Why some men struggle so hard to prove their emotional credentials
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
AS THE GLOBAL climate change conference in Glasgow came to an end in November, California Governor Gavin Newsom, two weeks after announcing that he would skip the summit, was reported to have attributed his absence to the wishes of his children. The father of four was quoted as saying the kids had an intervention: “They said they couldn’t believe I was going to miss Halloween. I woke up that next morning with something that is probably familiar to a lot of parents, that knot in your stomach, that I had no damn choice, I had to cancel that trip.”
That day, sipping coffee in a nondescript café in New Delhi, a fellow journalist commented that had she cited such reasons for missing a crucial assignment, her male bosses would have thought “This is the problem with women.” Although in these gender-sensitive times, they may have refrained from uttering this. We laughed. No man would understand this, perhaps not even the “male feminist”, seemingly more celebrated than the quintessential female feminist.
We went down memory lane. There was a time men did not have to think twice before hurling such accusations, the smell of men’s cologne overpowering the space. Every challenging task or its eluding a woman, because she was a woman, was a test. It was the degree of patriarchal drift running through his veins, in gestures, words, acts and silences that defined his disposition towards gender issues. It was about neither ‘right’ behaviour, if at all there was a definition of it, nor masculinity. The touchstone was equitableness, in freedom of choice and action. This itself was asking for too much. It was not until now that I had really started thinking about the male feminist.
When someone introduced me to Gad Saad, I tuned in to one of his three-year-old podcasts, “The Saad Truth”, on “how to be a better man according to intersectional feminism”, in which the Canadian evolutionary psychologist gently mocked most of its 100-point formula, in short sentences. In Saad’s views, the answer is not in “pathologising” masculinity, and innate sex differences between men and women are a truth that cannot be negated in the fight for social justice. In his characteristic satirical way, he tears apart the concepts of “toxic masculinity” and “benevolent sexism”, familiar catchphrases in the world of gender activism. “Apparently, four decades of feminist brainwashing and witch hunts have taught men too well. It is better to be a non-sexist cowardly bystander than a sexist hero,” he writes in his book The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense. Saad clearly has braced up, as he advises others to do to defend their principles, and activated the honey badger in him. His argument is that scrutinising radical feminism does not make you a misogynist.
The world over, the number of men fighting the misogynist within and outside, self-proclaimed as male feminists or unlabelled, is rising, though slowly, either genuinely awakened to the women’s cause or realising that to measure up to being progressive they need to stand up for equal rights or to free themselves from patriarchal bindings or to just surrender to the à la mode. The list includes celebrities, politicians, ordinary people, men from Hollywood as well as Bollywood, which has swayed generations to its stereotypes, sexism and the macho man. Men flaunted the hairstyles and demeanour of the angry young man, often portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan in 1970s blockbusters. Over three decades down the line, the superstar was, however, appreciated for acting in women-oriented films like Pink and Piku. There had been interim deviations from projecting stereotypes in Indian cinema even back in the 1960s, but it was ephemeral. If in his 1957 film Pyaasa, Guru Dutt, pointing to the agony of prostitutes singing “jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hai (where are those who are proud of India)” and in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, daring to show a married woman, played by Meena Kumari, trying to seduce her husband with the song “na jaao saiyan, chuda ke baiyan, kasam tumhari main ro padungi (do not let go of my hand and go my beloved, I swear on you I will break into tears)”, upholds his contribution to feminism, then in his 1955 Mr. & Mrs. 55, adhering to the archetypal template of the ideal Indian woman, he shatters that image.
