What does it take to be a man? Physical strength, lack of emotion, aggression, entitlement, lack of empathy, manning up?
But when Hollywood actor Justin Baldoni talks of manning up, he talks of a crisis, of a change, of a crusade against what it means to be a man. Baldoni is one of the few men, on a mission to disrupt the culture of toxic masculinity — a culture that requires men to not appear weak, not cry like a girl, and not be vulnerable.
On International Men’s Day, South First speaks to men, closer home — in South India — who are redefining the idea of manliness. These are men engaging in conversations about their emotional struggles, insecurities and inadequacies. They are telling their fellow men to stop talking and start listening to uncomfortable discussions that involve emotions.
Stereotypes begin at home
Labeeb Usman, owner of Bengaluru’s Cafe Zubaan says he can’t pick just one incident which made him question gender norms.
“Growing up, I have felt an inequality, even inside my home. When I started understanding how the family structure works, I started questioning it. I have felt that a hierarchy exists even between a husband and a wife. There is a certain power structure,” he says.
Having grown up with his cousins, he realised very young that his life was different from theirs. “I grew up around so many girls and women. And I felt my life was different when compared to theirs. Unlike them, I could go out and do my things. That difference felt problematic for me in the beginning itself. The institution that is family made me question these stereotypes first.”
Contrastingly, for Chennai-based actor-singer Nakkhul Jaidev Betarrbet, masculinity wasn’t a concept actively pondered at home during his upbringing.
“Everyone had equal rights, and there were no gender stereotypes at my house. My mother was an equal lion, and we never got the notion that men are supposed to be stronger,” shares the actor.
Sourced at the male ego
Bengaluru-based senior marketing professional Cijeo George grew up in Pune as captain of the football and cricket teams. He was an active participant in both sports — sports that aggressively built the stereotype of oppressive masculinity. And being good at them made George believe that he was invincible and “tough as a man should be.”
It was only after he moved to Coimbatore to pursue his degree in hospitality that he was confronted with toxic masculinity. His first day in college was nothing short of a nightmare.
“I was pulled aside by some seniors and asked to salute them till the tiles below my feet broke apart. Choiceless, I had to give in. It was humiliating. But what was worse was that when I turned around after being ragged, I saw my father standing outsideHe felt helpless too since this wasn’t the world he had been exposed to. In another incident, I was asked to take my pants too,” George recalls.
It is this victory of the male ego that storyteller Sanju Shibu too faced during his teens. When he could not grow a beard at that age, he was bullied. Dude, you can’t grow a beard? You are not a man,” he was ridiculed.
“I questioned myself, “Does a man become a man only if he can grow a beard?” he asks.
Cry heart, don’t listen to them
Shibu also found it ridiculous how men were not allowed to cry.
“In most middle-class households like mine, it is a taboo or a sin for men to cry. I have never seen my dad, uncle, or any male figure around me cry. Even in grave situations, I have seen them be distracted and do a thousand things just so that they can be distracted from crying.”
This changed when his grandfather passed away and he saw a glimpse of his dad tearing up. “And then I observed – he does cry while watching movies, and in situations where he wants to cry.”
Usman started recognising his privilege. A lot of men suffer because they don’t have the emotional growth, he shares.
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“For instance, right now, I’m sharing a space with my partner. Both of us are from two genders, coming from two different conditioning. I have noticed that the way I approach things and how they approach things is very different. I approach everything from a privileged place. We see it around us. It’s in the small things,” he details.
In the case of George, while his mother wanted him to return, following his traumatic college experience, he decided not to quit. He became aware of his overrated self-image.
“In retrospect, it seems like a bubble of idealism that I was subconsciously carrying within me. I humbled myself. All these incidents in college made me resilient. But more importantly, it taught me that it is okay for men to be emotional and vulnerable,” shares George.
Championing the change
As a writer and storyteller, Sanju used his work to defy traditional stereotypes of masculinity.
“I do storytelling shows that involve travel and meeting a lot of strangers. One of the most depressing things I got to know was that no one gets flowers for men. Everyone deserves flowers. So when I do a solo show, I see that at least one guy in the crowd gets a flower,” he quips.
Nakkhul’s perspective expanded after his marriage to Sruti, a television host.
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“With access to the Internet and social media, I realised there was more to the narrative. While, in some sense, I have been exposed to sexism, chauvinism, patriarchy, and the whole spectrum, I never knew they had terms. But since we never had any of this at home, it was hard to relate. So, there was never a pivotal change in the way I was. But I ensured I learned more. With the access we have today, it is our responsibility to learn, understand, and change,” he notes.
While making a conscious decision to challenge the system, Usman says, he has faced a lot of pushback. He lost male allies.
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“When we are in a group and you hear a problematic discussion, there will be instances where you have to be vocal. So people slowly start cutting you off thinking you create unnecessary issues. You have to choose between being alone and being okay with this toxicity. I can’t do the latter,” he asserts.
With the realisation that a lot of what was considered normal was just stereotypes and that he doesn’t really have to follow them, Sanju says he developed the ability to listen.
“Now I listen to what a friend, a partner, or anyone around me has to say. It might not seem like a lot, but trust me, it makes a lot of difference. Just talking to someone and listening to someone are two very different things.”
Talking about the role cinema plays in shaping perceptions, Nakkhul says, “I don’t attribute blame to it. Storytelling is a serious matter, and its impact can sometimes lead to consequences. The desire to emulate heroes and follow storylines contributes to the perpetuation of certain behaviours. This cycle of influence continues because it has happened before” he says.
Instead, it’s about how we interpret and internalise these narratives, recognising the potential for brainwashing, he emphasises.
Sanju, however, believes that the media contributes a lot to reinforcing the existing stereotypes.
He shares, “You do not need six-pack abs, a muscular, spectacular body, and the voice of Amitabh Bachchan to be a man. The standards set by the media with the idea of a ‘man’ are superficial. And people lose their mental stability by following and aiming to be that. Just be you. You are perfect.”
Show the men exactly like they are, he suggests.
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Impact on the next generation
In his role as a father to two children, Nakkhul is keenly aware of the impact his actions can have on shaping the next generation. “Parents have a responsibility to break the generational curse. I firmly believe in dismantling those conventional stereotypes that are expected to be followed,” he says.
Teaming up with his wife, the duo stands out as a strong advocate for gender equality.
Their advocacy ranges from sharing photos of Nakkhul confidently donning gender-neutral clothes with their children to him standing up for Sruti against trolls attempting to dictate how he should “control his wife”, among others.
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It was the birth of his son in December 2022 that helped George connect with his ‘nurturer’ trait even more closely. “When I help out my partner with our baby’s care and needs, I realise that it’s not a man-woman chore. It’s a far more emotional experience and for that, one needs to drop the male ego,” insists George.
They say charity begins at home, and for George, change begins with teaching his son (when he starts growing up) to not fall under society’s rigid expectations.
“I can’t say I have completely understood masculinity, but I am on the journey to learn something new each day,” he notes.
It is this honesty that perhaps society needs as a first step to shut down toxic masculinity.