A vacation to Kerala that I took as a teenager is still fresh in my mind. This was my first solo trip to the village my father had grown up in. His brothers and their families still lived there, so it was expected to be a fun trip, full of new experiences. During the trip, I had the opportunity to take part in the temple festivities there. As part of the festival, the village had organized a panchavadyam programme, where musicians play traditional percussion instruments. As the musicians played, the boys in the audience quickly ran up to them and began dancing, bobbing their heads to the beats. My uncles insisted that I do so too. Since I had never been part of such programmes, I excused myself, choosing to enjoy the music from a distance. Immediately, though, I was told that this is what women would do, because boys should instinctively start jumping to the beats of the panchavadyam.
After this incident, my extended family made it a point to bring up my inability to fulfil the criteria of being a man. I wasn’t aggressive, I barely played any sport, I wouldn’t come out and speak to guests unless prodded and I wasn’t even comfortable enough to take off my shirt in summer or when we visited a temple in Kerala (something that other men in rural Kerala do). “Chekkan pora” (the boy is lacking), they would say in Malayalam, pointing to my inadequacies.
My father tried to convince me that this was part of the tough love that families extend to younger members, and I should take their advice on how to conduct myself in front of the world. “Chekkan pora” reverberated in my head for years, though my parents had never joked about my lack of athleticism or my highly emotional response to stress. The Kerala trip, however, made me conscious of the way people perceived my behaviour. I took up football training during college and was terrifically bad at it. I began to hang out in all-boy gangs, and mimicked the clothing and demeanour of the popular boys in a bid to be more like them. Obviously though, this did nothing to make up for my lack of interest in being more acceptably masculine.
It took years of reading up and associating with beautiful friends to realize that these weren’t inadequacies, but part of who I was. It was a difficult journey—I had to undo the years of conditioning and deep-rooted doubts that had set in. But it helped me push back strongly on the societal expectations of being a man and draw my own boundaries. I learnt that masculinity has nothing to do with acting on impulse, being sexually aggressive or brash. That masculinity, actually, is not universal or definitive. Rather, it’s a set of behaviour patterns that are diverse and rich, and that rejecting toxic versions of masculinity is possible and, indeed, essential.
To get even an idea of what constitutes toxic masculinity, you needn’t go very far—it’s everywhere. Toxic masculinity embraces traditionally upheld negative stereotypes, such as the one averring that violence, sexual aggression and emotional aloofness are “natural” traits of men. It also degrades anyone who objects to these characteristics. Toxic masculinity doesn’t allow for the deconstruction of masculinity. It relies heavily on the age-old “men will be men” argument. Emotional expressions of love, vulnerability and grief are considered unfit for men. It shames men for not participating in “just-boy things”. It is also why we have multiple political commentators in the US (and often in our country), who dismiss recently elected US President Donald J. Trump’s boasts of his sexual assault on women as locker-room talk. The Indian film industry, too, has been instrumental in glorifying and reinforcing a kind of toxic masculinity—one where a man is expected to physically assault anyone who messes around with the women he cares for.
But not all forms of reinforcement are overt. Many a time, people knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate acceptable behaviour for men, which becomes the basis for toxic masculinity. Take the case of some of the best schools in India. The websites of boarding schools for boys typically advertise their sports facilities in great detail, while those for girls focus on their music, dance, art and dramatics departments. While this may not seem to be as problematic as the examples cited previously, subtle reinforcements are far more insidious. Things that are outrightly toxic can be rejected, or at least debated. Subtle reinforcements, however, creep into the mind and refuse to leave. They root themselves so deep in our world view that we barely realize how these might affect us.
Educational institutions have begun trying to study the effects of masculinity. In 2013, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill started the UNC Men’s Project, which explored such themes. The Vanderbilt University at Nashville, Tennessee, hosted a Healthy Masculinities Week in 2015.
In the latest instance, the women’s centre at the North Carolina-based Duke University has started the Duke Men’s Project, a nine-week programme on redefining masculinity. A note on the university website explains that the storytelling-based programme will work with 15 male-identified students in deconstructing masculinity as we understand it, and help them come to terms with male privilege and patriarchy. The goal, as one of the leaders of the programme, Dipro Bhowmik, explains, is for these students to critique and analyse their own masculinity and toxic masculinities to then create healthier ones.
Most of the 74 comments left in the comments section at the bottom of the note point out how this programme is an abomination, and how the men who opt for this are “beta men” with a severe inferiority complex. Sample this from a reader who uses the handle HateLibs: “These people need to get out of their little “safe space” bubble and get out into the real world for a while. Garbage like this is laughed at and mocked in the real world. Life is tough—suck it up pansies.”
But here’s a thought I’ll leave you with—it’s us pansies who’re changing the world.