One does not expect a man who speaks for women’s rights to abuse a woman at work or in his home. And, if he has proclaimed himself to be a male feminist, then he is bound by his own set of commandments. There is no forgiving
Such inconsistencies made the idea of the male feminist, declared or undeclared, seem chimerical. As he tries to recast himself, dismantling the patriarchal stereotype, fighting with himself and other men, the subconscious lurking within often escapes the painstakingly self-tutored gender sensitive etiquettes. One does not expect a man who speaks for women’s rights to abuse a woman at work or in his home. And, if he has proclaimed himself to be a male feminist, then he is bound by his own set of commandments, and like Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion. There is no forgiving. No one, particularly those in the public eye, can afford even a “sexist” blink. Not even the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan spiritual leader, who called himself a feminist in 2009, saying he was someone who fought for women’s rights, has been haunted by a comment he first made in 1992 and repeated in interviews later. When asked for a response on it in an interview to BBC in 2019, the octogenarian laughed and again said, “If female Dalai Lama comes then she should be more attractive.” When the interviewer pointed out that it would be seen as objectifying women and real beauty was inside, he said, “Real beauty is inner beauty but for human beings appearance was also important.” His supporters said he was just joking. The sexist tag stuck, overshadowing everything, including the fact that he was open to a female successor. A statement from his office, apologising on his behalf, said, “[I]t sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humour in translation when brought into another. He regrets any offence that may have been given.” It added that throughout his life, the Dalai Lama has opposed the objectification of women and supported gender equality. In 2015, the Tibetan Feminist Collective had said that the Dalai Lama, who is not fluent in English, uses “self-deprecating humor” to poke fun at how the next reincarnation should be his opposite: a ciswoman and attractive. Ever since the long statement was issued by his office in 2019, one has not heard the Dalai Lama speak on the subject.
The clamour about what is considered sexist is growing louder. If men have to tread cautiously, so do women, rather more so. The unenlightened can easily fall from grace. “Words and real issues are not two isolated domains. Thinking itself is an action. If you are choosing a particular vocabulary that shows your political inclinations which are not disassociated from your action,” says Pushpesh Kumar, professor of sociology at the University of Hyderabad and a profeminist scholar. According to him, men are not turning into self-declared feminists in a big way, deterred by an “internalised phobia” and due to a deepseated desire to protect their image as men. They are, however, compelled to keep in mind the gender component in view of disciplinary practices and there is substantial discourse on it, a lot of which, he says, could be “performative progressivism”. In other words, a hollow activism. Kumar agrees that if a man adopts a feminist perspective, it frees him from patriarchal codes and he might participate in work considered feminine, challenging sexual division of labour, which can go a long way in the ‘gender transformatory’ perspective.
There are subtle, sensitive acts and there is the ludicrous. There are men who have mobilised men in the fight to end violence against women, backed legislation criminalising marital rape, aided the police to act against eve teasers, fought for equal rights in the workplace and even invented low-cost pad-making machines to prevent unhygienic practices during menstruation. In the winter of 2012, as Delhiites, rattled by the gruesomeness of the Nirbhaya rape case, gathered on Rajpath, men palpably outnumbered women. Never before had the city witnessed so many men joining women on the streets to take up a gender cause. Overnight, the country’s feminist movement seemed to have taken a turn—its participants were no longer just women. One wonders how many of those agitated, slogan-shouting men on Rajpath returned home and pledged not to be bystanders when women faced violence. About five years prior to the Nirbhaya case, some men and organisations had joined hands to form the Forum to Engage Men (FEM) to work with men and boys on gender equality, focusing on violence against women, child abuse and discrimination, as key areas of concern in India. “We want to make this fight gender neutral. We are mobilising men in urban and rural areas. We see changes even in villages where men have started participating in household chores like taking care of the children when the woman goes to fetch water. I see changes in myself. Earlier, I used to ask my mother to get water for me, but now I don’t,” says Bhawani Nayak, Bhubaneswar-based convenor of FEM which is associated with MenEngage, a global alliance of NGOs and the United Nations working with men on gender equality.
If in Pyaasa and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, daring to show a married woman trying to seduce her husband, Guru Dutt upholds his contribution to feminism, then in Mr. & Mrs. 55, adhering to the archetypal template of the ideal Indian woman, he shatters that image
And then there are images of men walking on the streets dressed in women’s clothes, a symbolic gesture against “toxic masculinity”, a hashtag ‘ifmenhadperiods’ trending on Twitter, men claiming to adopt their wife’s surname. Are these symbolic expressions of men standing alongside women or just shock-evoking acts bordering on the bizarre, trivialising the real issues? Was the definition of what is sexist being stretched out of proportion? According to Kumar, people in power want status quo, interpreting everything challenging their power as excess, while the powerless want change.
