Earlier this month, a man from Sidhi district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was arrested for urinating on a tribal man. Yes, you read that right. A video of the accused Pravesh Shukla went viral across the country, in which he is seen nonchalantly, almost haughtily urinating on 36-year-old Dasmat Rawat. Shukla was reported to be a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Madhya Pradesh, and which is set to go to the polls later this year.
There was hardly anyone, who after seeing the video, was not left with a feeling of shock and disgust — in equal measure. An extreme example of toxic masculinity, the Sidhi video was perplexing to some and just plain horrific to others.
Yet, as examples of toxic masculinity go, Shukla is hardly alone in doing something so radically nauseating. During my student days in the UK, I was privy to instances when rowdy football fans would sometimes throw bottles of water at rough sleepers; at other times, heavily drunk men would stop and urinate on homeless men. It seemed like it was something of a sport for these unruly men. Yes, they were overwhelmingly male, these offenders.
Let’s look at it more closely.
“Masculinity” refers to the roles, behaviours and attributes seen as appropriate for boys and men in a given society. In short, masculinity refers to society’s expectations of males. In many societies, boys and men are expected to be strong, active, aggressive, tough, daring, heterosexual, emotionally inexpressive and dominant. This is enforced by socialisation, media, peers, and a host of other influences. And it plays out in the behaviour of many boys and men.
The term “toxic masculinity” points to a particular version of masculinity that is unhealthy for the men and boys who conform to it, and harmful for those around them. The phrase emphasises the worst aspects of stereotypically masculine attributes. Toxic masculinity is represented by qualities such as violence, dominance, emotional illiteracy, sexual entitlement, and hostility to femininity.
This version of masculinity is seen as “toxic” for two reasons.
First, it is bad for women. It shapes sexist and patriarchal behaviours, including abusive or violent treatment of women. Toxic masculinity thus contributes to gender inequalities that disadvantage women and privilege men.
Second, toxic masculinity is bad for men and boys themselves. Narrow stereotypical norms constrain men’s physical and emotional health and their relations with women, other men, and children.
It’s hard to avoid encountering the term “toxic masculinity” these days.
It has been linked to Australian soldiers’ war crimes in Afghanistan; it is regularly applied to pop-culture characters as diverse as the hypersensitive dinosaur nerd Ross Gellar from Friends; it is evident in the way in which violent, repressed male characters in movies and web series tell their girlfriend, “If anyone ever tried to hurt you, I’d kill them.”
The character Kabir Singh, played by Shahid Kapoor, is a fine example of how toxic masculinity subsumes everything in its path and contributes to the depiction of male privilege and entitlement on all manner of social media platforms.
The roots of toxic masculinity lie in the cherished South Asian belief that a male child is somehow more worthy of love, care, attention and respect than a female child. In the medieval era, female children in some Indian states used to be murdered while still in the cradle. In current times, several state government across India had to come up with schemes ‘rewarding’ the birth of girls monetarily for female infanticide to become a relic of the past.
Although they are no longer killed in the womb (through gender determination tests) or strangulated under the legs of a ‘charpoy’ anymore, female toddlers, young girls and mature women are still at risk from the continued patronage to toxic masculinity. And even though, in the Sidhi case, there were thankfully no women involved, it was more a matter of luck than anything else.
As long as young boys and grown men in India consider it alright to urinate in public, in brooad daylight, sometimes in full view of passing traffic on a busy road, and happen to ‘just for fun’ urinate in a decorative fountain during a wedding, after a drink too many, we will continue to see more and more egregious instances of toxic masculinity. In some instances, they may manifest as extreme examples, like in the Sidhi case. In other cases, they might appear ‘par for the course’ and fall under the ‘men will be men’ trope.
None of it could justify such appalling behaviour. But it would take someone with a basic sense of decency to understand that. Overwhelmingly, we have to deal with toxic masculinity that just keeps getting more and more pernicious.