The Masculinity Myth and What It Is Doing to Us

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The sitcom FRIENDS very subtly highlighted a question that has always bothered me, why do men not share their feelings even with their closest friends? However, it’s not that they don’t share their feelings, it’s how they share their feelings. No person is the same and thus every person, whether male of female, will always have a different way of expressing their emotions. Research however shows that people are often uncomfortable with men expressing their emotions in certain ways. Ask yourself (irrespective of your gender) this and honestly note your first response:

  • if you saw your friend crying because he felt lonely in a new university, how would you react and what would you say instinctively?
  • If your date said that he was unsure of his future and expected his partner to support him, what would you think?
  • If your uncle or father refused to light a match because of their intense fear of fire, what would you instinctively tell them?
  • If you saw a man being gloomy and anxious about a troubled relationship or a sick partner, what would you advise them?

Now replace all the male figures in the above scenario with females and ask yourself how would you react? What would be the changes in your words or tone or body language?

It is not surprising that several research studies have shown what we already know, men tend to either bottle up their emotions, maintaining a surface of composure through the use of rhetorical devices of emotional control, rationality, responsibility and successful action; or express their strong feelings externally through aggressive speech, actions or excessively dark humour.

The subtle reactions that express our discomfort in the way men express their emotions, encourage certain “norms of masculinity” that include emotional control, self-reliance, primacy for work and winning. These norms also affect the relationships that men form — it keeps them from connecting to the people around them, be it their partner, parents, siblings, friends or colleagues. Not only does it encourage certain norms but also lays out what emotions are acceptable to be expressed by men and what are not.

Research has found that there are gender differences in mental illnesses where women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety and men are more likely to be diagnosed with substance use disorders or anti-social disorders. This means that men tend to externalise their feelings of anger, frustration but women internalise these feelings and express it in the form of anxiety and depression. While this sounds like medical jargon, it is important for everyone to know because these findings imply that, as a society, we have set a norm where it is acceptable for men to express feelings only related to anger but when it comes to being anxious, depressed or simply sad, their expression is often frowned upon.

In the process of expressing only certain emotions and trying to keep up with the norms of “masculinity” men tend to unconsciously keep their loved ones at a distant. Most mental health issues arise out of social difficulties while an 80 year long study at Harvard revealed that embracing the community and the quality of our relationships had an effect on our mental well-being. So when we flinch, raise our eyebrows, shift in our seats, ask the men to “man up” or give them advice to take charge or discuss their “lack of manliness” behind their backs and give them looks of pity, we are essentially encouraging them to push us (the society) and their loved ones away, in the process sliding them onto a track of loneliness and guilt that could have a severe impact on their health (mental and physical) if not addressed soon.

The “masculinity myth”

Gilette’s recent ad features men breaking away from toxic masculinity. Marketing gimmick or genius?

Toxic masculinity involves the notion that men should be distant, domineering and self-seeking. This concept of masculinity is often used by the media and market to drive home ideas to expand their sales. Several articles, campaigns, and research studies are trying to educate the general public about the toxicity in this concept.

However, the concept of “masculinity” in itself is a myth — a label created by us as a society to make the division of work easier.

As humans, we all experience the same set of emotions, are all subjected to similar stressors and yet we burden only a set of individuals with the unreasonable expectations to be stoic and pull through the problem, no matter what. Consequently, their failure to meet this expectation is looked down up, and men who cannot measure up to this standard are characterised as “weak”. While this has a negative effect on the process of building an inclusive society, the concept of masculinity is also creating disturbing ripples in the mental health of men, their partners and their family and friends.

Challenging the myth:

To break the culture of asking men to man up, we must begin to treat them as we treat our most loved ones: with compassion. Here are some actions that will help.

  • Actively listen to what the men have to share.
  • When you hear someone ridiculing a man’s expression of sensitive emotions, inform them about the man made nature of this concept.
  • Be self aware and keep a check on yourself for any subtle expectations you have only from men.
  • Create a healthy channel of communication and expression for the men in your life to express their emotions in a healthy manner.
  • Encourage men to seek mental help.

