Narendra Modi’s 56-Inch Chest and The Rise of Toxic Masculinity in India

A man walks into a space surrounded by goons and single-handedly breaks bones, lathis and chairs with equal aplomb. This isn’t a scene from any of the ‘angry young man’ films featuring the long-legged Amitabh Bachchan. It’s a part of every Salman Khan film that has ever caused a box office frenzy. The fearless, strong man who can deal with goons all by himself (only if they charge one by one) and stop moving cars with his bare hands defines ‘hero’ these days.

In Jai Ho, Salman looks at Tabu’s teary face and charges at the surrounding goons, establishing his heroism with anger and violence. This definition of a ‘hero’ as a saviour for distressed women, a figure of unforgiving righteousness and justified aggression who uses violence but always for the greater good is exactly what we’re seeing in real life today.

Think of the anti-romeo squads. The BJP’s larger goal of safeguarding women comes at the cost of women’s independence. The violence that occurs to ‘protect’ women is justified because of its noble goal. However, the greater good itself evades definition – it is constantly changing and so used to justify different aggressions at various times. Sometimes the ‘greater good’ means safeguarding the image of the ‘pradhan sewak’, sometimes it means controlling ‘anti-national’ elements. And sometimes the greater good is just the maintenance of men’s supremacy in the social pecking order – by showing women and minorities their rightful place.

The brutal lynchings that are being normalised are examples of the heady mix of aggression and toxic masculinity gripping our country. Too many men believe that physical aggression is a credible way to demonstrate their masculinity. When it comes to being with or around women, this masculinity manifests itself in sexual dynamics, through the control the man exercises upon the woman. Online trolling – acerbic towards anyone with an opposing opinion, and specifically acidic towards women – is another example of this consuming need to assert supremacy through violence.

But is physical violence the only manifestation of aggression? What about language, art and semiotics? Look at the backs of most cars these days and an angry Hanuman stares back at you. Hanuman was always a playful, benign yet strong figure in the Ramayana. Where did this aggressive face with its steely gaze, built of out shadows and saffron come from?

Strength is now equated with aggression. And the latter has no checks. Demonetisation serves as a good example to understand the glorification of such ‘strength’. The dictatorial decision-making on display in such a move – and the way it was marketed to us – show what happens when power goes unchecked. The move is still considered a brave act, a radical decision. It’s an example of the brash, insensitive masculinity of today.

Mumbai: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a BJP function, in Mumbai on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. Credit: PTI

These notions also manifest themselves in our ideas of physicality – of appearance and the phonetic. And this change is apparent in how we project everyone from our gods to our prime minister. The 56-inch chest, dramatic promises to change the nation, the positioning as India’s proverbial saviour are all manifestations of the same phenomenon.

Language too plays a critical role. ‘Na khaunga na khaane doonga’ – the notion of control, peddled to us through Modi’s promises, the BJP’s critique of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘softness’, all tie back to the celebrated idea of the aggressive, alpha male; the custodian of everything that is right in the world, the purger of all wrong. The supremacy of religion fits seamlessly with this thought, and the willingness to purge all that doesn’t sit in the purview of his definition of the world, becomes opposition and hence can then be disposed off.

A real man operates alone, fearlessly. Devouring cinematic staples has also taught us that heroes work alone. Whether it was the ’70s, when the angry young man fought against oppression, or today when the strong man fights against all odds to claim the woman he loves – he demonstrates his strength by defeating any and everything that stands in his way.

This definition itself is toxic, putting a patriarchal definition on the idea of being male. Modi’s promise to be the harbinger of change, the enabler of a utopian idea of development also fits neatly into this definition of the toxic hero.

When did Modi become the hero that India really needs? How did he become so? Both the person and his ideology have been appropriating all the usual symbols of bravery and righteousness for years now – the soldiers at war, Ram, the willingness to sacrifice everything for duty and so on.

‘Being a man’ has been boxed into a patriarchal definition of the gender, one now freely employed and deployed by the ruling government. Troll armies are doing everything they can to control every single means of expression dear to us – media, social media or our own voices. Living with this toxicity is suffocating, and we, who recognise it, must also leave no stone unturned in calling it out, and continuing to free men from this constraining idea of masculinity with one word, action and thought at a time. And with that, free our nation of the hyperbolic division that is becoming our reality.

You can read more from Saumya Baijal on her blog

Featured image credit: PTI