The idea that men and women are expected to be different has existed since time immemorial. Gender stereotypes have, in fact, defined the way society behaves and thinks, and the idea that a man is the ‘stronger’ gender and women the ‘weaker’ one, has been accepted and passed on from generation to generation in several cultures.
Today, however, things are changing. If on the one hand men have suddenly become softer, more sensitive and more ‘real’, women on the other hand are becoming assertive, standing up for their rights, ensuring their voices are being heard, and determined to be seen.
Colombian author Carlos Andres Gomez puts this in perspective. ‘We’re living in a time where, more than ever before, the gender binary is being dismantled and replaced with a more accurate representation of gender: A dynamic, evolving, continuum of ways of being that are forever in motion,’ he says.
The rising power of women, and prominent feminist voices, are opening up a lot of space and permission for men to explore and figure out who they really are, says the author who was in Dubai recently for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
‘For example, as a kid, I never would have imagined that my being emotional, creative, collaborative and nurturing as a grown man would be the vital tools that enabled me to thrive personally and professionally. More than that, I never would have imagined that many of those roles I saw my mother and father taking on in my home growing up would be completely rearranged and swapped in my own home as a father and a husband.’
So, what brought about this shift? How is it playing out? Is there a male makeover happening?
For the author, who is known for his memoir Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood, the biggest factor in his personal journey towards doing that work had to do with building up emotional literacy after a number of years as a teenager where he ‘trained myself to be stoic and numb. So, maybe, it’s not a "male makeover" as much as a critical and courageous excavation of self'.
This courageous ‘self-excavation’ seems to have brought on the realisation that gender stereotypes can actually cause more harm than good.
Indian expat Priya Sarma seconds that. ‘There has been a growing realisation that the advertising and marketing conceptualisation of genders today seems to be one dimensional given that all people – men or women – are multi-dimensional.’ The senior sustainability manager at Unilever Mena quotes an Ipsos study that shows that more than 7 in 10 men and women globally say most advertising does not reflect the world around them.
That’s not all. ‘Three in five (63 per cent) women don’t see themselves represented in most advertising,’ she adds.
A majority of the people surveyed in the Ipsos study felt advertisers need to do more to eliminate traditional or old-fashioned gender roles in their ads. ‘Merely reinforcing stereotypes is unhealthy for society,’ says Priya.
Carlos would agree. He cites studies that have shown how gender stereotypes are extremely harmful for the development of healthy people. ‘Sure, there may be dimensions or characteristics of a stereotype that happen to align with a person’s innate self. But, more typically, it prescribes a version of being that is often far removed from the genuine and organic textures of who a person really is at their core,’ he says.
Moving out from the self, the change in gender paradigms could sometimes depend on society, geography and culture, says Anand Kumar. The managing director of Abra Visual Merchandising and Store Design, a brand activation firm, believes that while there is a definite shift in gender identities, the intensity of the shift depends on the part of the world you hail from.
‘In the west there is a much stronger case and shift in gender equality, whereas in most of Middle East and Asia, men still hold on to the traditional "stronger" image,’ he says, admitting that while there is a shift in the gender balance happening here as well, ‘it seems to be happening a lot slower’. He points to cultural factors that ‘continue to support men taking the lead in running a family and being the breadwinner’.
Anand, who works in the shop-fitting industry, which has a strong accent on visual displays, says the shift has been quite slow in the sector he works in. Traditional trades like carpentry, painting, electrical work are still dominated by men in most of the world and especially in this part of the world. ‘Women have barely moved in numbers into taking up such physically intensive work, compared to Europe, where women are, though still a minority, working in our industry and in factories.’
On the administrative and managerial side, however, the shift is a lot more evident. Women are also seen to be equally willing and capable of taking up roles that require tough negotiation skills, long work hours and an indepth knowledge of technical know-how, he says. ‘While I do not believe the whole feminism movement has subdued men’s voices, it has certainly made men more sensitive to the needs and expectations of the opposite sex, which I guess, is a good thing as far as social progress goes.’
Carlos, who has also noted the changes happening in men, is convinced that the definition of masculinity has been changing.
‘Masculinity and all of these gendered concepts have forever been changing,’ he says. He draws attention to the iconic pose of King Louis XIV in paintings, where he is shown wearing three-inch copper-toned heels and leggings – high heels in early 17th-century Europe were worn by men to signify their elevated status.
