Harsh Kabra The Times of India Wednesday, June 21, 2006
With his recent book titled Manliness, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield may well have rekindled the debate on the role and attributes of masculinity in contemporary societies. But the gender-neutral context he sets his contention in does not entirely hold good for India. For one, gender is extremely crucial, even exaggeratedly defining, here. The ensuing prejudices render weak the groundwork necessary to build a fair perception of masculinity.
For young boys, growing up isn't so much about masculinity as it is about being men. Then there's the deficit of fathering, an apparent legacy of the industrial revolution that divided fathers and boys between factories and schools. Surrounded by women at both the home and the school, boys are left wanting for models of masculinity. Where then do they pick their masculinity from? Media is one learning ground, but it teems with images of men whose identity stems from belligerence, violence, unforgiving competitiveness, adventurism or occasional pride in bending the rules. Another learning ground is the peer group, itself shy of adult support and therefore a questionable agency to be setting the standards of masculinity. In both instances, the more aggressive, anti-system guys are construed as more masculine.
However, in emulating such stereotypes, being male inadvertently becomes being not-female or even anti-female, where emotion or consideration is to be zealously shunned. According to Nancy Chodrow's work on gender identity acquisition, women usually care for both young boys and girls. But while girls learn to be female by identifying with and remaining close to a caretaker of the same gender, boys learn masculinity through a process of individuation and separation from the mother. And these early experiences, she noted, create an objectifying sense of self in men. Even as the boy is forever told to be different from the mother he first starts relating to, there simply aren't enough, ordinary men around to qualify this difference with wider emotional behaviour, otherwise relegated to silver screen histrionics. Boys therefore learn masculinity, not by imitation and identification, but by separation and censure. It's time then that primary schools involved more men in the teaching process. And it's time fathers became regulars at crafts projects and parent-teacher meetings. There sure is a crisis of masculinity, but the solution lies closer home.