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MALE GENDER ROLES
"Real men don't cry, only wimps do!"
"Kya ladkiyon ki tarah sharma rahe ho!"
We have all been subjected to such comments since childhood. What is expected and what is 'not' expected of us as males has been hammered into our heads. What are we going to be, how are we going to dress, what hobbies are we going to take up, what attitudes are we going to have, what behaviours are we going to adopt are messages that we keep absorbing from the social environment around us.
These social do's and don'ts for men are known as male 'gender' or 'social' roles or 'social masculinity roles'. The crucial ones decide whether a man has the social right to call himself a man.
What are some of the important male gender roles?
Here is a list of expectations from a person because he happens to be a man:
Some of the other messages that we get are that real men:
- Don't cry
- Don't feel pain
- Are not shy
- Hit their women (wife or girlfriend)
- Are not 'beautiful', but are 'smart'
These messages are transmitted to us explicitly and implicitly, from time to time, especially when we are growing up.
"(Social) Masculinity is not something men are born with" ~ Dr. Stephen Whitehead
Do you think the expectations from men mentioned above are natural for men, or are fixed by society artificially?
We have been conditioned to fit into gender roles for so long --- since birth --- that we have come to see them as natural, despite contradictions with our real feelings, needs and desires. When a conflict between these roles and our own true nature arises (which is almost always), we often respond by distrusting our feelings and going by the gender roles.
If we look carefully around us, we will find many examples of traits in men that do not tally with those mentioned in the list above. Men are often emotional. Not all men are strong, and not all the time. No man is aggressive all the time. Many men are extremely beautiful, many are great cooks. Many men are extremely creative. Many can do a number of those things not supposed to be a man's forte but women's. In spite of all that, they are what we call 'real men'.
All men cry, even if only when alone. We have emotions and we feel them deeply. We are not always aggressive. We submit to others at times. We feel scared. We feel inadequate. We fall sick and we also feel pain. There are situations when we become shy. And we do things to appear beautiful and young. For example, men too conceal their age.
If we look carefully and try to understand, we will realise, whether we are men or women, we have both the qualities that society ascribes either to men or women. Under pressure from the society, we suppress those qualities in us that are not considered appropriate. At the same time, we pretend to have qualities in us that we don't really have, but considered necessary for the gender that we belong to.
Male gender roles are not ordained by nature, but are artificially determined by society. This does not mean that men and women are the same. They have biological and social differences. But these differences are exaggerated and misrepresented by the gender and sexual roles.
Gender roles, by restricting human nature, harm men in a number of ways.
"Life (for boys) is not about learning how to be, it is about learning how not to be, what we are" ~ Neale Donald Walsch
Have you ever thought how it would feel not to have the pressure to earn money for the family? Did you feel the pressure from your parents or others because you wanted to study arts or literature and they wanted you to take up science or commerce so that you could earn as soon and as much as possible? The gender (and sexual roles) of men act as a series of unending pressures on them. They force men to live, think and behave in strict predetermined ways. There is no escape from these pressures. Non-compliance has severe consequences.
Every man has qualities that the society does not deem fit for men. Survival instinct prompts men to suppress these qualities, or fulfil them secretly, with guilt/shame.
What would you do if you were cleaning utensils at home, and suddenly your friends turn up? Won't you immediately wipe your hands and try to conceal the fact that you were cleaning utensils? Otherwise others will be critical saying you're doing a woman's thing.
In most middle class Indian families, boys cannot work on their talent and creativity, as they are required to earn as soon as they finish their studies. They cannot even opt for a subject of their choice as they are pressurised to select those subjects perceived to offer maximum security and financial prospects. Science is THE subject for boys, followed by Commerce, while Arts is not considered fit for them.
The hobbies that boys are supposed to pursue also have a negative effect on their lives. Fast driving, smoking, drinking, fighting, eve teasing, can harm their health and safety. But boys do these so that they can be called 'men'.
Gender roles restrict the fluidity in a boy's behaviour by restricting his ability to act according to the situation. Gender roles have fixed in advance what is expected of him in all situations.
Men have been made so insecure about their (social) masculinity by the society that they will do anything propagated as 'what men do', and avoid anything propagated as what men do not do, even if it goes against their nature.
Under the pressure of social masculinity roles, men suppress their basic nature. Male roles require them to be what is often not possible without tampering with nature.
You could be a great fighter, but if your life is spent fighting yourself, you are going to be a loser.
Let's look at some of the other ways in which gender roles harm men.
"Mard ko dard nahin hota" (a real man does not feel pain) ~ a dialogue from a Hindi Movie
Under continuous pressure to appear strong, a boy learns that it is not acceptable to let other people know of his weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He is unable to accept defeat or rejection. For example, saying 'sorry' is difficult for most men.
Boys pretend that they are born 'perfect', with all the qualities required to fulfil the social masculinity roles. Their masculinity roles give them huge egos. This pressure to be always strong, perfect and flawless makes a boy keep all his internal issues to himself, which makes life extremely stressful.
This also means that for most of his 'real' problems, he cannot seek guidance or help, and has to find his own way, through trial and error. Thus boys make many mistakes in their youth, about which they repent later on. These mistakes could be avoided if only they could just talk to someone.
"My surface may seem smooth, but my surface is my mask" ~ Jill Zevallos - Solak
Imagine, if you did not have the pressure to appear strong all the time, then, in moments of despair, instead of crying in isolation, you would have cried on the shoulders of someone who could give you emotional support. Men are also human beings, with feelings, and they need to cry and share their inner pain with people they consider close. They need to love and be loved.