Vini Doshi is a Research Associate (Mental Health) at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Tom Pumford on Unsplash

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One Future Inspire | Kirthi Jayakumar: Art, Activism and Peace-Building

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One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.

Team One Future interviewed Kirthi Jayakumar, an Indian women’s rights activist, a social entrepreneur, a peace activist, artist, lawyer and writer. She founded The Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative built on storytelling, civilian peace-building and activism for gender equality. 

Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What led to the birth of Red Elephant Foundation?

The idea was in the making, but didn’t quite catalyse into the form and shape until June 2013. But the story, though, begins on the night of December 17, 2012. On December 15, 2012, I had turned 25. On December 16, 2012, the gang-rape in Delhi, as most people know, took place. On December 17, 2012, I was at the US Consulate General at Chennai, receiving an award for my work with a US-based NGO called Delta Women, which worked for the rights of women in the US and in Nigeria, and the right to education for children in Nigeria. When I received the award, I truly felt like a hypocrite – because here I was, receiving an award when there was so much more left to be done, and when a girl was battling for her life because we as a community sacrificed her at the altar of patriarchy, misogyny, toxic and hegemonic masculinity, and inaction on part of a civilian populace that should have been vigilant. I went to bed that night, thinking of how much we had allowed to pass in the name of “We are like this only”. It was on the same day that I had come to face a dissociated past, where I had completely blocked out my own memories of facing abuse as a child. I decided to do what I could on my own, and started by telling my story. Six months later, I looked back to see how telling my story had made a difference: one, parents and to-be parents began to be vigilant about the vulnerability of their children and began to work with their children to have open conversations towards staying safe; two, I realised that I began to feel better and my own personal comfort levels felt like they were higher because I had owned my narrative instead of dissociation and my journey to heal began, and finally, that people were beginning to talk, openly, and get issues that were otherwise covert, out into the open. The vision was to change the landscape through storytelling.

What are the projects you are currently working on?

Right now, there are a bunch of new things coming up this year at The Red Elephant Foundation. We’re setting up what, for all intents and purposes, is India’s first Peace Journalism platform. Besides that, we’re excited about saahas, saruki, and our peace and gender education programs on ground that will be scaling up this year!

From doodling with Femcyclopaedia to your book The Doodler of Dimashq, art and words find their place in the centre of activism. What is the connection between the two?

For me, personally, art and activism are intricately connected. I find myself both gravitating toward viewing art that makes me think, and toward creating art that can make me think, and hopefully, take others along on that exploratory journey, too. The truth, though, is that I’m a very, very, very, very infinitesimal artist without any training, so a lot of things that I consume and produce as art is very very very nascent – so I don’t quite know if any of the art I make has, or will, make a mark!

Kirthi doing what she does best

What are the challenges you face at work? What are the resources or requirements — what do you need — to work in this field? (personal disposition of team members, resources, etc.)

The key challenge I meet is resistance to the work itself. Don’t get me wrong – you have both, receptiveness and resistance. However, the resistance is so strong, and the receptiveness doesn’t always turn into a payforward, that it seems like the resistance is gaining greater ground. From our work, I can safely say that we’ve had both, receptiveness and rejection, and have, TOUCHWOOD, been blessed to have turned the resistance into receptiveness through education. But the greater landscape is fraught with a lot of obstacles. I think society can make a turn around if all the influences on society honestly dovetail into the same message of gender equality. It is not enough for organizations to work with the youth and their parents and address issues like consent and sexual violence and personal boundaries, if pop culture is going to normalize the objectification and stalking of women. This, again, can come only if we collaborate. My greatest grief comes from the competitive nature of organisations working in this domain. We are not in competition, we can make a difference only if we collaborate.

There’s a surge of feminism in India. What does it mean to feminise a space, especially in the Indian context?

