Masculinity is usually understood to be a term that describes qualities or characteristics which pertain to men. However, this word in itself presents a very general and rudimentary idiom, which over time has become problematic due to the hegemonic violence performed by men on other genders. This ‘hegemony’ is not simply a question of physical violence, but rather, one of unequal power structures — where men have traditionally exercised power disproportionately. Toxic and hegemonic masculinities thus prevail across the world due to deeply embedded global patriarchies that have sustained over centuries. When thinking about masculinities in today’s world, these end up becoming the default association that people make with the term.
Instead of masculinity, I believe that what we need to understand is multiple masculinities and the various histories, sociologies, politics and psychologies associated with this idea. In contemporary India, the household patriarch feels entitled to assert control over his wife and children. This form of masculinity is a cyclic paradigm which begins at home, exists in countless societies and many of us subconsciously take for granted. Due to this, men (who are also not a homogenous category) often harass those they consider subservient to themselves.
Even when we speak, androcentric language underpins most of our expressions, whether oral or written. This is because we are so used to following a general dialect which originates from a masculine patriarchal form — which is often highly condescending and patronizing without us even realizing it. Language is power too, and it is, therefore, necessary to question its politics when we use it a certain way.
However, comparing the world today with early histories of masculinities beginning in Europe from 1650-1800, masculinities have seen a shift in the way they are expressed. There was shift from the household patriarch, to libertines and fops, to the polite gentleman, and finally towards etiquettes, taciturnity and domesticity. This timeline shows that masculinity could also be associated with the concept of coming out and opening oneself up as earlier it was considered un-manly for men to speak of love and desire, or be open about their sexualities. This is because adhering to established norms, hegemony and controlling the lives and sexualities of women and other minor or marginalized communities were considered qualities of conventional masculine behaviour and unfortunately conventional masculinity is linked with this concept of power and control. And it is due to the fact that many people still subscribe to this form of masculinity that it has become normalized multiple societies.
On a positive note, though, a lot of conservative norms which were once used as a means to suppress marginalised voices are now being challenged and questioned by young people. Every time someone pushes back against a stereotype, or moves the boundaries of what is conventionally considered ‘masculine’, or even makes a shift in the way they perceive another gender, they are changing our world.
The Oxford Dictionary describes masculinity as a set of attributes, behaviours, and roles associated with men and boys. But nowhere does it say that it requires a man to be aggressive, violent or patronizing towards anyone. These are characteristics that develop with a sense of entitlement and I believe this all begins at home. Men are not ‘Raja betas’ to be spoon-fed and over-indulged, but rather members in a unit that benefits from every single person that resides in it. It is important that we understand and adopt this perspective when raising them.
True masculinity, in my opinion, lies in men opening up about their feelings, which they are largely made to suppress. More examples include men doing household chores, or care work. Heck, it may even be applying mehendi at a family function because they feel like it, and because henna doesn’t have a gender either!
In short, just being oneself — as long as there is no toxicity or harm to another person— is an expression of an individual’s gender identity. Our masculinities should not inhibit us from being the best version of ourselves, should not stem self-expression, and should not place the burden of their being on those around us. And it is with this in mind that I hope we can create a gender-just world!
Yashveer Chaudhry is a volunteer consultant at the Woman of the Elements Trust. His research work centres around DV and masculinities. He has received his MA in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi, and is planning on completing his PhD in the same discipline.