Is your definition of a good man and a real man the same?’
My question staunches the easy chatter flowing around the Silva family’s dining table in their home in Dubai Investment Park, ebbing to a pensive hush as each member of the Austrian family of Brazilian-Croatian descent ponder the implication of the question.
Across the city, at another dining table in Jumeirah, at the house of the Bhargavas – an Indian family of four – the query is once again met with silence, until nine-year-old Katy breaks it with an audible aside to her father Anoop asking, ‘what does that mean…?’
Little Katy’s whispered, innocent counter-question forms the lead in to the deafening refrain of the post #MeToo zeitgeist – what does it mean to be a good man?
‘The two aren’t mutually exclusive. For me, a real man is synonymous with a good man – someone who is kind, is his authentic self and someone I can trust,’ says Ivana Silva, a Dubai-based nutritionist and life coach, who is also a mother to three boys, unplugging the momentary silence in the Silva household. ‘Yes, society might define a real man as tough and who doesn’t break down emotionally but it’s wrong that a ‘real man’ can’t be vulnerable, as if vulnerability diminishes him. It’s important for all humans to show vulnerability.’
The good man versus real man dichotomy – where the former reflects emotional intelligence, vulnerability and kindness, qualities traditionally dismissed as feminine, and the latter propagates archetypal masculinity characterised by macho brute strength, a stoic, aggressive demeanour – has pervaded everyday interactions, experiences and language in our patriarchal society.
When the #MeToo movement made its cataclysmic debut two years ago, it unmasked the fallout of this dichotomy – a rampant culture of gender inequality, sexual misconduct, bullying, sexism and gaslighting that was entrenched in men across industries, professions, races, age-groups and nationalities.
You’d probably recognise it by its more ubiquitous moniker – toxic masculinity. It’s the buzzword that dominates news headlines, elicits heated discourse on social media, lays at the centre of a polemical razor-blade commercial and in the case of the two-Dubai based families we spoke to, reflective dinner table conversations that revolve around their deepest fears as parents: how as parents they can raise their sons, men of the next generation, to be the good guys.
Addressing this concern forms the crux of How To Raise A Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, a book on parenting by Dr. Michael C. Reichert.
The struggles men and boys face are Pennsylvania-based psychologist Reichert’s wheelhouse – a father of two boys and a grandfather, he is also the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania.
The prevalent and popular definition of masculinity is a genuinely problematic and not merely a hot-button issue, rues the man who has worked with boys and men for over 35 years. But the toxic characteristics that definition calls out are a result of centuries of social conditioning.
‘I’m not a fan of the term ‘toxic masculinity’ even while I’m sympathetic to its aim. It misleads us into thinking that the problem is about being male instead of requiring a reimagining of boyhood.’
The toxicity, explains Reichert, stems from how society ‘violates boys’ humane natures by conditioning them to fit into traditional masculine identities where being male requires displays of dominance and hyper masculinity’. ‘Big boys don’t cry’, ‘Be a Man’, ‘Men don’t feel pain’ are hallowed maxims of masculinity that research proves creates hollow men. Insidious cultural mores of gender seep into children’s psyche by the age of four. Until then, says Dr. Reichert, boys and girls both experience and express the same emotions of empathy and vulnerability, sensitivity and compassion but schools, families, youth groups etc. then influence how those feelings are expressed and processed.
Bridging this gulf between how boys feel and what they can express will help reassign a health definition to masculinity and prevent the transgressions of MeToo.
What then is the traditional unhealthy masculine identity?
Now in his early fifties, the definition of masculinity for Anoop Bhargava has transmuted over the years. Raised by a single mother and opening his mind to wider world views now means being a happy, positive person. Growing up, it meant an imperceptible but prevalent pressure to be the provider, primary wage earner and to excel, which meant pursuing a pre-destined career path of ‘manly’ STEM professions, such as medicine or engineering and excelling at it.
‘What your passions were didn’t matter. That freedom was given to girls although for sexist reasons since it was assumed they’d get married and not have to support anyone,’ says the finance professional.
Ricardo Silva recounts how similar struggles were common to men of the generation before him too. ‘My father grew up with a step-mother and father who didn’t care much about his well-being. He had it rough, so was a tough cookie who worried about what could go wrong, especially finances. We grew up imbibing these worries, always preparing for something bad.’
