A friend of mine recently forwarded me an eCard she had received on the occasion of International Men’s Day that said ‘Everyone, please show men some love today’. In the normal course, one would have, after a momentary amusement, ignored or deleted the message. But this one got me thinking. The fact that this card was created by someone, and has been circulating on social media points to a deeper truth —the crisis men are experiencing these days as their gender identities and roles get redefined.
The traditional notion of masculinity, the offspring of the culture of patriarchy that we all grew up with, has been under attack for a while now. The world of macho, tough men who revelled in their sense of male privilege and entitlement is not something that anyone looks up to anymore. The global push towards gender equality over the last decade, combined with the fast blurring gender lines at the workplace, has had the constructive effect of forcing men to reflect and introspect about themselves and the stereotypical image of manhood that they have been comfortable with so far.
But the big jolt came last year, with the global Me Too movement. Regardless of whether they were directly, indirectly or remotely touched by it, the movement forced an entire generation of thinking men to reflect hard and deep about their ideas about masculinity, about their friendships and relationships over the years, things they might have said and done or not done, their behaviour towards women, about the kind of men they wanted their sons to grow up to be, and so on and so forth. It was a moment of re-examination and re-evaluation for anyone and everyone who cares about their role in the society.
For most Indian men, this has come as a double whammy. This is a country where old-world patriarchy is at a constant battle (even if it is a losing one) with the rise of the educated, independent woman. A country where men still hold on to their age-old dogma about control, pitted against women who are looking for freedom to lead lives on their own terms.
A nationwide study into the mind of the Indian man by a leading ad agency a few years ago, which we wrote about in the magazine, had revealed the scale of the male angst in the country. It showed a generation of middle-class men struggling to come to terms with the fast-paced changes brought about by increasing prosperity, better education, and most importantly, the rise of the more assertive women in their own homes.
The study’s findings use a rather sad sounding term to describe the situation men find themselves stuck in.. They were called the ‘sandwiched generation’, where the man “lives responsibly and reluctantly cares for his parents, but he seldom expects a similar treatment from his children”. The other interesting revelation was about his relationship with his wife: “He sees the new roles he is expected to play vis-a-vis his spouse as one-sided and unfair, as he feels he has to share the responsibilities at home, but he doesn’t find his woman sharing in the pressures of providing for the home.”
The rapid changes that most Indian men are experiencing around them are nothing short of seismic. His is the first generation that has been forced to treat women as equal, the first one to see his male privileges wither away. So, it is not surprising that he feels the way he does.
But, as it has happened elsewhere in the world, it is imperative that the Indian man must reconcile himself to the new reality as fast as possible. This indeed is an excellent time for him to reflect on himself, about looking into the mirror and asking the question ‘am I the best version of who I want to be as a man?’ Only then would we able to rebuild the foundations of masculinity.
On a brighter note, as I look around, I can see change is already afoot. Last week, I read about an organisation called Equal Community Foundation that got as many as 5,000 teenagers in otherwise conservative Pune to enrol in a programme called Action for Equality, which aimed at sensitising them about gender roles, teaching them equality, gender-based violence and disrupting stereotypical gender norms.
I see positive role models everywhere, men of character who, for want of a better word, exude the `new masculinity’. These are men who are not bogged down by gender or sexual stereotypes, who are inclusive in the broadest sense of the word, who are open and transparent about their own emotion and vulnerabilities. Beyond being a better man, they seek to be better humans.
Platinum’s refreshing new advertising campaign, which looks at changing masculinity from the perspective of those who are seeking to redefine it through small changes in their own character, sends out a similar message. The leitmotif in this series of commercials is the concept of ‘men of character’ defined in terms of positive character attributes of their central protagonist: men who are shown to have the grace and humility to accept their character flaws, and are willing to learn from them whatever their age or situation in life; men whose values are not defined by their material success or status; men who relish the success of their partners, colleagues, friends and even strangers; men who see a greater purpose in life beyond their routine daily existence, etc. These are commercials with subtle messaging, done in a style that is charming without being preachy, and with much to learn from.
Of course, we also need to recognise that overturning gender disparity and patriarchy established over thousands of years will take time. A gender gap study by the World Economic Forum released last year indicated that will l take 108 years to close the overall gender gap around the world, and 202 years to bring about parity in the workplace. It is entirely up to men to decide how to speed up this process.