Tuesday, November 2, 2021


 - Nighat Gandhi

Nidhi Mishra and I anchored a group discussion last month based on Anand Patwardhan’s 1994 documentary, Father, Son and Holy War. Masculinity (mardangi) doesn’t seem to have changed a whole lot for the better in the three decades since the film was made.

Discussion participants wanted to know if there’s a way to reimagine and redesign desi masculinity?  Can it change into something less toxic?

Hence, this article. 

Two more films I watched recently also address the price and perils of performing traditional masculinity. Sadly, it is a performance we have been conditioned to accept the as natural and normal.

1.      Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Father, Son and Holy War[1]. Filmed after the communal riots following the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, this film explores the formation of masculine identity in two parts: Part 1: performing masculinity; Part2: Construction of Masculinity.

Just as relevant today as it was in the 90’s. Even more. Its screening was banned by the Congress government for a decade.  Anand had to fight a decade-long court battle to win the right to screen it publicly.

Having burned down shops of the minority community during the rioting, one young man in the film says apne ko to maza aya. Others shout pridefully: hum mard ki aulad hain. Little boys watch WWE  wrestling matches on TV and aspire to become Indian Rambos. Young men say it’ll be fun to rape a woman after watching rape-films. Educated, childless couples attend a Santanogopal mantra camp to conceive a “high quality progeny”, preferably male. A Hindu leader claims Hindustan is for Hindus. Sikhs want Khalistan. A Muslim religious leader says woman’s place is in the home, and considers equality unnatural. Salman Rushdie should be killed for insulting Islam by writing Satanic Verses, another says.

I haven’t watched a documentary that deconstructs the collective insanity of the khichri slow-cooked by patriarchy, sexism, masculinity, nationalism, religion, and communal violence as poignantly and objectively as Father Son and Holy War does: the illogical narrative of violence you’d not want to believe exists. But sadly, it does.

2.      The Mask You Live In (2015)[2] Documentary by The Representation Project. Must-watch for all boys and men. This film depicts how a boy becomes a man. To be a man means to reject and devalue everything feminine, such as emotional expression, empathy, intimate friendships.  Masculinity is drilled into boys by society, religion, politics, and all-too-pervasive digital media. There’s much to grieve over, but the film’s message is positive in its tenet that traditional masculinity is a socially-constructed mask. It can be deconstructed.  The journey to authenticity starts with encouraging boys and men to see how perilous this mask is, what a high price it extracts. Encouraging boys and men to exit the “man box.”   Startling stats from  the film:

·       93% boys are exposed to internet porn;

·       Average boy consumes 40 hrs/week of TV, sports, movies and 2 hours per week of internet porn

·       31% men are addicted to video games.

·       The most violent video games are the most addictive

·       Average 18 yr old boys have seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen

·       90% murders are committed by men.

Why are we shocked if boys fed on a steady and unrelenting diet of violence do not grow up to be sensitive and caring men?

3.       Promising Young Woman (2020) [3] directed by Emerald Fennell. A feminist thriller that most certainly passes the Bechdel test[4]. The hideous masculinity of self-professed nice men exposed, men who think it’s ok to have sex with a drunk woman without her consent; men who stand around, watching a classmate getting raped, film the rape, and circulate the video. The Bro Code prevents good men (and women) from spilling the truth about fellow colleagues. Why do they feel compelled to support the status quo: doctors, surgeons, lawyers, academic deans—the very people you are likely to think of as trustworthy pillars? It’s also a film about strong female friendships, how patriarchy destroys friendships, and hollows out two intelligent, promising young women’s careers and life.


It’s clear that:

·       Toxic masculinity is a global scourge. It harms men just as much, if not more, than women. Men are mostly the victims of other men’s violence. Its manifestation varies with culture and country, but the underlying performance mantra is the same: men must act tough and appear masculine, especially around women and other weaker people. To prove you’re a man, you’ve got to prove you’re not a woman. i.e. eradicate all signs of femininity from your personality.  

·       Toxic masculinity is an act, a mask, a performance. Or how can it be ok for normal men to rape, batter, harass, abuse women and children without shame or remorse?

·       Toxic masculinity benefits the patriarchal state: Or how can it be ok that the likelihood of getting punished by law for heinous crimes against women is so low?

·       Digital technology legitimizes toxic masculinity: internet pornography, misogynist portrayals of women in video games, advertising, movies,  posters, memes consumed by boys at ever younger ages demeans and objectifies women’s body parts. Porn-educated men can’t see women as whole persons.  


