Decades of stereotypical role setting and toxic masculinity puts extra burden on men. It’s time to set yourself free, we say!
My earliest memory of toxic masculinity is Hindi film dialogues like ‘chudiyan pehen rakhi hain kya?’ ‘mard ki tarah baat kar’ and ‘mard hoke rota hai‘. Such examples are legion and I am sure all of us can add more. When I grew a little more and became a student of English literature, I read a line from Charles Kingsley’s poem The Three Fishers that said ‘For Men Must Work and Women Must Weep’ and took it in my stride.
We have all grown up with stereotypical images of the man of the house venturing out to earn the daily bread and butter, stoic while braving all storms and the woman in the role of a caretaker, who wails and wrings her hands in times of despair. The world over, images of any kind of disaster show a man holding his sobbing family in a protective embrace.
Sadly, we have been brought up and fed with these notions. They are so ingrained in our society that they seem real.
Time for change
Cut to the present. Things have changed somewhat. While women both ‘work and weep,’ ‘men work but don’t weep.’ The time has come to free them of the shackles and allow them to weep.
When my children lost their father, my first born, a son, who was barely 19 then, was told that he is now ‘he man of the house’ and has to take care of his little sister and mother. ‘What will happen to mom and your sister if you cry?’ he was told. Coping with the trauma of his dad’s loss and performing all the rituals, my son, who had just joined college, became a ‘child man’ before my very eyes. In these eight years, he has practiced how to bottle up his emotions and built a wall between loss and life. I don’t see tears. Only pain. It’s time we started normalising men crying without stigmatising them and allowing them to experience the full range of human emotions by building conversations around the topic. Emotional containment can lead to either depression or even adverse behaviour. Encouraging them to vent their emotions will enable them to share their insecurities without buckling under pressure leading to health-related issues.
The man of the house often takes the sole responsibility of the family’s welfare, especially financial security (because he has been conditioned to think like that) and abstains from sharing his anxieties. While he will happily share the gains, he will keep the losses a guarded secret and cope with it alone.
Such internalisation can either make him aloof and withdrawn or short-tempered, snappy and violent. But if he were to talk about it and let the tears flow, surely everyone would understand.
As a society, we fail to understand that the trap was laid right at the time of this man’s birth, when his coming into the world was announced with ‘blue booties’ and that of his sister with ‘pink booties’; when his parents bought him cars and guns and bought dolls for his sister; when he was asked to be a ‘big boy’ on scraping a knee and not cry like a girl; when he was not allowed to learn classical dance and forced to learn karate; when he was convinced that he had to take up maths, science and commerce because these are the subjects that careers are made of. Bada ho kar kamayega nahin toh tujhe apni ladki kaun dega?
Let’s get the basics right first. Allow them to be human beings rather than demarcating gender roles.
American anthropologist Helen Fisher has a different take on the subject. “For millions of years, men’s jobs were primarily to protect the little hunting/gathering band and kill large animals for dinner. Sobbing could not have helped an ancestral man as he stared into the yellow eyes of a charging lion, slit the throat of a baby gazelle for supper, raided an enemy camp or stabbed an intruder in the heart. Men needed exceptional vision, strength, endurance, special skills and cunning to do their daily jobs.
“To their daily work, they were obliged to hide their feelings of weakness, fear, sadness and vulnerability. As a result, ancestral men evolved the capacity to internalize their feelings, keeping them to themselves. Little boys cry just as often as little girls. But as testosterone begins to flood the brain in teenage, young men begin to camouflage their feelings of anxiety, grief, guilt and hurt with silence.
“Instead, they become fluent in ‘joke speak’, all the quips, gags and seemingly nonchalant remarks that boys and men employ to mask their feelings of despair and apprehension. Testosterone puts on the breaks.
“Women are built to express their emotions. Ancestral females needed to care for tiny helpless babies, and for this they needed a different skill. In the world, most women are more emotionally expressive than most men – it’s their inheritance. Moreover, women are well built to cry tears. Women’s tear ducts are smaller than those of men. So, their tears spill onto their cheeks sooner. Moreover, women had some 50% more circulating prolactin, a primary component of tears.
“We are entering the age of women. Social standards are beginning to reflect the aptitudes and needs of women. IN short, we are now living in a society where intimacy is defined by emotional expression rather than doing things together.
“As a result, men are becoming required to respond to stress as women do: with words and tears. Emotional containment is no longer fashionable. Can men express themselves as women do? Sure, we can be flexible creatures with a tremendous desire to please the ones we love. But next time the man of the house ducks a vicious verbal missile or walks out in the middle of a heated argument, you might try to remember: he’s a man. He was built for important life-saving jobs, jobs in which it was dangerous to weep,” she concludes.