Dr. Reichert succinctly sums it up as, ‘the privilege and pain calculus. In return for having a public life, males take on the responsibility and pressures of the breadwinner role which can reduce a man’s self-worth based on how well he does things. And [the competitiveness] can cause him to lose sight of his inherent goodness.’
Almost three decades down the road, his 16-year-old son Kris is free from the clutches of these expectations and finds the concept of ‘masculinity’ a nebulous and subjective take meaning different things to different people.
Perhaps it’s the tolerant world-view of the socially and politically conscious Gen Z.
But 17-year-old Philip Silva corrects me. ‘My group of friends and I are a lot more open with each other and share our feelings but we still try and be as masculine as possible around each other.’
His mother Ivana gently interrogates: ‘what does being masculine mean to you guys?’
What unfolds is a light-hearted yet eye-opening repartee of the kind of tough-guy posturing peer culture force boys to adopt, even those who are as astute and self-aware as Philip and his friends.
‘I guess it’s not about being the toughest dude in the place…’ he trails of sighing. ‘I’m not really sure.’
Dad Ricardo wisely pipes in deadpan, ‘It means being the toughest dude in the place.’
Philip laughs, tiptoeing around the minefield that is an outdated ideal of the macho, tough guy but concedes that if he had to define masculinity it would include ‘a lot of competitiveness and the confidence a boy carries himself with. It’s not always about physical strength.’
Masculinity, says Dubai-based parenting expert Onita Nakra, can be different things ranging from sensitivity to being humorous and it is parents’ duty to shatter the traditional image of masculinity and replace it with emotional intelligence: What will happen to the boy who doesn’t want to learn boxing or play sports or isn’t physically strong?’
In the Silva household Ricardo and Ivana cherish that each of their three boys are wildly different from each other: Philip is an outgoing conversationalist and athlete who has dabbled in every sport imaginable – swimming, basketball, taekwondo, football, tennis and gymnastics eventually knuckling down on his passion for fencing and cooking; 12-year-old Nicholas is an avid video-gamer and rock-climber whose imaginative mind finds an escape in writing. But perched on the precipice of teen hood, he’s still finding his voice and making sense of tumultuous emotions which means he comes off as introspective or reserved. Eight-year-old Oliver is a sunny happy boy who’s artistic and harbours a love for glittery accessories and the colour pink.
‘We’ve always told Nicholas and Oliver that they don’t have to participate in sports or bring home medals because their older brother does,’ explains Ricardo. ‘They are free to be the kind of boys they want to be.’
The Silvas’ parenting style mirrors the American Psychological Associations directives to mental-health professionals working with boys and men to eschew traditional definitions of masculinity in favour of the term "masculinities" which acknowledges various conceptions of masculine gender roles.
The landscape of boyhood has vastly changed in the 17 years that they’ve been parents, Ivana and Ricardo say and with it parenting has evolved. What was perhaps an unsaid taboo for Philip while growing up is now openly challenged by parents and boys of Oliver’s age-group.
When Ivana bought two-year-old Philip a shopping cart to play with, Ricardo found his wife’s choice of toys for their son ‘weird’. Cut to 10 years later and the couple bought Oliver a pink school backpack. ‘So what, it’s a colour,’ shrugs Ricardo nonchalantly. But contesting gender norms didn’t come without a set of apprehensions and discussions. Ricardo agonised kids would ridicule him at school and advised against buying him that bag, recalls Ivana. ‘I said if he gets bullied for being his true self, we’ll teach him to fend for himself. So we went ahead and bought him that bag.’
Oliver returned home that day and narrated coolly how when people teased he responded with, ‘I don’t care what you think. I love it so I’m wearing it.’
The plucky eight-year-old’s artless clap back to societal norms and refusal to lay his individuality at the altar of homogenising social norms and bullying is a result of a strong sense of identity and self-worth fostered by his parents, explains Dr Reichert. ‘Relationships in which a boy is known and loved has the power to transform how he sees himself and helps him resist a peer-oriented self-concept.’