To acknowledge that multiple oppressions exist, that one’s gender experience is a function of several oppressions, and to dismantle ALL patriarchal structures – be that gender, caste, class, religion, and so on.

What would you like for people to understand better about your work?

That we’re here to walk alongside, and not impose our ideas on anyone.

Which country’s policies on equal rights are worth learning from and why?

Every country’s policies are worth learning from – you get lessons on how to get it right, and how to avoid doing something that’s absolutely ridiculous and wrong. It’s dangerous to say that one country is ideal and another’s got it wrong – because each country has unique factors to it that make some strategies work, and some not work. That said, I’m interested particularly in the indigenous practices of the Babemba people, the values of Ubuntu and Ho’oponopono, the Gacaca and Lisan methods, for example, – which have all been used (of course, with their own flaws) in different contexts of building peace.

Tell us about three books or three people that have changed your life.

Everyone I come in contact with changes me in some way – including those that I disagree with and those that disagree with me. The same for the books I read, honestly! 🙂

If you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, what is the one thing you would tell her?

Keep your 6th grade math notes, you’ll need them at 27.

What is your advice to the youth?

HEY! I’M YOUTH TOO. I’m 18 with 12 years experience. But that experience is not good enough to offer advice. Maybe I’ll just say, “What have you got to lose? Go ahead and learn what feminism is.”

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The Beginning, Middle and End: A Tryst with Depression

Countering Domestic Violence through Popular Culture: The Bell Bajao Campaign as a Social Initiative

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Domestic violence, being the most pervasive of basic human rights violation, is also found to be the least talked about- both least reported and discussed in India. The rigid patriarchal standards along with the complex Indian cultural baggage, the stark boundaries between public and private lives, have come together to deem the question of domestic violence a complicated and nuanced one. This has resulted in the prolonged struggle against this heinous crime.

The Bell Bajao! or the Ghanti Bajao! campaign, launched in 2008 in India was a cultural media strategy to curb domestic violence by coaxing men and boys to take a stand against the practice. The campaign, seeking to reduce the occurrences of domestic violence and discrimination against women suffering from HIV/AIDS, focused mainly on highlighting the role men can play to lessen violence. In 2010, Breakthrough, which initiated the campaign announced with former American President Clinton that the Bell Bajao! campaign would go global from 2011. Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General joined the board as the campaign’s first global champion.

The concept being a media initiative since the very beginning, the idea took its base in popular culture- a series of radio, television and print advertisements which were conceptualized pro bono by Ogilvy and Mather and disseminated widely via a partnership with the Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development. Bollywood stalwart actor Boman Irani was roped in to be the campaign’s first male ambassador. The campaign, as we see, was bolstered to cater and reach out to a wide audience, all of society, to spread the message of peace and equality. Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh saw a massive mobilization, which involved educational events, leadership trainings and massive outreach, to support the initiative.

In India, especially where the line between the public and the private is so out and out demarcated, barging into a household is almost considered taboo albeit extremely necessary. With the society deeming women as ‘women’- constructed, defined and sustained only within the space and institution of the family, married women being victims of male violence is usually ignored as being a ‘private affair’. The idea of a woman being prone to domestic violence within marriage is in itself problematic within the human rights discourse. The position of women in the development process can improve only if this generalized notion of subordination which clearly bypasses their social and ethnic identities is done away with.

The most typical forms of abuse include domestic violence, usually imposed by the husband or an intimate partner. This includes the women being beaten up, forced to have sex or even mentally tortured. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), 37 percent of Indian women have been abused by their husbands in the form of either pushing, punching, kicking, slapping, choking or even burning. What is generally more critical is the perception towards such abuse. Almost 50 percent of the Indian population, both men and women, believe that it is okay and even justifiable that a man beats up his wife. Breakthrough India’s country director, Sonali Khan says, “While there was a law, we felt there was an acute need for engagement with the public, those who are silent or in denial about domestic violence, and the need to bring them into the conversation”.

