What makes a man, a real man? Any male person can call themselves a “man” if they choose to do so, but what makes other people— other men, that is— believe in that claim? It has to be their stoic nature in the face of significant loss. A straight face in the front of something that would make a weaker man cry or look away. A life dedicated to family, but as the breadwinner. The man who does not have the time to see their child go about their routine because they must apply themselves entirely in their grueling job to finance their future, while their wife does the rest. Is someone a real man only if they can do all of these things? Or could it be someone who, instead of doing these things, just doesn’t do anything opposite to them?
Everybody has heard these sentiments before. Probably in school, at work, and on family WhatsApp groups. These views are rampant in society, and just as much in all communities. Boys are raised in a way that teaches them that femininity is the opposite of masculinity; that they will lose their manliness if they let their feminine side slip out of them, even for a second. This idea of upbringing leads to boys growing up resenting everything feminine and denouncing everything associated with femininity, including but not limited to kindness, empathy, love, and vulnerability.
Human beings are complex creatures with a variety of traits within them. Everyone is born with their own set of traits, which are then divided between those which can be expressed openly and those which can’t, based on archaic rules that should have no place in modern society.
The indoctrination happens early. Just seconds after birth, newborns are divided based on the presence or absence of particular body parts. At first, the divide is only on the birth certificates. Soon, it turns to the clothes and toys gifted to the child on its first birthday. And in no time, it becomes the invisible line between the behaviours that are acceptable for our gender and the ones that are not.
Young girls are conditioned to be nurturing, empathetic, and submissive to authority. Young boys, on the other hand, are taught “not to be girls.” This conditioning can be either direct or indirect. Direct, like young boys being told not to cry in public, “like girls do”, being ridiculed for crying because of something distressing that happened to you Indirect, like watching characters who ooze machismo as protagonists in movies. Men grow up thinking that they would not be accepted by society if they don’t act “man enough.”
Every individual is a different entity, but society’s attempt to put people into boxes is not only detrimental to the individual who is subjected to it, but also society as a whole. Stripping people’s uniqueness away on the grounds of such a convention is atrocious. If allowed, a woman can be more masculine than a man, and a man can be more feminine than a woman; there is nothing wrong about that. What constitutes masculinity or femininity are just conventions. People should first and foremost be looked at as unique individuals rather than what their genders suggest.
The problems led by the patriarchal norms of society are many and affect both women and men. The rate of male suicide attempts that lead to death is a heartbreaking number, and there is a link between that and neglected mental issues that men fall victim to. A common trope of parenting has been that “boys are easier to raise as opposed to girls,” and it is both reductive and detrimental to bring the nuances of bringing up another human down to something as oversimplified and binary as that. People don’t raise their boys the way they should. For that matter, people do not raise their girls as they should, either. Still, there is something to be learned from the way our society treats younger girls’ emotional sensibilities. And normalising that as the standard way of parenting for all children would be beneficial, as there is no inherent biological difference between them mentally unless the parenting is different. Over the internet, it is challenging to talk about masculinity with this perspective— it is tricky to make other men agree with this approach. Still, it is crucial to understand why it is wrong to blame feminism for the problems that men face.
It is a common misconception that feminism has always been a movement that has to do exclusively with women and that men cannot engage in pro-feminist initiatives. There is a case for having less male involvement in the propagation of feminist thought, but it should not be conflated with the idea that men should not support the cause for their benefits. More importantly, men’s liberation, which is the very idea that society should free males of the norms and restrictions it imposes on them, has to go through feminism first to be successful. The freeing of men from societal expectations on how they are supposed to act— from “men don’t cry” to not getting child custody easily post-divorce— has to involve feminist reform so that the concept of gender roles across the spectrum can end. As gender roles collapse, men can be freer in their pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, one where they are not expected to be the breadwinners, or not to cry, or not to be emotionally detached from their children. And this idea is inextricably bound with feminism, while a lot of men-focused groups seem to fail in understanding this.
It is somewhat tragic to see the men’s rights movement argue that feminism has gone too far, and pushing back on the advances of modern feminism, in particular, third and fourth-wave feminism. Men’s rights activism is the very manner in which toxic masculism has become problematic for women as well. It argues against feminism and the destruction of gender roles while citing the merits of traditional values from before the changes of norms in the late 20th century, thus burrowing back into androcentrism and patriarchy, which is in stark contrast to men’s liberation, and that movement, as it points the blame at the patriarchal constructs of society. Men’s rights activists (MRA’s) paint a rosy picture of pre-modern society when men were more “controlling” and feminism was limited to women’s suffrage— as a period where men had everything going well for them and were leading an ideal life. And when asked about how they feel about the current struggles of women, they are lost, and it is brought to light that they never cared for egalitarianism at all. And that’s the main criticism against MRA’s, which should not be forgotten and must be appropriately addressed.
So, what can society do? We can start by having meaningful conversations with young men and women, teaching them that it is okay to be themselves, whatever their true selves are.
Navigating online forums for actual masculist content is also challenging, as the overwhelming majority of online spaces teenage boys get led into are either neutral or are aggressively anti-feminist, and thus create content that radicalises people. But if it is possible, we have to influence anyone around us to stay away from such rabbit-holes, as they do tend to draw you in aggressively, and helping people out of these can become a tall order. But, there are many places where a definite idea of a “man” can be nurtured. In popular media, characters such as Terry Crews’ Lt. Terry Jeffords from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is such an example, albeit not perfect, as the characters’ personality has many nuances to it that are typically not considered masculine. There is more than enough space in the media we consume to navigate around stereotypes of both the genders for cultivating a more favourable-for-today idea of masculinity and femininity as well. These conversations need to be had together for proper change to happen and take us along towards a more gender-positive society.
Although times are changing, there is still a long way to go. If we can successfully see reform happen, keep working on the errors in our approach and thinking, and teaching our new generations to be better judges of personality and behaviour, the world would be a much better place for all genders, and men would be the benefactors of it too.
Written by Swagat Sarkar and Yatharth Sood for MTTN
Edited by Cynthia Maria Dsouza for MTTN
Featured Image by Levi Hastings for Buzzfeed News