The fail-proof way to empower boys is to listen to them, states Dr Reichert. Communication, Ritu Bhargava agrees, is one of the greatest tools in her and Anoop’s parenting arsenal. ‘We’re very open about our emotions and as a family talk to each other all the time and listen, not just hear.’
‘As Kris grows older, he exhibits a reticence universal to all teenagers and at times expects me to ask him pointedly about how he’s doing instead of him sharing his experiences with me.’
It’s a problem collectively experienced by parents of boys, says Dr Nakra and adults shouldn’t presume adolescent boys will voluntarily open up and share prosaic details of their life: ‘this may not happen unless your son has an emotional vocabulary and you have been in the habit of communicating from a young age.’
To Anoop, conversation about is as good of a father-son bonding experience as a fishing trip or sports. Any activity that allows them to spend time with each other qualifies as a father son moment for him. In fact, Ritu has played more football with him than I have,’ he quips.
This blurring of gender roles is a stepping stone to detoxing masculinity. In the Bhargava household is a simulacrum of the gender bias-free world they want Kris to occupy tomorrow; chores are shared and divided on a rotational basis and not gender. Ritu and Anoop have consciously sidestepped the double-standards and discrimination that girls experienced back home in India while they grew up. The cultural norm of male privilege is alien to Kris – if Katy is restricted from venturing out alone because of safety, so is Kris.
Dr. Nakra commends this moral stance: ‘It’s time we stopped blaming culture and ensured our family values need to be morally valid when it comes to raising young men and women equally.’
At the Silvas’, Ivana regularly takes time off for herself leaving the boys in Ricardo’s care, which has taught them that women aren’t shackled to the house and it’s normal for men to want to stay at home with the kids.
But the substantial rewrite to the social scripts of masculinity have come from the fathers themselves. Anoop and Ricardo have chosen to moult institutionalised patriarchy has straight-jacketed their generation in and be vulnerable.
For Anoop, vulnerability lies in revealing his internal life to Kris: ‘Kris knows everything about my friendships, my work trips, my ideas about economic concepts; my life isn’t a mystery to him like that of fathers from an earlier generation were to their kids. If I don’t have answers for him, I don’t mind accepting my ignorance.’
Ricardo follow in his father’s footsteps where relevant and eschews obsolete ideals of fatherhood: My father was the master of the house, the boss. His rules were the law and he had a quick temper. In my 17 years as a father, I’ve learned that I have to lead my sons, not manage them.
When Philip was bullied in Mexico and the US during the families short stints in each country, Ricardo didn’t hand him debilitating maxims of ‘fighting back’ or ‘boys don’t cry’ that he had picked up as a boy in Brazil. Instead, he offer him a safe space to talk and comfort.
It’s this vulnerability that has allowed Philip to freely break down and cry when the pressures of stressful fencing tournaments he participates in gets to him. ‘Dad talking about his struggles helped me understand it’s about seeing things as a growing experience, not a failure.’
Ivana elaborates: ‘our job as parents isn’t to ask him to stop crying and say he’ll be fine but to hold that space for him and be present as he feels all those emotions.’
Ricardo is also reassessing his language and behaviour for casual sexism disguised as harmless stereotypes, such as bad drivers are women. ‘I check myself now. As a father of three boys, there’s a lot of great power and responsibility too. It’s like being Spiderman. So much of how they behave they copy from you. Your actions impact how they see the world.’
Ritu doesn’t let such instances slide: ‘I make it a point to say that women are as good drivers and if at all they drive badly it’s because they don’t get the opportunity to drive as much as men and not because they don’t have the visual or spatial capacity to park.’ And that’s the right way to parent, concedes Dr Nakra. ‘There’s nothing casual about sexism, so parents have to ensure they don’t reinforce stereotypes.’
In the Silva household Ivana and Ricardo ask the boys if they believe insulting remarks like ‘punch like a girl’ hold any truth before they reprimand them. ‘I’m not perfect,’ confesses Philip.
‘Millennial men and my generation, Gen Z, are becoming more vulnerable but I don’t think we’re as respectful [towards women] as we should be. I feel some mistakes have been made in the way we’ve been raised to think and the cultural cues we’ve picked up from the broader environment – there is a sense of entitlement. But I’ve also learnt to stop both myself and others from saying and believing those statements.’