Gender stereotypes and toxic masculinity

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.

Benevolent Sexism

There have been enough debates and writings about patriarchy over the course of human civilization. So is there anything new that I can add to this debate? I doubt it. But I am going to try and show how patriarchy has led to benevolent sexism, and how it is as likely to prevent female empowerment as overt sexism. There is no better way than to give personal examples from the world I live in.

I will start off by making a confession – I was a benevolent sexist till my early 20s. It wasn’t until a friend finally told me “Dude, stop trying to make me feel helpless. Let me feel the self-respect of accomplishing something by myself.” Not only did I realize my mistake, but it started the process of understanding benevolent sexism. It appears to be beneficial to women, but it actually makes them feel helpless. Chivalry, although it has acquired a romantic notion, was a form of benevolent sexism. Women were considered weak and they needed to be protected by men. They needed to be saved by their knight in a shining armor. A single woman wasn’t expected to take care of herself. A woman was incapable of doing something and so should be helped. These were the notions of chivalry, notions that our patriarchal society has continued in a benevolent form of sexism.

We are being sexists when we say women should not be able to do something because they are emotional. When we put women on a “lady-like” pedestal and tell them what a “lady” should or shouldn’t do, we take away their choices. A tough woman working in the fields was never considered a “lady”. It is the woman who was taken care of by a man who was a “lady”. When we say a good woman is a good wife and a good mother, we take away their choices. And “good wife” has hardly ever meant as an equal partner, it has always meant as an obedient wife. And not every woman wants to be a mother, nor are all women good mothers. Isn’t our society littered with troubled adults because they had horrible mothers (and fathers)? Yet we have many societies that look down upon women who do not want to marry or do not want to have kids. Unlike overt and hostile sexism, many of us give in to benevolent sexism unknowingly. I certainly have been guilty of it and I still have work to do on it.

Recently I experienced something that once again opened my eyes. A young girl was carrying a few bags and I instinctively offered to carry some of her bags. She replied, “no, I got it. I am an independent girl”. I was actually impressed by her. This story can be spun in two ways. I might have made an innocent offer to help her and she turned it down rudely. But I also had to think, would I have made that instinctive offer if it were a male carrying a few bags. Or did I make it because I wanted to help a girl. It certainly wasn’t an inconvenience for her. But I thought it might be. Offering help to someone isn’t bad. In other examples, I hold the door open for everyone. But I can also see why specifically doing extra for women can make them feel as if we are treating them as helpless adults. It exists in cultures when we say that women shouldn’t have to work outside. It exists when we say they shouldn’t be doing tough jobs. In the end, benevolent sexism treats women as weak and as people who need a man to be their protector.

So why does it seem to be popular in many places? Firstly, it has been instilled in us from childhood about the nature of women, which is weak and emotional and in need of protection. Secondly, women support benevolent sexism in places where hostile sexism is highly prevalent. In places where women are made to feel inferior and have much of their rights denied, benevolent sexism where they can be protected becomes more alluring.

Sexism harms both genders because it focuses on negative gender differences. I will be the first to admit that the two genders aren’t the same. When we average the 3.5 billion men and women on the planet, we do have many differences. But everyone does not fall within those generalizations. And sexist attitudes and gender roles affects those who do not follow those norms. That is why a woman who wants to focus on a career gets ostracized. Benevolent sexism is when a man who cannot support a large family all by himself is made to feel like a failure. It tells girls that they must give up career for husband and children. It tells boys that they must not show emotions. It calls assertive women as bossy, and sensitive men as weak. When we talk about weakness, we usually equate it with feminine traits and feminine body parts. When we want to talk of strength, we talk about “being a man” or some male body parts. This inherent attitude that women are weak and men are strong is what defines benevolent sexism. It doesn’t allow individuals to be themselves, but to follow norms established by society. And if we can’t be ourselves, how are we ever going to be happy?

And sexism, like anything else in life, is practiced by both genders. Hostile sexism is highly beneficial to men. They get to keep women below them and make the rules about what men and women cannot do. But benevolent sexism is also embraced by a lot of entitled women who feel they deserve a lot of benefits from men just because they are women. They might complain about overt sexism that curtails their rights, but they have no problem with the sexism that allows for men to provide for them or support them. While hostile sexism puts stress on women to fit in to an “ideal” female role, benevolent sexism puts stress on men to fit in to an “ideal” male role. Both attitudes curtail choices, freedom, and our individuality. “Women are supposed to…” is no different than “men are supposed to…” Maybe many do want to follow the norms and it is their choice. But when we make it societal expectations, we invade the space of individuals who do not want to or cannot follow those traditional roles. We will always have hypocrites who will want only what is good for them, while not offering the same to the other side, but we cannot have a society that determines what an individual must or must not do, and we certainly can’t have a society whose idea of the woman is “weak” in need of protection, and whose idea of the man is “strong” and as the protector. We certainly do not live in the jungles where men need to protect women from wild beasts.

For both genders to move forward, we must stop imposing gender norms, either overtly or benevolently. Each gender has its strengths and weaknesses, as does an individual. Let us complement each other as different genders and as individuals. Let us focus on our strengths. We cannot treat half of humanity as if it is weak and needs protection. Let us empower women as leaders, preachers, parent, workers, soldiers, doctors, teachers, and legislators. Let us do the same for men! To move forward, let us give the individual the freedom to be who they want to be, and the best they can be. Benevolent sexism favors neither gender. So let us put an end to the notions of such gender roles.