Recently, I read on the internet about a famous director’s statement that women have never been complicit in any atrocity in history. Many women took offense at it because that is factually not true, and putting women on a pedestal propagates gender stereotypes and is ultimately detrimental in fighting sexism, including benevolent sexism like this director’s supposedly well-intentioned statements. In this blog post I want to focus on how gender stereotypes from everyone can affect us all. Whether it is society’s unrealistic expectations of women, or the expectations of men that can lead to toxic masculinity, both issues need to be addressed honestly. Since I was in high school, I have had dozens of female friends who have shared their most intimate pain and sufferings with me, details they even hide from own parents and husbands. One of the most common themes I have heard over these past 18 years is that it is the women in their lives – their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, friends – are the ones who have enforced the rules of patriarchy and made their lives miserable. They are the ones who enforced gender rules detrimental to these girls’ independence and freedom. They are the ones who have slut-shamed their sisters and friends. From my grandmother’s time in her village in India, to my own friends’ lifetime here in New York City, it is the mothers-in-law who have treated their daughters-in-law the worst. And stories that break my heart the most is when mothers and grandmothers know of sexual abuse in their household, but protect the male perpetrators to maintain the “honor” of the family.
These personal anecdotes doesn’t even encompass the complicity of women in wartimes, crimes, and genocides. The point is to show that women too can commit crimes, they can lie, and can entrap. Indian society has had a huge problem with women being murdered and tortured over dowry, as well as facing sexual harassment and assaults in daily lives. As the laws have strengthened to prevent these atrocities, false accusations of dowry harassment or sexual assaults in exchange for extortion have also skyrocketed. It is factually true that women suffer more than men because of their gender and associated stereotypes, but putting anyone or any group on a pedestal of perfection doesn’t help anyone, least of all women who suffer because of other women.
I and countless others have written about male and female gender stereotypes of women and how it negatively effects women. In this article I also want to focus on the male and female gender stereotypes of men and how it can lead to toxic masculinity. It would be negligent to say that our evolutionary history has no say in what traits we look for in a partner of the opposite gender. Combine that with cultural expectations of gender roles and we have a toxic situation in our hands. Whether it is looks and obedient attitude from women, or power and being the provider from men, these expectations has led individuals to act out in detrimental fashion. We shouldn’t train boys to withhold their emotions. They will grow up to be men who cannot express themselves, men who bottle up their feelings before they explode. We shouldn’t have toys and games for different genders, where girls are guided towards traditionally feminine toys such as Barbie dolls that focuses on looks, and boys are guided towards action figures that focuses on violence and power.
To combat toxic masculinity, we should be teaching men and boys how to harness their traits and testosterone towards better causes. We should stop rewarding testosterone-charged behaviors and traits, the side-effects of which leads to war, violence, domestic abuse, and sexual assaults. As per many psychologists, rape is less about sex and more about power and domination. Expecting men to be the strong, silent type can have detrimental effects, and both genders are complicit in propagating these stereotypes. Both genders use the phrases “be a man”, or “grow some balls” when talking about courage. Does that mean “being a woman/girl” means lacking in courage? And what does it matter if someone lacks in courage about something? False bravado or trying to be stupidly brave has led to enough wars and violence. Let men be emotional if they want to. Let women join the combat marines if they want to. Let boys play with dolls, let women play with video games. Many times I hear, even from the most feminist/progressive women, that they want the stereotypical manly men. When I point out the contradiction between the views of no gender expectations for women but having the same expectations from men, many fall back upon the tried and tested answer of “it is in our nature/it is part of evolution”. Are we going to be limited by our genes and natural selection, or do we believe in free will and think we can rise beyond our primal instincts?
Instead of silence, we can teach boys to be communicative and expressive, so they can grow up to be communicative partners. Strength shouldn’t mean physical strength, but emotional strength, so men have a proper outlet for emotions and pain without resorting to unhealthy vices and outbursts. “Being a man” can mean someone can be loving, caring, affectionate, and expressive of emotions, without any of these traits being mocked at. “Being a man” can mean teaching responsibility and maintaining equanimity in tough situations. Men should police themselves so we do not glorify behaviors such as rape jokes or using degrading language used towards women in our personal conversations. It is not the woman’s responsibility to dress in a way so that they don’t get assaulted or harassed. It is men’s responsibility to be respectful and not see women as walking meat. If a man doesn’t think he can control himself around a woman, he should remove himself from the situation or from society, not remove the woman from the situation or from society by making her stay indoors. Power can be used to dominate, and it can also be used to bring about changes. Men should be part of feminist issues because change isn’t happening without both genders working towards it. It means men taking a deep look at how their attitudes and behaviors and assumptions affects women. It also means many women not instinctively assuming all men as scum or pigs, which can quickly turn off potential allies. It means men not putting women on pedestals, and helping women calling out their own who are complicit in abuse and misogyny. As individuals and as society we have to decide how quickly we can rise above biology or culture. Arc of time has always bent towards progressive values. It is up to us to decide how quickly we can accept change, and if we as a generation want to be on the right side of history.