‘Toxic masculinity’ refers to gender norms and beliefs about masculinity that not only harm society but also negatively impact men themselves. Most commonly, these beliefs stem from the ‘male pride or privilege’ that establishes men as the superior sex. The persistent use of phrases like ‘big boys don’t cry’ or encouraging aggressive behaviour amongst boys are some examples of toxic masculinity. Men follow these stereotypes of masculinity, sometimes unwittingly, as they are deeply embedded in our culture and beliefs. This behaviour is termed as ‘toxic’ as it leads us to associate damaging or violent behaviour with masculinity. Sexism, misogyny, abuse, domestic violence and other crimes against women are closely related to the problem of toxic masculinity.
What factors have led to the culture of toxic masculinity in India?
Gender socialisation plays a crucial role in teaching such behaviour and attitudes to young children. Gender socialization is the process through which boys and girls learn of the norms and practices associated with their sex. Not only in Indian society but all-around the world, we assign unique roles and qualities to members of each gender. This kind of socialisation is carried out by the child’s family, teachers and peers. Much like prescribing the colour pink for girls and blue for boys, society also attributes qualities of aggression, strength, toughness to males. Men are considered the traditional breadwinners of the family and expected to shoulder all the responsibility. On the other hand, women are often described as gentle, accommodating and nurturing. Women of the household are presumed to be weak and requiring protection. These generalisations do not hold true in all cases, but our culture has come to accept them as the norm. This creates gender stereotypes in the minds of young children which in-turn dictates their future behaviour. Therefore, young boys may be subjected to ridicule if they emulate characteristics that are traditionally feminine. Consequentially, men conform to practices that are re-affirmed by societal expectations.
Institutionalized patriarchy has also given rise to the toxic masculinity we see now. Under this ideology, men wielded all the power and become the key decision-makers, inside and outside, the family. A woman’s pivotal role was in nurturing the children and sustaining a household. It was also considered trivial in comparison to the work of men. A woman’s opinion, wishes and desires are often discarded as irrelevant or inconsequential. Today’s woman is economically and socially liberated, capable of being independent and making her own choices. But the ideology that considers a woman as subservient and to be controlled, continues to linger in the mindsets of our citizens even today. As a result, men use hostile and brutal means to exert their power and establish authority. ‘Rape is Consensual’, a documentary by The Quint, delved into the rape culture prevalent in the state of Haryana. It showed that the most common justification for the crime by men was the opinion that women must not exercise their free will, but ought to remain in their homes. Thus the patriarchal ideology is also responsible for the victim blaming that we witness in the cases of rape and sexual harassment.
Boys also learn about acceptable behavior by observing those around them. Peer group and role models play a crucial role in such cases. A vast majority of the men in our country look up to film stars. Unfortunately, their favourite characters in Bollywood movies played by popular actors can be found succumbing to traditional stereotypes of masculinity, sometimes even glorifying bad behaviour. Certain films also promote a culture of toxic masculinity wherein violence and harassment by heroes on screen is interpreted by audiences as acceptable behaviour in real life. A ‘no’ is considered as a ‘yes’, eve teasing is shown as an accepted way of wooing a girl, and the hero is expected to save the damsel in distress. Moreover, we rarely see the human side of these heroes. Instead, they are made out be larger than life characters without any failings. Not only in cinema, but advertisements and televisions shows can also be seen promoting these toxic ideas.
To think that women are the only victims of such pervasive attitudes is a gross misconception. Toxic masculinity can adversely affect a man’s mental health and overall well-being. In matters of education, professional life and family, men are also bound by societal norms that restrict their behaviour. For example, certain jobs such as engineer or doctor are considered better suited for men than a career in the humanities or arts. In the same vein, a stay-at-home father is likely to face more scrutiny than a housewife. A meta-analysis of 78 studies on masculinity and mental health involving nearly 20,000 men found that those who value having power over women and other traditional ideas about masculinity are more likely to suffer from poor mental health and also less likely to seek help for the same. They might also suffer from body image issues and substance abuse. We also witness those cases of extreme aggression and unhealthy behaviour which lead to domestic violence and sexual abuse in households. Remaining in touch with their emotions and finding the correct avenues for expression could help men improve their mental health and form meaningful relationships.
At a TEDWomen conference, famous TV actor Justin Baldoni expressed his struggles with the traditional masculinity in a talk titled ‘Why I’m Done Trying to Be Man Enough’. In an interview he said, "That’s just where it becomes frustrating because the men that I really want to have dialogue with are not listening …in reality I’m not telling them they have to be different. I don’t think that men have to change. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with men inherently; I think it’s what we’ve learned and the roles that we play.” It is evident that toxic masculinity has profoundly adverse effects on the man and everyone around him. Thus greater awareness needs to be created among men to break away from the rigid gender norms surrounding masculinity. In the age of digital feminism and global #MeToo movements, we find it necessary to educate women about their rights as individuals and the importance of consent. However, in working towards an equal society, the process would be left incomplete if we did not help and educate the men as well. Being sensitive or emotionally honest are qualities not often associated with masculinity. But instead of teaching men to ‘man up’, cultivating these qualities could go a long way in raising boys as more responsible and wholesome individuals.
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Nilekani, R. (2017, December 18). Boys can’t be boys. Here’s how to fix India’s toxic masculinity problem. Quartz India. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1157796/boys-cant-be-boys-heres-how-to-fix-indias-toxic-masculinity-problem/
Annica, A. (2018, January 30). Will #MeToo impede India’s culture of toxic masculinity?. Daily News and Analysis. Retrieved from http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-will-metoo-impede-india-s-culture-of-toxic-masculinity-2579542
Reiner, A. (2016, April 4). Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest. The New York Times. Retreived from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/10/education/edlife/teaching-men-to-be-emotionally-honest.html
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