The way I relate to men comes from some toxic experiences I’ve had with men I cared about. It has been hard to see past those traumas & rise above the gaslighting of being a ‘man-hater’ just for having a strong sense of my own identity.
There is some notion that being a ‘strong woman’ means you don’t need people (especially men). So any show of female strength is attacked by those who feel it makes them irrelevant. And also, any show of vulnerability sees no empathy “because you are strong, you should take it”.
This means the only men who remain in a life like this are predators, sociopaths & other exploitative types. It only compounds the belief that men are untrustworthy & lack any kind of empathy for women. Because misogyny & hate are the most visible kinds of masculinity.
This is why my feminist interests include masculinity. Because men matter to me. They influence the world I live in & my life. How they see themselves with respect to the world, shows in how they treat women & so me. It seeps into the nature & quality of all relationships I have with men. How masculinity is defined, is a vital part of the framework that I’m judged by. This means men & masculinity impact my identity.
I’ve been working on the idea that to see more of one kind of behaviour in your life, one can start by embodying it. Gentleness & vulnerability don’t come easily to me. There I have something in common with most men. I’m starting the year exploring how I can be more (and so have more) of these. As I open to this idea, I find myself intrigued by the challenges faced by those who express masculinity.
#AltMasculine was my opening theme for the first week of 2021 in the form of blogposts, conversations & the Wednesday night Instagram Live. What masculinity means, where & how it incorporates vulnerability & how the world receives it. If you’d like to watch the culminating Instagram Live discussion with Jackie Thakkar, click here.
After I asked women to share instances when men apologized to them, I realised something stood in the way of men and the word SORRY. I want to believe men are as rational & feeling as women and can see the damage done by not taking responsibility for their actions.
So what makes it possible for some men to get past their conditioning, to value a woman’s feelings more than the ego they’ve been taught to nurture & take responsibility for causing hurt? I asked men. The answers brought me much insight into the act of apology.
It’s a learning process for men. As girls, we’re taught to fear many things, which also means to know the price of things. Because boys are brought up without being held accountable, the idea that there are consequences doesn’t occur. By adulthood, the inequality felt by girls has become the rage of women.
The men who do care & feel (which I want to believe is most) feel hit by a ton of emotional debt. A lot of men’s answers to my question were about being apologetic, in general. Not apologising for specific actions. I realised this is a distinction many men have yet to make.
To a woman receiving this, it sounds like shame, not apology. Shame is not useful in remedying a situation. Our own conditioning makes us want to protect men from feeling this uncomfortable emotion. During great upset, it’s awful to feel compelled to take care of someone else when one is wounded, especially by that same person.
When I’m hurt by a man, I want to hear him apologize for that action. Not for existing or for being a man. It’s why I ask “What are you sorry for?” I want him to take responsibility to set things right. I do not want to take responsibility to comfort him, to teach him what his feelings mean. Because that’s not fair on me, already hurt. Because it’s exhausting. And because in most cases, my hurt goes unresolved while he assumes the situation is ‘solved’ because he said sorry.
I don’t need a thousand apologies. So what does a woman need when a man hurts her? That’s the stuff of another post. Leave your thoughts in the comments because I’m still pondering this.
You should smile more, women are told, it makes you look good. This is said as a compliment but is erasure of the person & her emotions. What if she doesn’t feel like smiling? If you’re not a woman, try smiling at someone you don’t like or in a situation that causes you distress. Smiles must blossom on their own, not be demanded.
I grew up with dental issues – protruding, misaligned front teeth, overlapping canines, horizontal molars. I knew I was ugly. Nobody had to tell me, it was in how people responded to my smile (pity, disdain, awkward looking away, mean nicknames). By age 11, I knew I needed dental intervention if I wanted any hope of a better life. “It’ll change the way your face looks”, the orthodontist warned me. “Exactly”, I said and traded all the foods a child loves for years of painful metal braces, rubber bands, mouth plates, retainers. What a world we live in where a 11 year old believes that her worth is only in her smile and is willing to endure pain & sacrifice for it.
I know my good angles now & how to make others interesting. I have mastered the range of things a smile can convey – polite, charming, gracious, shy, confident, welcoming, impersonal. I am a woman in a culture of “Hasee to phasee”. This is why it is unwelcome intrusion when a man decides to advise me on a smile. I have a Ph.D. in the politics of smiles.
