our findings on various themes and this is my documented version of the experience. The consent to use our common notes was taken from all group-members before writing this piece.

What Do Boys In India Think About Being Boys?

Here is a question that has passed my mind way more than I would like to admit. At times as a result of some offensive, ludicrous conversation, a few times out of pity, and often out of frustration. Girls today are told that they can do anything, be anyone. And they are absorbing the message. Or at least, wondering about it. Boys though, not so much.

A very large number of them do not really have much to navigate their identity or gender expression. Young boys across economic classes continue to see “role models” who themselves have been discouraged by the society to be vulnerable and thus have grown up not knowing how to be or isolated and confused about themselves. And they are scared about it. And we all see the consequences.

Many of these children were shown the idea of the ‘strong’ male figure through film and culture.

Revisiting here, some of the most challenging and adventurous weeks of reimagining “being a man”, and what it meant in these young boys’ own lives — and our society at large. Mardaangi(Masculinity) can be said to have several standpoints but all hit at a point of intersection which can define the ‘Construction of Masculinity’. This action-led research project is more than five years old but the major outcomes remain relevant and relatable.

Violent But A ‘Hero’

We are no aliens to the fact that power keeps a very linear relation to masculinity and how it contributes to patriarchy. This power often channelizes into various forms — violence being one of the most dominant ones. During an early interaction with our intervention group, we handed out a male silhouette cut-out to young boys and asked them to give a single-word description of what a man in 2015 should be like. The responses were both intriguing and disturbing. “Asli Mard (real man)” according to the boys should be – “Sakht (austere)”, “Taakatwar (strong)”, “Hero jaisa (like a hero)”, “Kamaanewala (one who earns)”, “Dabbang (not afraid of force)”, “Kisi se naa darnewala (not afraid of anyone)” ……

It became painfully clear to us that violence ran in the under-currents while adding up to the description of masculinity for these young boys — whether it was being a ‘hero’ who fought to impress girls or being aggressive and use physical strength or strong language, even abuse to gain control of a situation.

A “toughie” who would bully to maintain his self-esteem. But not one boy described a man to be sensitive or emotional proving a point of frustration that even if hurt, “mard ko kabhi dard nahi hota’(a man never gets hurt).

These everyday acts of violence came out to have many forms of disclosure. We also asked the female students on why should a brother primarily protect the sister and not vice-versa. The girls answered that boys were majorly into fighting and saving, another norm stemming from the defined gender-roles which were part of their upbringing.

Violence at home and in the neighbourhood was an everyday phenomenon that our young participants were very familiar with. And we observed a lack of sensitivity or empathy towards these issues. They did not seem to have much impact as they were born, brought up and accustomed to such an environment to the point of eventually turning desensitized to it.

We also observed how masculinity reflects anger which is yet another common fixation to masculinity and where violence comes handy. Take, for example, the fights amongst the boys while playing cricket on the common ground just on the note of winning the game or even to claim the space to play in the first place. Bullying & ragging were common among these boys — all in an attempt to appear more ‘like a man’.

The older boys, both at school and community allegedly bullied their juniors regularly. In fact, one of the reasons behind high school drop-out was also the ex-students trying to demotivate their juniors from continuing studies and participating in extra-curricular activities — something they were devoid of in their school years.

When it came to eve-teasing, girls were more prone to eve-teasing and harassment especially on their way back home from school and even while moving within the community.

On the contrary, when boys were asked about eve-teasing, they felt particularly strongly about being protective towards their mother, sister and girlfriend. However, they showed no accountability for their behaviour towards other girls. The parents’ response towards different kinds of violence in their surroundings was unfortunately dismal. Their priority to earn capped over the issues of safety.

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Many of the children were subject to violence and bullying from the older boys in the school and community.

The Risk-Taking Macho Man

Risk-taking began in these young boys from their classroom itself. The number and intensity of pranks they indulged in determined their popularity amongst peers. Proposing to a girl is also considered risk-taking behaviour on the humourous side among boys. Bike racing and stunts, speeding cars, jumping from heights, trying dangerous stunts were very common risk-taking behaviours shared by students.

