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MDX Redbeat

Redefining Masculinity

In conversation with RJ Lokesh Dharmani 

When it comes to defining masculinity, Google explains it as “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristic of men.” Traditionally, men were expected to be protectors, providers and procreators. So naturally, masculine traits included strength, assertiveness, practicality and confidence. 

“On their own, these qualities are not toxic, they have been abused with privilege, and the negative spin is what makes it toxic,” says Lokesh Dharmani. His voice is one you would probably recognise at rush hour when you switch on the radio. As a jockey on City 101.6 for a whopping ten years now, Lokesh uses his three-minute links to leave you laughing and pondering as you drive back home on autopilot.

 “These qualities don’t seem to make sense in the current world. Now, men don’t have to protect women from wild animals. They can be at home and women can provide for the family. Those traditional traits of being a masculine man, they don’t necessarily hold true in today’s context. Gender roles, and modernisation have affected what masculinity is and we need to redefine it. It should be a clean slate.”

 In my time as a programming intern at City 101.6, Lokesh and I would often speak about feminism and poetry. In the two months I got to know him, I found that he would do his small little bit for the cause for gender equality. As a man who seemed confident with his sensitivity, I realised that he actively seemed to be redefining masculinity. Radio gives Lokesh the opportunity to amplify his voice on airwaves across the country, but social media does that too. 

“I used to bring up these issues when I was doing a solo show on air because that was completely my space and my thoughts. I used to ask people for their opinions and take them on air to talk about it, but now, it’s a double-header show.” 

When the Hindi movie Kabir Singh came out in summer, Lokesh was quick to shut down the toxic masculinity it portrayed on his social media too. “As the protagonist, he glorified and normalised toxic masculinity. But this isn’t new, the 80s and 90s Bollywood films equated stalking with romance, and I grew up with the idea that if you don’t eve tease a woman, it’s not romance. 

“Largely, this kind of toxic masculinity harms women when they’re treated as objects and as property. But that sense of male entitlement seeps into all your relationships, with friends, parents and even colleagues. It casts fear, and these men use it to get their way.”

This is how ‘masculine’ traits become toxic and begin to hurt those around us, as well as men themselves. It is a desperate call for redefinition. Lokesh explains, the existing definition of masculinity limits males. They are often told that being emotional makes them feminine. This derogatory tone of being woman- like instils privilege among men and inequality across the board. 

Image credits: @tjump on Unsplash

“As I watch my nephews grow up, I realise that no one really tells you to be confident. But there are subtle ways that we slide these messages in, like when we say, ‘man up’ and ‘why are crying like a girl?’ Naturally, young boys associate strength, practicality and all these other traits with the template of being a man. And now when you tell them they can be sensitive, and they can cry, they are confused,” says Lokesh in an interview at the Arabian Radio Network offices. “It’s social conditioning. Socially and culturally, there is a template for how boys and men should be. But it needs to be questioned. Men, don’t restrict yourself to just the traditional masculine traits.”

Image credits: @tompumford on Unsplash

With a collective two-hour interview, Lokesh and I realised that there are simply too many issues that ‘redefining masculinity’ covers and as such, there was quite a bit he wanted to impart as well. What started as an interview, turned into a conversation as we navigated through his own experiences to acknowledge why he felt the need to redefine masculinity as he continues to push for gender equality, both on air and off air.

Lokesh confesses, “Back in school, there were many bullies and as a kid, you don’t really know how to deal with it. They bothered me, they bullied me, but not too much.

“Society always tells you ‘don’t be a wimp’, ‘man up’ and ‘don’t cry’. Personally, I wasn’t very affected by these comments because I never really understood why I can’t cry. I couldn’t tear away from my core. I am a very sensitive human being, so I never had a façade. My sensitivity gives me strength, and that’s how I understood it. 

Image credits: @carlosarthurmr on Unsplash

“When they said that crying is a sign of weakness, I could never wrap my head around it. I thought I was being emotive, and honest about my emotions, so I never changed. I still am what I was back in the day – but more confident in who I am. That comes with time, I guess, and with more acceptance.”

Lokesh goes on to say that there is always so much resistance from men. When #metoo came along, so did #mentoo. Now, even the word feminazi is thrown around to describe the feminism movement that, at its core, makes no place for such radical notions. “Start with acknowledging the toxicity. The moment the privileged, in this case men, identify and acknowledge that they are privileged, they will work towards equality. I think it is the duty of men to talk about it and redefine masculinity to bring about gender equality.”

Lokesh recommends an easy way – simply, talking to boys as they grow up. He suggests telling them the right things but more so, showing them.  “Give them an equal picture when it comes to education and food, for example. Like the choice of school for your daughter and son; the meal that she and he get; the milk that she gets and the milk that he gets. Are they all equal? Do they receive the same liberties and freedom?” 

It is no secret that men tend to benefit from gender inequality, but toxic masculinity harms both genders and as a man, Lokesh recognises that the latter leads to fixing the former. But some men need convincing. What do they get out of gender equality? Where’s the incentive? 

“The idea is to take away the unfair privilege of being a man. If we are raising a generation of sensitive and empathetic human beings, irrespective of their gender, we’re just raising better human beings. That’s the problem with men these days, that they aren’t emotionally in-tune with themselves or the people around them. They have been told to suppress their emotions to be a man, and this affects more than just their confidence.

“How can you be happy when one half of the world is suffering, and the other is flourishing? For my own selfish reasons, my office is going to be far more productive if women are treated equally, and my family is going to be far happier. We’re missing out on so many perspectives by maintaining privilege and power among just men.”

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