How To Be A Man In 2019
Here’s a confession that ought not to bother me, but does: I have never thought about what it means to be a man. I don’t speak for others, obviously, but can’t think of friends or relatives who have thought about this either. Or maybe they do in the wee hours, but don’t discuss in public. Either way, it makes me feel like the norm rather than an exception.
I did think about this for a few hours though, and arrived at the conclusion that this is the sort of question I only imagine a rugged, denim-clad person asking himself during a cigarette break, in between work shifts that involve heavy machinery. As a slim-waisted, laptop-toting figure with a name that traditionally belongs to Caucasian women, it sits incongruously on my shoulders. I’m still going to try and answer it, if only because one of the side-effects of getting older is that even mundane queries now trigger prolonged periods of introspection.
Naturally, being a man in 2019 depends upon where you are, how old you are, what you do for a living and how brave you can be. I mention bravery specifically because I believe being a man is increasingly about asking the correct questions and breaking entrenched gender roles. It is a process that can be expedited only by those courageous enough to fly in the face of what is collective, and often repressed, wisdom. Ours is an era of hate, with acceptance and empathy in short supply. Economics and the rise of far-right forces threaten so much that is fragile. So, for me, to be a man is now about standing up for what is decent rather than what is accepted. I experienced how difficult this could be first-hand by criticising the government in my country. It had a direct impact on my career, limiting choices I could make and compelling me to give up much I had worked for.
Another surprising thing about being a man involves connectivity. Our overwhelming reliance on the Internet goes a long way towards shaping the idea of maleness too, even if that aspect of it is rarely acknowledged. On the one hand, we are under pressure to conform; on the other, we must deal with what marketing folk refer to as the fear of missing out. I have opted to leave most social media platforms because they have the power to shape me in ways I am not comfortable with. What this means, then, is that being a man is also about knowing when to put a stop to something and getting out.
The concept of equality has been another surprise, in the sense that I think about it more than I ever did as a young man. It began as an academic exercise for me, with courses in women’s studies and reams of writing by and about women, but now occupies my thoughts even when I go about my daily tasks. I think being a man must involve questions about what it means to be a woman, and why we continue to discuss equal pay for equal work when that ought to be taken for granted by now. Even as I type this, a report from the World Economic Forum is making the rounds online, informing us all that women on average make 63 percent of what men earn. Not one country out of 149 assessed have women making more or as much as men and, apparently, it could take around 202 years for the global gender pay gap to even out. As a man, I feel increasingly compelled to insist that women doing the same thing I do get paid as much as I do. It’s a small gesture that more men should consider.
#MeToo does and should loom large in 2019, and I hope it will because, as the actor Idris Elba put it so eloquently, “It’s only difficult if you’re a man with something to hide.” The kind of conversations this movement has triggered across workplaces are revelatory, some for how they have compelled corporate India to re-evaluate its consistently poor treatment of women, others for how easily some men have nonchalantly brushed aside serious accusations and continued to go about their business.
To be perfectly honest, I am no closer to understanding how to be a man in 2019 or what it means. I like being asked the question though, because it almost never is, not by those around men, or by most men themselves. I have no interest in the clichés that encourage us to seize our days and follow our dreams, because the people creating them usually have no clue about how the rest of us live. I simply intend to try and be a better human being. There is nothing simpler, or more difficult.
— First published in GQ India, April 2019