Girls in the school spend most of the time within homes and ventured out on specified purposes only — like tuitions. We encountered students talking about trying special stunts at homes or on roads because they saw their favourite actor do them. I remember how a couple of boys mentioned that they were confident and ‘ready’ to take risks ‘if a situation demanded it’.

Films, ads and fantasy superheroes played a very definitive role in cubing the behaviours of these boys. Whether it is about a hero saving a heroine from the villain or simply saving the world from evil, the boys gushed about their love for action-based movies. They saw how men added thrill to any situation with a few moves, jumps and punches. The young participants were clearly left with an impression that if a hero did not imitate the way expected from a man, ‘men may not be men anymore’.

The ‘Haww’ And ‘Hush’ Behind Sexuality

The social-loafing and conformity continue to play an important role in experimentation and exploratory behaviours especially when it comes to sexuality. The reasons range from trying to fit into a group, trying to imply their adventurous side and create desirability or acceptance and more importantly, create a ‘macho’ image.

Another factor we observed was that in a group, there is de-individualization so even though an individual otherwise refrains from experimenting, say because of parental control or shyness, they get the courage to shed their inhibitions when in a group.

One of the school teachers expressed her ‘concern’ that boys through their pre-adolescent and adolescent years showed a lot of curiosity for sex, even though it was understandable and obvious. It was noted through their first computer class — where the search histories reflected porn sites or images of actresses and other suggestive pictures.

Interestingly, the idea of watching English movies was considered as unacceptable or bold among these peer groups. The point we often wondered here was who do these boys discuss their queries or thoughts with and how does this change their behaviours when they are offline.

The adolescent boys and girls were exposed to physical and sexual violence of varying degrees and in some cases, emotional abuse from a very early age. When we asked our young participants to define ‘rape’ or ‘molestation’, they could not come up with a definite answer, even though they were exposed to such behaviours. They lacked the clarity and vocabulary for ‘sex’ or ‘consent’ or ‘sexual violence’ as concepts.

Spaces, Sightings and Soaking In

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Exposure to substance abuse is very prevalent in the spaces these children occupy.

A notable part of gender-conditioning of boys takes place in or through the public spaces they are exposed to. The area where they are brought up, where they socialise or where they aspire to play a huge role in forming perceptions. With little or no restriction on their mobility, young boys see many things, both within and outside their place of living.

Most of the students live in ‘chawls’ which are compact residential blocks consisting of tenements called ‘kholis’ or rooms with a shared staircase and gallery. Meaning that there was little privacy and it is well known what is happening within one’s house as well as in the neighbouring one. Domestic violence, parents’ sexual intercourse, father’s drinking or drug use can be easily witnessed due to the space constraint by a child.

Most of our students belonged to Gandhi Nagar or Prem Nagar chawls which are seen as very low-graded areas for living. Consumption of alcohol, tobacco and drugs — both cheap and costly are easily accessible to all age-groups, sometimes brought by a ‘friend’ who is an adult or at times made available when a father asks his children to grab drinks or ‘maal’(substance) from the nearby bar/shop. There are many joints and corners in the area where children spend evenings with their peer groups and first-hand witness addiction, paid sex, or street fights.

Men And Masculinity — A Maze

In a highly patriarchal society such as ours, the notion of masculinity is not defined by individual men. Rather the whole society, through its little expectations, preferences and actions determine what ‘Mardaangi’ should be. The age-old traditions to treat men as god-like creatures who must be served, and their needs taken care of, make these children grow into individuals who do not understand consent and agency of women or children around them.

The pressure on men to be providers, saviours, and successful all-rounders also translates into men who are ill-equipped to comfortably express emotions or any signs of vulnerability. But above all, aggressive masculinity continues to enjoy not just our society’s but even our own domestic spheres’ sanction.

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