SOCIAL SCIENTISTS POINT out that historically, in the West and in India, men have taken up the fight for women’s causes. Nearly a century-and-a-half before “intersectional feminism” was coined, Jyotiba Phule, born in 1827, emerged unmistakably as India’s most towering feminist. A believer in equal freedom and rights, irrespective of gender and caste, he lived up to it in every aspect of his life, defying traditions and the orthodox paradigm that dictated oppression. He began by educating his wife Savitribai Phule, who then went on to become a teacher. They opened the first ever girl’s school in Pune. “Phule differed from other Indian male reformers who were his contemporaries in that he did not see women’s oppression as an excuse to objectify them under the control of male norms. Rather, he believed that women have to, through their own struggles, evolve ways of living with dignity. In this, education played a very big role for Phule,” wrote Archana Malik-Goure in her paper ‘Jyotiba Phule: Global Philosopher and Maker of Modern India’. Comparing Phule with Western 19th century male feminists, she said he did not spell out a theory of patriarchy or fundamental inequality between man and woman like John Stuart Mill or Friedrich Engels, but his thoughts on ending women’s oppression through their own efforts and autonomy made him join their company.
“Many feminists have drawn up on Engels, who went into the origin of the family and how patriarchy came about. In the first wave of feminism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when women were seeking voting rights, they got support from several men, like John Stuart Mill in the UK,” says Kumar.
In the winter of 2012, as Delhiites, rattled by the Nirbhaya rape case, gathered on Rajpath, men outnumbered women. How many of those men returned home and pledged not to be bystanders when women faced violence?
Mill, a member of parliament (MP) who supported women’s suffrage, in 1867 tabled an amendment asking for enfranchisement of all persons, arguing against exclusion of half the community, when the Conservative ministry introduced its own reform bill. The amendment was defeated by just about a third of the House voting in favour, but Mill described it as “perhaps the only really important public service” he performed in his capacity as an MP. In his 1869 work The Subjection of Women, Mill wrote, “ever since there have been women able to make their sentiments known by their writings (the only mode of publicity which society permits to them), an increasing number of them have recorded protests against their present social condition: and recently many thousands of them headed by the most eminent women known to the public, have petitioned parliament for their admission to the parliamentary suffrage. The claim of women to be educated as solidly, and in the same branches of knowledge, as men, is urged with growing intensity, and with a great prospect of success; while the demand for their admission into professions and occupations hitherto closed against them, becomes every year more urgent.”
English women were given the right to vote by 1928, eight years after American women had started voting, following decades of a fight which also had the support of some men. Right to vote was the first wave of feminism. The fight for equality continued, through consecutive waves, as the male feminist tried to keep pace, and as American author and feminist Bell Hooks puts it in her 2002 book Communion: The Female Search for Love, that despite the anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s, nothing could change the fact that feminism had opened up new possibilities for male identity. The #MeToo movement, sparked off in Hollywood with sexual abuse allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 and empowered by a hashtag on social media, posed a new litmus test for the “woke” man.
Asked if men can be feminists and even if they proclaim ‘feminist’ ideas they fail, Maitrayee Chaudhuri, who taught sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, contends that such a formulation assumes that ‘feminism’ is a natural given and that men are therefore ‘definitionally’ incapable by birth of being either bearers of feminist ideas or participants in feminist movements. “The formulation that men may ‘proclaim feminism but fail’ suggests that the story of feminism is all about the mind and ego. That may be so, but as social scientists and feminists, we are interested in how these egos are created, or to put it differently, how genders are socially constructed and how they converge, intersect and differ across castes, races and classes in patriarchy.”
Whether they join the male feminist brigade or not, men are getting wary of the misogynist tag. Even James Bond is aspiring to be less sexist. The change is less out of choice than the fact that women have left them few options
She goes on to say that the question whether there can be male feminists leads to fundamental questions about the definition of feminism. “Is it fixed? Given? Unchanging? Is it about ideas of equal rights? Is it about access to jobs, education, resources as equal citizens? Is it about control of one’s own body? Is it about recognising how each of the above works differently and unequally for men and women? Or are we restricting the question to whether a middle-class man is consistent in practising feminist beliefs in his personal life or not? One man may be consistent. Another may not. Others may struggle. Yet others may be double-faced. This holds true for some of us, women too. That is the nature of the beast: patriarchy. But how does it help us figure out the question: Did some/many men join the women’s movement, argue for women’s rights and human rights across communities, in court, parliament, trade unions, on the streets, or not?”