Social masculinity roles make no concessions for emotions. The pressure to suppress emotions is a key social mechanism of male oppression. However, emotions play an important part in our lives. They are our only contact with our inner voice. When boys suppress emotions, they lose touch with their inner voice, the voice of our true nature, needs and desires. Consequently, men end up not knowing what they really need deep down. Therefore, true happiness often evades them.
From an early age, men learn to distrust their feelings, their inner voice. They become scared of their inner feelings and desires, as these always seem to get them into trouble and invite people's wrath or ridicule. For instance, when they get hurt and cry, someone may tell them it is not proper for a boy to cry. Or when they feel scared, they may be told that a boy should never feel scared. Or that he should not dance or wear pink or be seen with dolls.
Such injunctions affect a boy's psyche, and he starts seeing these acts as unbecoming. He hates the feelings that prompt him to do these things. Slowly he learns to use only his brain, and do only what he is trained to do: like a dog.
Due to prolonged suppression of feelings, most men lose the ability to identify their own emotions and express them. This is a frightening situation. Because they suppress their emotions so fiercely, men become insensitive and hardened. This results in their inability to fulfil the emotional needs of people they have relationships with --- whether as sons, brothers, friends, lovers or husbands. They end up not caring for other people's feelings.
Men sacrifice a lot of their real self to become what the society wants them to be. But they cannot suppress all feelings and needs forever, as that causes deep pain within. When men are unable to suppress a particular feeling, they learn to lead double lives, by expressing those feelings secretly, but on the outside maintaining a 'clean' image. This is extremely stressful.
Modern societies propagate male emotionality as an unmanly quality. It encourages men to be unemotional, logical and practical, as if they are computers. However, in most traditional societies, male emotions were celebrated as masculine, often through prose and poetry. Men were encouraged to be emotional. Men became great poets and philosophers.
Today men have become very distanced from their emotions. They have lost the capacity to feel. They don't use the 'emotional' side of their brain much. Some people claim that men are naturally not emotional. But this is not true. Men are trained to become emotionless, so that society can continue to oppress them. It is illogical to think that nature would deprive men of emotions and feelings, which are an important source of connection with their true nature.
"Don't be fooled by what I'm saying. Please hear what I'm not saying." ---- Jill Zevallos - Solak
Because of these pressures, men accumulate layers of hurt, pain, suppressed emotions and unfulfilled desires. These tensions build up over a lifetime and make them prone to --- among other things --- sudden fatal illnesses like heart attacks. Do you know that men are several times more prone to heart attacks than women?
Men become so adept at living a fake life that they seldom mean what they say, especially about their feelings, inner needs and desires. When they feel love, they may not be able to express it. And even when they don't feel love, they may be prompted to say it, if the masculine roles so demand. They become cautious about what they say; only saying what they are supposed to say.
Often what men don't say reflects a lot about what is going on inside them than what they do say. That is, men often communicate through silence about forbidden things. They express many inner needs and desires in suppressed unspoken codes. In the world of men, what is seen is not always what happens inside, and what really happens inside is often carefully hidden from the outer world. Men wear several masks to hide their true self.
The irony is that society has fooled men so much that men feel powerful and in control when they manage to fit themselves into social roles.
"I wear a thousand masks, masks that I am afraid to take off, and none of them is me" ~ Jill Zevallos - Solak
These roles and expectations harm every aspect of a man's life: his health, his relationships and his happiness. Since no man can ever fulfill all these expectations, men often develop inferiority complexes and insecurities.
Gender roles of men also harm women, both directly and indirectly. As long as men are bound in chains, they can never be receptive to the idea of women's liberation, as has been seen during several decades of movement for women's rights. Men are often insensitive to the sufferings of women as they are insensitive to their own sufferings. Because men are detached from their own emotions, they fail to fulfil the emotional needs and aspirations of women they have relationships with. As earning a livelihood is seen as a male domain, men do not take kindly to women taking up their jobs.
"The tragedy of machismo is that a man is never quite man enough".- Germaine Greer
How do you feel when you are amongst other boys, especially when you meet them for the first time? You feel a certain hostility and competition in the air. You know that you have to put the other person down before he gets the chance to do it to you. Whoever loses, will lose respect.
We call this competition the 'race for social manhood'. We have been running so long in this race that we have moved far away from our own selves. We want to get as far ahead in this race as possible, as our entire self and social worth depends on it. If we have to trample others along the way, we don't care. Under these circumstances, boys who show sensitivity towards others are run down. Competition has made men mean and cruel. This has also kept them from getting affection from other men.
Whenever we meet a man, we try to subconsciously judge whether he is ahead or behind us in this race. In other words, is he more 'man' than us or less. This determines our relationship with that man. If he is more 'man' than us, we treat him with respect. If, on the other hand, he is judged less 'man' than us, we don't consider him fit for respect and try to dominate him. We feel superior doing this, and reassure ourselves of having established a better position in this race. Isn't that how we treat women? Only, we don't have to compete with women, because they are not in this race at all.
So where do we want to reach in this race? We strive to achieve as many social masculinity roles as possible, especially the critical ones. But it is not possible for any one man to achieve all of them --- it is not even desirable. So, we just try to fit into them as much as possible. The rest, we just pretend to have achieved, putting on fake masks of social masculinity.
However, running this futile race endlessly, trying to achieve the impossible, we run too far away from our true selves. We become strangers to ourselves, far removed from our real nature, traits, needs and desires. Like slaves we spend our entire lives trying to meet gender and sexual expectations.
We can find happiness in life only if we are allowed to be and do what our inner soul asks of us. In trying to be 'real men', we have forgotten to listen to our inner voice. We have even forgotten to recognise it.
In their misguided quest to be 'real men', men have stopped being even real humans!