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How toxic masculinity spews venom on women

As the film Kabir Singh sparks off a huge debate among film fans and feminists on an entitled hero treating a woman as property, we turn the spotlight on abusive relationships in real life

“Yeh meri bandi hai, isse koi haath nai lagaayega (This is my girl, nobody is going to even touch her).” This is a dialogue from the recently released movie Kabir Singh that unapologetically displays toxic masculinity. The problem here is not that they portray this behaviour on screen so casually, but that it has been glorified. Medical student Kabir Singh, played by Shahid Kapoor, openly announces (obviously without even asking the girl because this kind of masculinity does not allow any understanding of ‘consent’) that the character played by Kiara Advani is his girl.

“The main issue with this movie is the fact that the girl accepts him in the end,” says Niharika Birkett, a 28-year-old who works at an MNC in Noida. “He has been projected like an errant teenager, like a reckless hero. The girl is shown to have no agency, no choice and no freedom. Much like how it is for women in many Indian households. Her decision to accept this obnoxious man creates such a detestable impression on female minds. Many men will now think that it is okay to hit a woman, she will love you despite that. Many women will think that it is okay to accept a man who does this to her. It is totally flawed. In a country where we are still fighting to attain the most basic of rights for women, this movie is regressive at another level.”

This character of Kabir arrogantly whisks her out of her classroom and gives her private tuitions. In one scene, he slaps her as she continues to cling onto him and pleads him to not let her go. “It is like putting a stamp of ownership, treating a woman like a trophy,” says Prachi Jain, a 24-year-old who is preparing for civil service examination. “Many men get offended when a girl says no because they think getting a girl is like an accomplishment and not getting her is like failure that hurts their ego. From acid attack to domestic abuse, I think the root cause of everything is this toxic masculinity that is so ingrained in men in our patriarchal society.”

So, does achieving the feeling of ‘owning’ a woman makes a man feel like a ‘real’ man?

“I once had a childhood friend, a Parsi boy who looked to have grown up on movies like Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh. He boasted about bedroom exploits to his jock group, objectified his girlfriends, gaslighted them, even physically abused them, but they’d keep coming back for more. He never changed,” mentions film critic Rahul Desai in his review of Kabir Singh on Film Companion.

On the other hand, some are of the view that it is just a movie and should be seen as a piece of entertainment without delving into how socially destructive it can be. “It is just a movie and should be watched as a movie. Why do we tend to get so sensitive about movies nowadays?” says Shivansh Arora, a 21-year-old Lucknow University student. “If there is masculinity, there is femininity. There are just certain traits that are more specific to the gender. Crimes against women are because of the criminal psychology of the miscreant, not just because of the set notions on masculinity,” he adds, giving a divergent opinion.

But toxic masculinity is something that can make men perpetrators – it is something that leads to crimes against women. Be it domestic violence, acid attack, stalking or sexual harassment, it all emanates from this distorted view of male superiority and masculinity in men. Who is to be blamed? “The society, movies and advertisements, some even imbibe it from their fathers. No matter where they get this from, it is something that ultimately dominates their behaviour towards their mothers, sisters, wives or girlfriends,” says psychologist Kritika Kalra, adding, “The society has conditioned them to believe that they are the sole protectors of women. Abuse her, hit her, love her – they feel that they can do whatever they want to with a woman because she is theirs to claim. So, we end up being treated like commodities that can be owned, protected or discarded. But the irony is that we need protection from such men against men who are of the same mindset like them.”

After eating a delectable meal at a fancy restaurant, the waiter comes and hand over the bill to the man at the table. Never to a lady. So, does paying the bill make you manly?  Will it hurt your manliness if a woman pays your bill? Is that the definition of a true man? In trivial day-to-day scenarios, we see how toxic masculinity manifests itself and plays out. “This might seem like something ultra-feminists would point out and something that is inconsequential. But little things like these affect the mindset of men. Can we not pay our own bills? Why can’t the waiter ever give the bill to a female sitting on the table? What societal bias is responsible for this?” says Vishakha Sharma, a 19-year-old law student.