‘In the early 20th century in the US, pink was widely accepted as a colour for boys and blue for girls, which only changed mid-century as a marketing ploy by large clothing companies who actually inverted this colour association,’ says the author. Becoming aware of this history and starting to recognise the arbitrary and fluid nature of many gendered assumptions puts this in perspective. ‘Change is terrifying and, often, without a reliable blueprint to follow. On the other hand, the permission of this moment is an invitation for each of us guys to celebrate our individuality when it comes to our gender expression. Ultimately, it’s a call for each of us to break free and, finally, write our own script for who we are and want to be.’
So has his portrayal of masculinity and the ‘male’ changed over time in his works?
‘There has definitely been an evolution in my thinking about masculinity, which has been a product of reading, particularly Black womanist and intersectional feminist writers, as well as personal growth that’s been catalysed by many of the most important women in my life: my older sister, my mom, and, most of all, my wife,’ he says.
So, with so many changes happening in the world of gender balance, the question high on the mind is whether the time has come for men to reinvent themselves.
‘In the last two to three years, the social narrative has changed from masculinity to the individual,’ says Tej Desai, head of creative strategy at BPG Max. ‘The focus is now on "connecting" and bringing out the best in a person, not on the gender.’
Tej says the shift could have gained momentum because of the change in focus from ‘what’s on you’ to ‘what’s in you.’ ‘Today in advertising, there is a distinct shift in preference for brands that have an identity, that allow the individual to flourish, rather than a stereotype. As a result, a man today is portrayed as ‘a person’ and not as a ‘male’. The concept of ‘gender’ lost its sheen and instead the stuff within came to the fore. Brands were impacted by the changing social paradigms, as much as society became impacted by brands,’ he adds.
Stressing on his point, Tej talks of how ads in the earlier days used to portray women as the homemaker, while the man was shown as big and brawny and brave, making all the major decisions. ‘Today, however, this has changed. Ads now show women as assertive and capable of taking major decisions, while the man shares the load of maintaining the home, cleaning and cooking and washing, just like a woman would.
‘Ads are influenced as much by society, as society is influenced by ads,’ says Tej.
‘I’m an artist, so each day that I’m alive is an exercise in reinvention,’ Carlos says. ‘I make it a habit to question and challenge what I’ve been taught and try to move through the world with a mindfulness and intention.’
Mindfulness, intention... words that are reflective of emotional intelligence are being bandied about more frequently in today’s work and personal space by males and females. So, is the reinvention a result of the realisation that survival today depends on emotional intelligence – ‘softer’ qualities such as compassion, affection and empathy – which can equally be male and female traits?
Kalyan Chakravarthy, creative director and producer, KC24, a content production firm, opines that the change is a result of a natural shift in the male persona. ‘We don’t need to fight or conquer battles or lands anymore, so the question of bold and brave becomes irrelevant,’ says Kalyan. ‘Men now realise that women are an equal and perhaps a more powerful force and look for ways to co-exist with the new changes in social paradigm and emotion IQ.’
So, is masculinity everything that is ‘un-feminine’?
Carlos does not think so. ‘Unfortunately, I think the statement illuminates the pervasive toxicity – and devaluation of the feminine – and general rigidity of that outdated concept of a gender binary,’ he says.
He is convinced that masculinity is something that is much more fluid and expansive than it has ever been. ‘My work is focused on promoting inclusive ideas about masculinities, in an attempt to subvert those restrictive presumptions about "what a guy should be (or do)" that I felt suffocated by in my childhood,’ he says.
Clearly men are evolving and changing. Whether this is deliberate or a natural result of the times, is something that will continue to be debated. As Mohammed Shakeer, marketing manager of Ace Interior Designs puts it: ‘men will continue to be supportive of women. In fact, this trend will only intensify, because without women, the show will not go on.’
Carlos is optimistic of the future when it comes to deciphering one’s true self.
‘My hope is that men can give themselves and each other more permission to figure out who their authentic selves are and build a habit of interrogating the social roles and prescribed ideas of being we’ve been given,’ he says.
He firmly believes that men have to discover and determine what masculinity should look like for them clear that it can’t be dictated from the outside.
‘This is not to say we shouldn’t question or challenge each other during that process; however, I can’t tell another guy who he is. I just hope each of us can find space and permission to be our fullest, best, and most authentic selves. I am a work in a progress, and, hopefully, each day I’m getting closer and more aligned with my best self.’