The work of Delhi-based director and writer Rahul Roy probes the theme of masculinity, an angle that is seldom explored in the global dialogue on gender. Roy’s most recent project, Let’s Talk Men 2.0, presents four films from four different South Asian contexts – Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – that both represent and interrogate masculinity.
WGLG’s Engagement Coordinator in India, Abhishek Srivastava, recently caught up with Roy to discuss the connection between masculinities and gender-based violence, and the role that film plays in communicating these complex narratives.
Abhishek Srivastava: Why it is important to use the prism of gender role stereotypes, especially masculinities to address gender-based violence?
Rahul Roy: I think for too long we have been caught within the narrow prism of gender role stereotypes while thinking of preventing gender-based violence. We need to step out and look at gender as more than just socially assigned roles that then become stereotypical behavior patterns. It is far more important to look at the relational aspect of gender which becomes the area where issues of power are transacted and violence practiced. This approach also opens up the possibility of looking beyond individuals to structures of institutions, class, caste, ethnicity, etc.
Gender-based violence is endemic to structures of inequality, and masculinity is the vehicle through which inequalities are enforced, often through violence. Therefore while gender stereotypes provide us with evidence of what kind of behaviour is deemed appropriate for different sexes, it is locking horns with structures of power that open up possibility of change and preventing gender based violence.
With so much momentum around gender and gender-related issues in India, why do you think there isn’t more focus on the narrative of men and masculinities?
The missing discourse around masculinities in spite of heightened attention on gender points one, toward the cleverness of the apparatus of masculinities which somehow manages to think that if the lens of gender is focused on women then men escape scrutiny; and two, it also arises from the fact that the focus of gender on women is a result of several decades of struggle by the feminist and women’s movement in India and it is to be expected that since women have been constituted as a political constituency by these movements there will be more attention on women.
Having said that, it is also important to state that masculinity has emerged as an area of enquiry and protest because it was identified by feminists as an extremely toxic part of our social life. So, if we today think it is important to focus on masculinity and men’s relation to it then we have to thank the tireless work of the women’s movement and feminist scholars.
While in the past decade or so more and more attention is being paid to masculinity and its ills, we are still nowhere near addressing what it means to work with men on gender-related issues. We are floundering on that front. While generating attention, knowledge and interest in masculinity could open windows of opportunity as far as challenging masculinity is concerned, and this requires more work, more research, more cultural intervention and critical thinking.
Is masculinity a social construct or a personal journey for men? Do you think re-defining masculinity means asking men to behave and re-examine their lives?
Masculinity is a social construct as well a personal journey. Since masculinity is amongst other things a marking scale for what makes a man a ‘man’, it is a personal journey where men from childhood are inculcated with the ideology of what it takes to become a man. These are narratives of strength, power, control, aggression, success, etc and along with these travel as side companions the parallel narratives of dis-privileging everything that is feminine. The lessons start early within families where – as witness to power dynamics, disenfranchisement and deprivation of the female members – young boys learn that the feminine is weak; and the further they travel from all that is connoted through the feminine will mean they will fare better on the masculinity scale.
Masculinity is a social construct because these principles of gender inequalities are transported into institutions and all other social relationships and become part of a machinery where women are under paid, treated unequally and denied opportunities. Also, these ideas of inequality are mirrored through the utilization of masculinity within other social hierarchies of class, caste, etc.
I personally don’t think the issue at stake is of re-defining masculinity. Masculinity is a social menace because it is tied to the idea that men deserve power because they are men. The challenging of this sense of entitlement is not necessarily a red-lining of masculinity but of ushering in more equality and equity. Masculinity will become redundant once we break its deep commitment to consolidating and unleashing power by men. What probably needs to be redefined is the abhorrence that men have for the feminine and their claim of masculinity as the only way they can gain an identity of being men.
What do you think is the power of documentary films in addressing gender-based violence?
The documentary has been a preferred form of challenging gender-based violence for more than two decades now. The 1980s saw the advent of video, which enabled more production of documentaries. Simultaneously, as the development world started focusing on gender inequalities in a significant way, more support from these documentaries emerged.
Documentaries continue to bring to us up-close stories and lives that otherwise escape the interest of corporate media. While there is a broad social consensus that gender-based violence is undesirable and that is reflected through the mainstream media, it is the documentary which is able to travel the extra distance and ask the more difficult questions like rape in conflict areas of Kashmir or Chattisgarh and the complicity of the state. The power of the documentary lies in unearthing stories that don’t find space on mainstream media.
In your experience, did you see a change in the lives of your protagonists and their families or a change in the perception of gender relations, while you profiled their lives for over a decade? What kind of change? Were they able to re-think their gender relations as they were featured as “heroes” in Let’s Talk Men 2.0?
Change is obviously a constant companion for all of us. We are constantly responding to events, situations and larger shifts that are happening around us. And dealing with these is a complex process where we change, adapt and also defend what we feel is important for us to retain. So, yes, while I saw changes that could be read as better for gender relations, there were also aspects of inequalities that are still carried. However, what has changed fundamentally is the idea of fatherhood. My protagonists are much better fathers than their fathers. The time, attention and care that children get from them is much more than what they got as children.
However, does this translate into being more gender equal? I don’t think the equation is as simple as is being made out by one tendency within the development world which is pushing for work on fathering as the route to challenge masculinity and creating more gender-equal men. The results can often be exactly opposite. More conscious and caring fathers can also be more controlling and more patriarchal as is evident from what I try to show in my film. I don’t think I portrayed them as “heroes” in my film. I have tried to work in a way that makes it possible for the several threads that form their lives to emerge through the film. Some of these threads are heartening – for instance their dedication to children and a certain companionship some of them share with their spouses – but some of the other threads of domestic violence are very disturbing.