In my InstaStories conversation on #PeopleWeDontKnow, 2 men mentioned being complimented on their smiles. We overburden girls with an identity-price tag on smiles. We never let boys/men know that their smiles matter. We give them role models that are angry, brooding & unsmiling. Look at any film poster featuring a macho hero. We suggest that smiling is only aesthetic and the domain of the female, as if to smile is to not be male.
But a smile is a universal expression of all’s-okay. It’s one of the earliest forms of communication we learn. It transcends the politics of gender, age and geography. Finally it expresses joy and creates more joy. So, when was the last time you smiled just because you felt like it?
I am not in dil-toot anymore. It was dil-toot, a phrase I’ve coined to denote a less-than-heartbreak, more like a heart-pinch, just painful enough for me to feel something and think about it but not so shattering that I can’t piece together a coherent thought or sentence. Did I ever mention how or why it ended?
It ended when he said,
” I don’t know what to say.”
It ended because he assumed it was all about what he thought and what he had to say. It didn’t even occur to him that a conversation is between two people and that the other person might have something to say. It ended either because he assumed that or because he did not want to face what I might have had to say.
I’ve weathered the deep sadness, the now-familiar disappointment. I’ve even been able to see how this was a life experience that bothered me just enough to learn from it and also feel very good about the good parts. Being in love really is a wonderful feeling. I have remembered something I keep forgetting when my heart shatters – that love is that undefinable experience that goes beyond attraction, logic, compatibility and shared interests. It falls in the realm of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink moment and everything that follows is an attempt to explain it. I don’t have to, anymore. And that frees me up to look at the future with the hope of more love and other adventures.
I am tickled, even charmed by the surprised wonder in a boy/man’s eyes when it first occurs to him that I’m paying attention to him. I’m not even the most beautiful or desirable woman around but just the fact that I am listening to him and could it be – I like him? What’s worrying is that a lot of men never seem to get past that. That wonder takes on the quality of suspicion, fear even. And that’s part of what turns into slut-shaming, into cheating, into harassment or treating women badly. It’s the inability to handle any reaction from a woman but her derision or fear. Men who cannot deal with a woman’s appreciation or interest – is that not a poisonous problem?
I remember the deadend expression on his face, the frantic tone of his voice in the last moments as my dil-toot‘ed. I have seen it before on many men’s faces. I’ve assumed that it’s coldness, cruelty, selfishness and many other such things. But I’ve come to realise, this is something else. It is the outer limit of a man’s ability to feel, identify and express emotion.
Last week I watched Bramhan Naman, a disturbing movie by any account. It left me deeply sad because among other things, it exposes how woefully ill-equipped the Indian man is when it comes to dealing with the world of myriad emotions that make up the framework of relationships and adult life. In the movie (and echoed in real life) the verbose protagonist yearns for an intangible fantasy but can barely speak to the woman who spawns it. He treats professed, open affection with viciousness and is paralysed by his guilt and fear. When he encounters a woman with the right mix of attractiveness and vulnerability, he cannot bring himself to even respond, let alone initiate interest. So he settles for gestures like getting her food (the last), showing off his family business (the second) and stalking her (the first). These are the actions of a socially inept child, not a completely functioning adult. That adults with their freedom and power do this, is what makes it dangerous.
I complain long and hard about how Indian men (men in general but particularly, brutally Indian men) are infantilised and stunted in their emotional growth. This is what it looks like. They are barely functioning adults who are unable to deal with normal human emotions. Unable, not unwilling.
This outer-limit expression comes after bewilderment and panic. It’s not even resignation since that requires an ability to see that something is bigger than oneself and experience giving up. It’s literally like a very small baby who has not developed sight yet, running into a wall and being stunned, unable to figure out whatwherewhyhowohisthispainshouldicryuhwhatwait. Most men live in that place the whole time they are in love or a relationship. Boy, that’s scary. Add to it such nuanced, problematic ideas such as guilt over sex, Madonna/whore syndromes, mama’s boy dependency and toxic masculinity. No wonder Indian men are such a mess.
I cannot help but feel deep pity for them. And then great sadness for us women and the kind of futile relationships we have to endure as a result. Is there any hope for us all?
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