We have encountered this — a kid lying on the floor of a store, screaming and throwing a tantrum till the harassed parent gives him (it is invariably a boy) what he demands; the little boy who kicks the back of the seat in a plane or theatre; the boy who torments other children or small animals. The indulgent word for him is brat — poor Dennis The Menace has nothing on this pint-sized monster.
What is worrisome, however, that this behaviour is considered normal for boys, if a male at any age is not aggressive, he is denigrated as a ‘sissy’ or ‘wimp’. When this kid grows up without any check on his bratty behaviour or exposure to positive role models, he can turn into what is called today, a toxic male — obnoxious, entitled, violent, often misogynistic and homophobic — in short, an Arjun Reddy/ Kabir Singh prototype.
And this man is now considered a ‘hero’ by audiences who are probably as inured to violence on screen, as they are indifferent to mob lynchings and rapes taking place around them. Kabir Singh is the kind of man who will slash a woman’s face, throw acid on her, or create a fake pornographic profile online to humiliate her, if she turns down his advances. If he cannot beat up every man who talks to “his woman,” he will thrash her for being “slutty”. Still, jealousy or possessiveness are seen as endearing traits in a man — a proof of his love. But ask the woman who is shoved into a cage without her consent, if she considers this attitude romantic or stifling; whether she thinks of this man as protective or vile.
This goes right back to the mistaken belief that “boys will be boys,” this is just a way of expending energy. The very erroneous notion — propagated through innumerable films and books — that women are attracted to bad boys and that the love of a good woman will tame this wildness (Fifty Shades Of Grey was a humongous bestseller!). In Kabir Singh, the woman is unnaturally passive, but instead of running the other way when they encounter a so called bad boy, so many women fall into this ‘taming’ trap and regret it, because they were told that they were supposed to be loving and supportive of the man at all times, but nobody told the guy that it should work both ways.
Kabir Singh has started a debate on toxic masculinity — there are many who find his madness appealing — but a small film called Noblemen slipped through the cracks; it actually captures some of the social conditions that produce such characters.
The film is set in an elite all-male boy’s school, the kind of testosterone laden environment that almost celebrates toxic masculinity. As it often happens, the rich, good-looking, athletic boys attract the weaker ones and form a gang to bully the studious ‘nerds’, socially or physically awkward ‘misfits,’ and any girls who happen to be around.
The kind and sympathetic teacher is mocked as a faggot, and so are the gentle kid who rescues and nurses a wounded bird, and the fat guy whose very existence seems to annoy the muscular jock. The mild word “ragging” does not even come close to describing the torture inflicted on two boys who stand up to the bullies, driving one to attempt suicide, and twisting the mind of the other, so that he sets off chain of tragedy.
Teachers or parents cannot be approached for help, because some bully lost in the mists of time has also cleverly decreed that snitching is a crime that could call for more persecution or ostracism. One of the teachers calmly observes a boy being brutally ragged and says that it is something that makes men out of boys.
That’s how, the film says, monsters are created; the victim who is unable or sometimes unwilling to hit back, will invariably be filled with venom that will, in the future, cause harm to others or to himself.
A piece by Michael Salter in theatlantic.com, asks the relevant question that has preoccupied social scientists for decades, “Where do these sexist attitudes come from? Are men and boys just the victims of cultural brainwashing into misogyny and aggression, requiring re-education into the “right” beliefs? Or are these problems more deep-seated, and created by the myriad insecurities and contradictions of men’s lives under gender inequality? The problem with a crusade against toxic masculinity is that in targeting culture as the enemy, it risks overlooking the real-life conditions and forces that sustain culture.”
Salter cites a study by sociologist Raewyn Connell and others that “theorised that common masculine ideals such as social respect, physical strength, and sexual potency become problematic when they set unattainable standards. Falling short can make boys and men insecure and anxious, which might prompt them to use force in order to feel, and be seen as, dominant and in control. Male violence, in this scenario, doesn’t emanate from something bad or toxic that has crept into the nature of masculinity itself. Rather, it comes from these men’s social and political settings, the particularities of which set them up for inner conflicts over social expectations and male entitlement.”
As arguments go on in academic circles, at an everyday level we can stop pandering to the brat. I remember an incident when a group of friends was dining at a club, and a kid was running amok, disturbing every other table, as his parents’ group ignored his unruliness. Instead of saying “So cute,” and chucking the fiend under the chin, a woman marched him to his parents’ table, and said, “If you can’t teach him how to behave in public, don’t bring him out.” If only the brat hazard could be nipped in the bud...but that’s another battle altogether.
The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.