Masculinity in Pop Culture: The Rise of Feminist Fathers and Conversations We Need

#BoisLockerRoom stories have shocked almost everyone who read the screenshots of the chats. For teenage boys, all of 16 and 17, to be sexualising, objectifying and dehumanising young girls while talking of gang raping them, is disturbing to say the least.

But what needs urgent collective action is the reality that these boys felt this behaviour and thought process was, in fact, legitimate. This is what a prevalent rape culture does. Probably one of the more definitive and defining cultures of our country and our time, rape culture frames and legitimises this idea of masculinity, power and violence.

For these boys, these are what men are, and this is what men do.

And these boys are, in fact, as much victims of patriarchy and rape culture as they are perpetrators. Because this is what the cinema they watch – the ideas of ‘heroes’, the most powerful men in the world –teaches them. The behaviour seen on screen legitimises these acts and thought processes in young, impressionable minds. WhatsApp groups, television shows and porn (where many Indians form their first idea of sex and sexuality) are havens of sexism and oppression, where women have little or no agency of choice, and face blatant sexualisation and objectification in the name of desire.

Within the spaces of the family, ideas of gender roles are still deeply rooted in ideas of patriarchy. Do we examine those thoroughly and frequently enough? Fathers still ‘command’ respect by virtue of being male authoritative figures. Girls are still expected to sit in specific ways in their company. Why? We police girls and their demeanour in the space of the home (which should be an equally safe space for all inhabitants) in keeping with what will be acceptable to patriarchal tradition and authority. We essentially tell the girl that her comfort and ease is less important than what the ‘man’ of the house finds acceptable.

Yet, there are some beacons of hope emerging in popular culture. While the oppressive father, who in the name of protection and authority demands respect, is alive and vivid in everyone’s imagination through spells of high grossing films that are responsible for having shaped our outlook towards relationships and life, there is a slow counter-narrative emerging – of a softer, more empathetic version of a father, willing to introspect, question these norms within the self, the family and in society at large.

Also read: Bollywood Hypocrisy: Mixed Signals and Faux Feminism

Kumud Mishra’s turn as Amrita (Tapsee Pannu)’s father in Thappad is testimony to this brewing change. A man who contests patriarchal ideas even from his wife, enabling his daughter to arrive at a decision she chooses to, of walking out of a marriage she is disrespected in, despite a pregnancy.

As a gentle, caring father, he is encouraging of conversation, ambition and choice. And at the same time, he’s an aware and empathetic man who understands and is willing to listen to what a woman goes through within a marriage – as he sees his own, his daughter’s and his son’s relationship. He is open enough to want to introspect and accept that even he – who felt he had never oppressed his wife – didn’t stand for her desires and ended up succumbing to patriarchy even without realising it.

At the same time, reprimanding his son for his entitled attitude when it came to his girlfriend are the narratives we need in cinema. Where fathers and daughters have bonds that go well beyond those of oppressor and the oppressed. Usually a ‘friend-like father figure’ in cinema is reserved for a father-son relationship – again falling prey to the ‘boys club syndrome’.

Anil Kapoor’s turn as Mr Mehra in Dil Dhadakne Do sees a steep character arc change. What begins as a selfish patriarch who believes his daughter is now ‘paraaya’ and doesn’t belong in his home after she chooses a divorce, is forced to listen to and realise his mistakes. In two critical scenes, when he is called out for adultery by his son, and when he realises that his daughter is in fact miserable and the man she was forced to marry doesn’t respect her, he shows us what the ideas of respecting a daughter with her own agency of choice actually means. However, the most critical scene is a short one that follows the last, where he apologises to his daughter for all his mistakes.

Pankaj Tripathi as Mishraji, Bitti’s father in Bareily Ki Barfi, is another such example. As one who understands how his free spirited daughter thinks, he attempts to shield her from her mother’s obsession with her impending marriage and consistent badgering and criticism for men ‘rejecting’ her, empathises with her when she contests the idea of women and repressed sexualities, and smokes with her when she chooses to. The idea of a father being able to listen, and be his daughter’s friend, understanding what sexism does to her, are key to being a feminist father. He is the gatekeeper of her freedoms, enabling her to live life the way she chooses to.

Also read: Thappad Review: When the Lights Come Back on

Similarly, there is the beautifully tender turn of Gajraj Rao in Badhai Ho as Jeetendra Kaushik. A romantic middle aged man, and a father to two young boys, he converses with them and his mother of the reality of becoming parents unexpectedly for the third time. As a man who values his wife’s dignity, he leads by example for his two sons. Or Rishi Kapoor’s sublime turn as Vakeel Sahab in Mulk, where he admits his vulnerability to his daughter in law, asking for her help as he struggles to fight a case persecuted for being a minority, and to prove his allegiance to his home country.

However, while these are a few conversations, what are the real changes we need? We need men who are sensitive enough – to be able to show it – to be represented in popular cinema. And that does not stop at men crying. We have to show how men feel. And not just feelings that are directly related to them, but to empathise. We need men who make mistakes and are vilified and punished for those mistakes. And not as rapists being punished by equally toxic ‘heroes’.

We need men to check thoughts that are not seeped in the need for basic equality. We need to have men slam sexist jokes on WhatsApp groups and on talk shows. We need the language of conversation, in writing of screenplays and characters to be far more nuanced. And most critically, all of this needs to be normalised. These narratives and changes cannot be prerogatives of ‘women centric’ films alone. The representation of men needs to be kinder to them. It needs to bring out the sides to them that they’ve been conditioned to hide.

We need to create cinema and content that has relationships of respect and equality between fathers and their children. The boys club needs to be in the kitchens cooking while the mother completes office chores. These kinds of small changes will help seed the ideas of equality and feminism in everyday lives,

We must bring back the imperfect yet real men, vulnerable, apologetic and soft. Willing to learn and be better each time.

Because boys will not be boys. And men will not be men. They will be held accountable – every single time.

You can read more from Saumya Baijal on her blog