The campaigners opine that the concept of tackling violence against women commenced in 2006 when, post the enactment of a law to protect women who faced abuse in their homes, they understood the need to engage and involve men more proactively in this fight to curb violence. The campaign thus also consciously tries to throw light on men as being seen as part of the solution than the problem. With pro bono support from the advertising agency Ogilvy, Breakthrough brought out the online campaign focusing on the ‘doorbell’ as a metaphor, which can be read as an urgent still-call to action in order to aid the debunking of the taboo around intimate partner abuse or violence in India.

Image source: BellBajao.org

These advertisements went on to capture the eye of everyone within a short span of time. The ads usually showed instances wherein a man or a boy, hearing the cries of a women being beaten up in a house, after some deliberation, went ahead to ring the doorbell of the house. This man/boy would ask for some help like asking to make a phone call, or to borrow something or get back a lost cricket ball and so on. The idea was to let the abuser know that the person intruding was aware of the violence going on and was against it. The request for help is a pretext to notify the abuser of the person’s knowledge of violence being committed against the women and warning him that it will not be tolerated. These ads usually voiced the tagline, asking people if they had “rung the bell” yet.

The campaign which took off as an online (television, radio) and in print form of educating the masses also soon took to other forms of protest and awareness. The commercials that went viral were based on real life experiences and were consciously kept as simple as possible. The next step was grassroots oriented engagement tactics which sought to address the issues via discussion and performative arts, likely video vans, informative games and hard-hitting street plays. The video vans kept going around the states of Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, exposing almost 2.7 million people to the burning issue of domestic violence in India, ensuring interaction and participation through street theater, games, audio visual tools and quizzes. Breakthrough came out with its impactful and groundbreaking blog for the cause- a platform to discuss domestic violence openly which previously didn’t exist in India. The space encouraged personal testimonies and opinions from advocates, victims and witnesses to be shared online for reflection and education. The Rights Advocates Program was put together to reaffirm and instill the message of the campaign among a wider audience, thus focusing better on a leadership training programme to overlook capacity building among the trainees on issues like human rights, gender-based violence and reproductive health which they were coaxed to disseminate in their respective communities and groups. In 2009 alone, the programme trained over one lakh trainees.

The statistical evaluative survey conducted by Breakthrough states that awareness about domestic violence and its laws rose by 10 percent, there was an 8 percent rise in the number of women coming ahead to demand legal justice for abuse discussion of this issue in mainstream conversations increased by 20 percent. There was a notable increase in public knowledge which changed the individual and community attitude towards the cause to a great extent. The success of the campaign coerced the volunteers to take it to other states as well.

The campaign has been significant mainly for its effective penetration into the male dominated society and sensitization of the male members towards entitlement and rights of women. The campaign in general has underlined the necessity to have men included in the conversation around domestic abuse and violence. Mallika Dutt, the president and CEO of Breakthrough India says,

“For all of us, the role of men in ending and preventing violence is key. It’s absolutely vital. We feel the time has come to ramp up that call…We’re even moving beyond domestic violence and connecting the dots between what’s happening in the home to what’s happening on the streets. We are focusing on men and boys making specific promises. We want men to step up. We want men to be clear and accountable about what they will do”.

A major issue with respect to women’s repression in India is that men come across as one-dimensional mediums of oppression. The Bell Bajao campaign does manage to make space for men, progressive and humane, to do something if they suspect domestic violence. The campaign asks them to ring the bell or find alternative ways to interrupt the occurrence. The obvious message being that men can work to reduce violence against women, which is significant to the bigger movement, while the applied implementation of the campaign might still pose questions. Would we really want to go and intrude our neighbor’s or a stranger’s privacy, even if it is to stop assault? The idea is just that if the campaign manages to inspire men to resolutely answer positively to the question, the campaign is working.

Jerin Jacob is the Chief Editor at One Future Collective.

Featured image credit: Breakthrough India

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Queer Infocus | July 2020

The Beginning, Middle and End: A Tryst with Depression