She also disagrees with the premise that women are ‘naturally’ feminists, arguing that patriarchal oppression does not automatically create feminists and patriarchy is the dominant social structure that defines women, men and other genders. “Patriarchy operates by coercion and by consent. A whole range of cultural practices and beliefs teach us about femininities and masculinities.”
Hooks, who passed away recently at 69, was also of the view that “feminism was for everybody”, the title of one of her books, and that there are men who embrace gender equality wholeheartedly, describing them as a new man in the making, born to women and men who had made their commitment, however confusing, to challenging and changing patriarchy. Hooks wrote: “Unlike the men we had known in early and late seventies who were reluctant converts to feminist thinking, this new breed of male was born in a world changed by feminist activism; from day one he was socialised to accept equality of the sexes in every way. These males came into universities and chose to take women’s-studies classes to learn more about how to divest of sexist thinking. They have been joined in this endeavour by older male peers. Their presence has been and is the real life manifestation of the truth that feminist thinking is for everyone.”
Four decades before she wrote this, an early proponent of feminism in the US, literary critic Leslie Aaron Fiedler, wrote in his 1960 work Love and Death in the American Novel that American authors could not deal with adult sexuality. “Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman, which we expect at the center of a novel. Indeed, they rather shy away from permitting in their fictions the presence of any full-fledged, mature women, giving us instead monsters of virtue or bitchery, symbols of the rejection or fear of sexuality.” A provocative critic, Fiedler too made several enemies, like Saad, for entirely different reasons.
For Saad, “of the many dreadful anti-science idea pathogens to spring from the delusional world of gender studies, few are as corrosive as the nonsensical concept of toxic masculinity.” He expands on it saying women have rarely been “driven to sexual frenzy at the prospect of mating with an apathetically lazy, pear-shaped, nasal-voiced, submissive, cowardly, whiny man.”
The conflict is reflected in the popularity of celluloid images like James Bond (Daniel Craig has himself called the character misogynist) and Kabir Singh. Hooks brings it out when she writes, “again and again I hear antisexist men talk about the flak they receive from women who want them to be ‘dominating but not too dominating.’ This desire is an expression of the confused expectations many women have who fear that the new man will not be masculine. Until our understanding of what it means to be masculine is changed from sexist norms, we have no standards by which to evaluate new men.”
Saad, while underscoring that women are attracted to “toxic masculine” male phenotypes that correlate with testosterone, who are socially dominant, strategically risk-taking, exhibit patterns of behaviours that will allow them to ascend the social hierarchy and defend their positions, adds, “this does not imply that women are not attracted to intelligent, sensitive, kind, warm, and compassionate men. The ideal man is rugged and sensitive; masculine and caring; aggressive in some pursuits and gentle in others.”
This may leave the ‘woke’ man, going entirely by the meaning of the word added in 2017 to the Oxford English Dictionary—Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice—in a bind.
Mill wrote about the difficulties a man faced, in an unequal relationship, in understanding even the one woman he had opportunity to study: “When we further consider that to understand one woman is not necessarily to understand any other woman; that even if he could study many women of one rank, or of one country, he would not thereby understand women of other ranks or countries; and even if he did, they are still only the women of a single period of history; we may safely assert that the knowledge which men can acquire of women, even as they have been and are, without reference to what they might be, is wretchedly imperfect and superficial, and always will be so, until women themselves have told all that they have to tell.”
Today, men who fight for gender issues sometimes find themselves entangled in dilemmas within. “It’s a struggle for them getting out of their comfort zones and trappings. There is an inner conflict. But, when a group of men get together, they overcome these inhibitions,” says Satish Singh who, along with a group of men, had started Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in Lucknow, a precursor to FEM that now has its presence in several states. With the forum starting with a focus on a violence-free and equitable society, Singh reached out to men who were not perpetrators of violence but silent bystanders, inspiring them to take a stand.
Kumar puts the definition of a male feminist simply, saying, “To me being feminist as a man would mean speaking with women and not for or on behalf of women. If a man is trying to speak with feminists (that is, women), he is a pro-feminist male.”
Whether they join the male feminist brigade or not, men seem to be getting wary of the misogynist tag. Even James Bond is aspiring to be less sexist. The change is apparent, illusory or real, less out of choices made by men than the fact that women have left them few options. Either way, the role of a man or woman fighting for equitability does not end with a slogan, an act, a demonstration—and not in the least with performative progressivism. It is lived every moment, in every place. And the bar is rising.