Words like ‘man’ful are used to describe people who are brave (dictionary meaning: brave and resolute). So, men are supposed to be brave, they are not supposed to cry, they are not supposed to let their women go out of bounds to protect that manliness, they are not supposed to marry a woman who earns more than them (otherwise how will they be able to enforce their authority on her), they should govern how a woman dresses, they should have complete control over the whereabouts of the women in the house and the list is endless. There are requirements and barriers and an entire checklist that decides your level of masculinity. Deviating from any of these will make you less of a man.

Domestic violence

In real life, men like Kabir Singh will break all norms of civilised society. “I never thought the man who I used to love will make me feel so close to death,” says Gauri Singh (name changed), adding, “He continued beating me till I started bleeding. Why, you may ask. Well, toxic masculinity or an abuser does not need a reason to hurt a female. I had wounds all over my face. I used to love him and I never expected this to happen. It was like some demon had taken over him. He tried to strangle me as well.”

“The worst part of this nightmare was that the next day, he was not apologetic about it. In fact, he had a sense of accomplishment that stems out from the sense of entitlement that such men have. He felt he had attained his manly powers by beating me,” she says. So, is this the definition of being a man? Does beating your wife/girlfriend make you more of a man? And does not doing this make you any less of it?

Singh further says, “What he said the next day shook me. ‘I will beat you again if you do this again. I slapped you because of the way you behaved — it was all your fault. You made me do this. Had you not done that I would not have slapped you. Women like you should be shown their aukaat (level). You deserved it. What will you do? You will complain? Nobody is going to listen to you. I will tell them that you slapped me first. Millions of girls like you complain, nothing ever happens’.”

This is the thing about such men, they can’t even accept their mistake. Their egoistic nature does not allow them to. How can their toxic masculinity let them apologise to a woman? He was so confident that nothing will ever happen to him and he can continue with this behaviour.  “Never had I seen this kind of negative courage in a person. He was brave. Really brave. But for doing the wrong thing. He was too sure about his superior position as man. The society had made him feel too secure in this authority,” she says.

Acid attacks

More than an expression of their anger, acid attacks are a peculiarly Indian expression of toxic masculinity. The intensity of this evil can be gauged from the fact that it can lead to destroying someone’s life forever. Such is the level of toxicity in their masculinity that they do not think twice before doing something so heinous. The question is: Does the society make them the monsters they are? How do they become so certain of their superiority? Why don’t men still understand how to take no for an answer?

Ritu, an acid attack survivor who works with Sheroes (a café run by such survivors), was attacked by two bike-borne men when she was five minutes away from her house. “My cousin paid Rs 1,25,000 to scar me for life. I could not open my eyes and I could feel my face burning,” she says. What was her mistake? Ritu’s cousin had been stalking her since long and had propositioned her when she was just 17 years old. “He was adamant on marrying me. He had been planning the attack for three months. This was the level of desperation that he had to destroy my life only because I refused his proposal. How can you hurt someone you love? It is not love. It is just madness, an obsession,” she adds. She feels that everything comes down to the mentality that is directly related to their upbringing — to what boys are taught at schools and in their homes.

“They are not lovers, they are obsessed men who treat a girl like a commodity or trophy that they want to attain at any cost,” says Anshu. In 2014, when she was in Class 10, a 55-year-old man who was her neighbour, propositioned her. She went and told her parents who had an altercation with the man’s family.

Similarly, acid attack survivor and social activist Laxmi Agarwal, who is now working to rehabilitate other such survivors, was attacked by her stalker at the age of 15 when she rejected his marriage proposal. There are many such stories of pain and endurance that make us wonder how we can ever get rid of this toxic masculinity.

Controlling behaviour

“He told me not to wear short skirts in front of his friends,” says Garima Prakash, a 32-year-old, adding, “Once his friends came over and we were partying, he slapped me and asked me to go and change because of the deepneck shirt I was wearing. He said that I wanted to entice his friends and called me a slut.”

But her boyfriend did not control her attire and dressing sensibilities alone. “One day I was on a call with him and he was going out with his family. He asked his mother to go and change because she was wearing a sleeveless blouse,” she says. For such men, controlling how women in his life dress makes him feel more of a man.