Not all men are like this. But such men do exist in large numbers.  They are not statistical outliers. If you’ve never come across such men, then you are the statistical outlier.  The violent men in Father, Son and Holy War were not crazy.  Nor were the good men in Promising Young Woman mentally unbalanced. They were behaving quite normally. Intentionally displaying extreme aggression, appearing tough, unemotional, insensitive, and treating sex with any woman as a commodity they are entitled to, threatening with, and/or using violence against women and members of marginalised communities.

Let me share a WhatsApp joke:

Ladies, if you come across a man who is smart, humble, educated, financially secure, passionate and patient, great at fixing things around the house and is not materialistic, good in bed, loves you like you are the only girl in the world and listens to every word you say….then, please be assured that the weed you have just smoked is of super quality.

But it’s not a joke. Most women can vouch they don’t know such a man. A man who is smart, caring, humble, passionate, patient, a good listener  and great at fixing broken things, including hearts etc. You’d have to be high to believe he exists. 


So, is HEALTHY MASCULINITY a possibility?

Yes, according to Andrew Reiner, author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency, a “re-imagined masculinity is the way forward.[5]  The only way forward, I think. For a start, fathers can model and practice emotional honesty, says Andrew. Not many fathers hug their sons publicly. Hugging your son is a such a teeny-weeny step forward, easy enough to do, don’t you think?  What need, then to constantly hammer into your sons to toughen up? Toughness. Is it the only way to be a man? He won’t be less of a man if he shows vulnerabilities, cries when he needs to, expresses feeling and asks for help when he needs help. And you’re there to hold him when he does.

 Jor-El Caraballo, therapist, writer and mental health advocate for LGBTQ+ community, says healthy masculinity makes men:

  • Accept their bodies even if they’re not perfectly muscular and sculpted
  • Treat women and girls with the same thoughtfulness with which they like to be treated
  • Use their privilege as men to advocate for women and others
  • Create and maintain friendships
  • Develop as emotionally available caretakers and parents to both boys and girls
  • Accept that anger is no excuse for violence or abuse
  • Experience and enjoy touch and affection with other men
  • Create instead of destroy

Most importantly, adopting a healthy masculinity means not using your size, strength, or power to get what you want from others.[6]

Emotional honesty carries the promise of making men emotionally healthier. Emotionally healthy men express a complex range of emotions such as sadness, grief, shame, kindness, tenderness. They espouse feminine values of caring, empathy, and develop better listening skills. Men’s range of emotional expression can extend beyond just anger, lust, jealousy and happiness. It’s never too late, men, to (re)educate yourselves about what it means to be a healthy man. Foremost, it means to be whole, i.e. un-fragmented, authentic. It’s meaningless and one-dimensional to “act” macho.

I am concluding on a hopeful note, especially after reading an article by Umair Haque[7]: “Women are changing the dystopian world of violence, while men are being….men.” That’s right. Men are being men, but that can’t go on. If there’s any future, men and women would have to become more feminine. It doesn’t mean the future will be run by women alone. But all of us will have to consciously adopt more feminine values.

Why? There’s really no other way: “True leadership today,” predicts Haque, “and for the next century, is about nurturing and elevating and expanding the possibilities of things--- with care, gentleness, defiance, courage, truth, rebellion, grace. Sure, men can do that, too. But patriarchy and capitalism and supremacy — the great systems of male violence that have run our world for millennia now — can’t…..The future will be made of values like inviolability, nurturance, and dignity. It will be made of care, gentleness, truth, possibility. It will be about giving and affirming and cultivating life — not taking it and owning it exploiting it.”

Take note of that word CAN’T:  life on our planet CAN’T go on unless men (and patriarchal women) develop more feminine values,  better social skills, and give up on emotionally arid communication styles, and drop planet-destroying values of greed, domination, cut-throat competition, and end the systems of violence.

The future will probably be more feminine.

Why? Chris Crawford, in the comments section below Haque’s article, explains:

        “The special skills of males (upper body strength, stronger competitive instincts, and better spatial reasoning) gave them an advantage throughout most of human history. But nowadays upper body strength is meaningless, competitive instincts are becoming less valuable as more and more tasks require effective collaboration with others, and spatial reasoning is outperformed by GPS. But social skills are becoming more and more important as economic activity relies more heavily on collaborative efforts. Hence, society will be placing greater emphasis on the contributions of females.” (italics mine).


Time to self-reflect on the perils of masculinity, men! Low social and emotional intelligence masculinity is a high price to pay, plus a grave risk to your health and long-term survival.


A shorter version of this article was published in Feminism In India.




[4]  Bedhdel test: a measure of the representation of women in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.


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