We all recall it and know about ‘childhood’, but is it experienced in the same way by each one us? In this piece we will be discussing upon the issue of boyhood. We will be looking at how socialisation of boys takes place in the Indian context. We will also be looking at how boys adapt to or resent societal norms and how they make sense of their own sexualities.
Sandra Bem in her Gender Schema Theory talks about how individuals are engendered in a society. How sex-linked characteristics are maintained and are transferred to others. As soon as the child is born, the process of socialisation starts. The very first dilemma of keeping or boycotting the baby may also be a choice which is gendered. Boys are considered to be a privilege in our society because of patriarchy. So, the birth of a male child is celebrated as a good occasion.
From a very early age the distinction between genders can be seen in terms of clothing or colour choices of parents i.e. blue for boys and pink for girls. However in India, sometimes boys in their early years are made to dress like girls such as wearing frocks and girls wearing shirts and short pants. The stark differences can be seen once the child gets into school.
Masculinity: Looking Through the Social Prism
A set of traits, attributes, behaviour associated with men/ boys are referred to as masculinity. Traits which are particulate associated with masculinity include being rational, a decision maker, aggressive, strong, courageous, being physically well-built, bold, macho, self-reliant, controlling, sexually active, dominant, assertive, occupying the position of a breadwinner/head of the family, independent etc.
But boyhood is not experienced in the same way by all boys. Social, cultural, economic, religious as well as caste identities also play a vital role in the process of socialisation. Masculinity is framed by social structures, hierarchies and relations which tell us what are the norms which are accepted by society. Also there are certain powers and privileges attached to masculinity. So, we can say that masculinity is not uniform or standardised. It has its own consequences and effects which in turn also impact other social institutions. It also has its material effects: such as in a patriarchal family who will become the heir of the family, in whose name new property will be bought. For example, many times properties are bought in the name of the wife so that one has to pay less registration fee but the real owner still remains the husband. In the serial Panchayat on Amazon we can see that though the seat is won by a female (wife) but she acts only at the face value, the real groundwork, decisions are taken by the male (husband) and this is not only true for the reel life but one can find examples of such kind in real life as well because 33 % seats are reserved for ladies. So since males cannot contest, they use females to win/occupy the seat but continue to treat her as a subordinate.
So, if one is an upper caste, say a Brahmin, then he is considered to be superior to another male/female who is Dalit/gay/disabled/ poor etc. