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Masculinity in the 21st century

Zanjabil Mashkura | November 26, 2023 00:00:00

The idea of masculinity is built on what society, history, and politics believe to be 'appropriate' for a man. It involves holding attitudes that are recognised by other men and women as male traits. According to masculinist values, being a highly-independent and assertive man is the ultimate goal. Top business leaders, popular kids in schools, and sports personalities are examples of hegemonic men. The most common form of masculinity that we find in Bangladesh is patriarchal masculinity, where the superiority of a man over a woman is maintained and genders are treated unequally.

The adaptation of masculinity can start as early as infancy. Gendered toys can play an important role in shaping the actions and behaviour of young children in early childhood. During the adolescent period, young boys observe the behavioural patterns of older boys, parents, male relatives, and other members of society. In adulthood, the relationship with classmates, colleagues and spouse helps in building a clearer understanding of the masculine ideology.

The role of a father in a family is important in creating an impression of masculinity in the next generation. Let's start this discussion with an example. Suppose the year is 2000. Two families are residing in Dhaka where the husbands are the sole financial providers, and each family has one daughter. Mr. Sharif comes home and yells at his wife, "What do you even do all day at home? I work so hard, and all you do is sit at home and make my life miserable." The 10-year-old sees the agony on her mother's face, who is trying to swallow the humiliation like a digestive pill. Day after day, she observes the same behaviour of her father over her mother due to his financial superiority. It becomes her biggest fear to turn out like her mother when she grows up. The daughter burns herself studying, dreaming that one day she will become a strong, independent woman, and no men will ever dare shame her or show dominance over her.

In the same neighbourhood, Mr. Islam comes home after a long day to his loving wife and daughter. On her daughter Sara's 14th birthday, he brought a beautiful pair of ballerina shoes for her. She was elated with the shoes at first, but when she saw the shoe on her father's feet, her heart broke. She realises that her father's life revolves around her and her mother, and although Mr. Islam does not earn much, he prioritises his family's needs before his own. He respects his wife for taking care of her daughter and for making the house a home. Sara dreams of the day when she will earn enough to buy her parents everything they deserve for the immense sacrifices they have made for her. Both the daughters want to be financially solvent for themselves, but the motivation for one comes from hatred towards masculinity, while the other is motivated by love for her father.

Masculinity is defined largely by its relationship with femininity, as women have an important role to play in expressing their expectations from men. Men in this era are expected to be decent husbands who are not insecure about their wives being independent while saving them from heavy responsibilities. In our culture, when a man marries and brings his partner out of her parent's home to start a new life with him, he faces the issue of responsibility sharing. Suddenly, he realizes that it takes more than flowers and chocolate to prove himself as a man. All her responsibilities before were mostly taken care of by her parents, and now suddenly she is handed over to another man. As a husband, he is expected to carry out her father's responsibilities, which is a difficult thing to do for a young man. A man can only remove such stress if his partner wants to share his financial burdens with him. But there is also a core wish inside almost every man: to provide for his partner and not let her pay a single penny. So, there is this masculine dilemma between responsibility sharing and being a sufficient provider inside a man's brain.

As for this generation, an educated and qualified woman is capable of taking care of herself. A good man sees this opportunity to spend more time with his children, which a busy father often becomes unable to do. But unfortunately, a lot of men take the opportunity to become reluctant about their role as providers. A woman's good intention to help her husband financially is often misinterpreted as no financial responsibility of a man over his woman. A selfish man would buy himself a PlayStation and let his wife pay for diapers. But if a woman wants to be a full-time mother, she is noted as lazy and unambitious. The fear of dealing with overwhelming home responsibilities along with a regular job has reduced many young women's interest in getting married, which has in turn affected the stability of society. Women feel like they are better off without men since men are not adding anything of value to their lives. Having to do disproportionately more household work and child care has pushed many women in the West to file for divorce. So, how a man treats his wife plays a vital role in constructing future generations' perceptions of masculinity. It puts immense pressure on the men of our society, the father and the husband, to act well and set great examples.

Besides feminine expectations, social media has also played an important role in projecting maleness and holding certain masculine standards. The urge to show oneself as an alpha male has become a new masculine trend on social media. Alpha males are often portrayed in movies and TV series as the most successful and desirable among men. Jay Gatsby from 'The Great Gatsby' is taken to be an alpha male for his splendid charisma and desire for success. Tony Stark from 'Iron Man' is another example of an alpha male who shows determination, intelligence, and ambition in his character. The idea of the 'Alpha male' is sometimes viewed negatively by people, because it suggests that only certain types of men are appealing or successful. In reality, different kinds of quality men can be desirable, alluring, and charismatic. An example of alpha male stigma is Andrew Tate, who tends to glorify unhealthy masculinity. The term 'sigma role' is used in social media satirically through memes, gifs, and film edits. The most common one is Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Sigma males are considered to have the same status as alpha males, but they tend to be more introverted and prefer to spend time alone or with a small group of close friends, whereas alpha males tend to be more extroverted and social.

The reason men often romanticise being lone wolves is because of all the expectations from society. The masculine gender role has been associated with an increased tolerance for pain among males. A post by the Washington Post says men are less likely than women to seek mental health treatment. In the Western world, males die by suicide three to four times more often than females. While females more often have suicidal thoughts, males die three to four times more frequently by suicide. Shame and fear of judgement can help explain the hesitance of men to seek mental healthcare. Some men face difficulty identifying grief, sadness, or a depressed mood and only express themselves through anger. The pressure to prove oneself as a real man often makes a man isolate himself from society.

The introduction of newer gender terms and identities has changed the way masculinity used to be celebrated in society. The widespread promotion of homosexuality through Hollywood has made feminine traits common in regular men, diminishing the basic strong, dependable, and courageous persona of a man. Social media depicts how some men act and dance like women by dressing up and wearing makeup. Due to gender non-conformity and gender fluidity being a trend, it has become a trend for many to identify as a woman or a man despite their original identity. In a society where such variations exist, it becomes sensitive to expect maleness from a man who wants to be identified as She or They.

When we compare the lives of our fathers and grandfathers with the men of this generation, we can see that the understanding of masculinity varies across time and socio-cultural contexts. In the past, most men believed that they had ultimate superiority over women. Women's fate was left to men's mercy. But in today's world, we can see that there are roles, behaviours, and qualities that are considered appropriate for men, which also promotes respect between women and men.

We must preserve masculine qualities that are praiseworthy and good for society and work on the attributes that spread hatred, misogyny, and aggression. Men are significant role players in causing wars, bringing peace, building cities, and destroying them. Therefore, studying male behavioural patterns helps understand what to expect from men in modern times and in the future.

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