License to cheat

Himanshi Khatri, a 23-year-old narrates her ordeal of how her boyfriend used to control her, not let her go to parties and even stopped her from meeting her male friends. All under the guise of protecting her. “He used to say that he does not let me go to parties because he is concerned about me and wants to protect me from any mishap that might happen. But he himself used to go for such parties. Those rules never applied to him. I could have never protected him, but he protected me.”

There were times when she saw messages where he was flirting with other girls. Once when she was talking to a male friend, he snatched the phone and said, ‘How can you talk to any other guy? How dare you cheat on me?’. “This seemed funny because when I was talking casually to a guy, he considered it a form of cheating. But when he was actually flirting with multiple girls, it was completely fine as if he had the license to cheat,” she says.

So, is cheating on your wife/girlfriend and being in a relationship with several women at one time a sign of a true man?

Shubhankar Sharma, a 25-year-old engineer says, “Toxic masculinity harms men as well. I don’t think we should fall into this trap of proving to be masculine in a way that ultimately leads to an evil mentality. However, I might have behaved in such a way myself. I remember how I used to tell my elder sister to come back home on time and to wear certain kind of clothes that are not provocative. More than as a brother, being the only male member in he family made me feel that I have the responsibility to protect her.”

Be it rejecting a marriage proposal or saying no to sexual advances or lying in a relationship, the underlying psychological affect remains the same — How dare ‘she’ say ‘no’ to me? How dare she cheat on me? Feminist Kamla Bhasin, a prominent face of the One Billion Rising movement, substantiates this further. “It is a manifestation of our patriarchal mindset which is present in every little thing that we do in our day-to-day lives. Parents are also responsible for ingraining in their sons an attitude that makes them the protectors of the honour that resides in the females of the house,” she says, giving an insight into the condition of the Indian society that still sees men in a dominant position.

“It is the difference in the position. They see women as inferior, so how can this inferior gender have the power to reject a man? Woh sochte hai ki college chali gayi, padh likh li toh mujhe attitude dikhaayegi? They want you to remain subordinate to them so that they can impose their patriarchal attitude on you. We all end up doing this in our homes with our sons or brothers, teaching them that they have a power that women don’t have,” she adds.

So, do you beat your wife? Control how your wife/girlfriend dresses? Become crazily possessive about your girlfriend? Can’t tolerate that fact that she earns more than you do? Congratulations. You have all the traits that a ‘man’ needs to have.

Crushing her voice and threatening violence

A woman was made subject to rape threats on social media. Why, you may ask. Because she posted something on social media against the movie Kabir Singh. “I received a message today from a man threatening to rape me simply because I had spoken my mind about a film. This message came after a string of other violating texts that had been sent. Mind you this is from a complete stranger who has never even seen me. This is one of the many such texts that I have received. Because to the average Indian men or at least it’s representation in my inbox, violation of my dignity is normal, it’s obvious, it’s their only recourse in the face of a collective that refuses to remain silent anymore,” she says, adding, “This is why films like Kabir Singh become doubly problematic because they assure these men that what they do or how they behave is the normal. That my identity, it’s dignity exists at the cornerstone of their mercy. Never more,” says Amrita Mukherjee.

Fb posts against Kabir Singh

l For all those saying such films portray the ‘real’ love that is intense, destructive, all consuming, you have no idea how stupid that notion of love is. Love is liberating. It’s empowering, protective (not possessive), it makes you want to be a better person, not controlling and abusive. Real love isn’t about destroying your life or hers when rejected but about moving on and finding the strength to love again. Real love isn’t about ‘agar meri nahi toh kisi ki nahi’ but in fact about respecting the woman and her choices. We have to stop romanticizing the abuse that films like these peddle under the guise of love. Because in real life these stories don’t end with the guy marrying the pregnant woman. They end with either the woman or her family living in eternal fear, or in worse cases, even dying. Forget the offensive, misogynistic, disgusting piece of nonsense titled Kabir Singh. That pathetic reiteration of male privilege isn’t worth your time — PIyusha Vir.

l Disguised as a love story, Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s #KabirSingh — an official remake of #ArjunReddy – justifies what Indian men have been trying to normalise since time immemorial: That anger is a man’s birthright. That rage is necessary for a man to exert his dominance over a woman and the world needs to accept it — Poulomi Das.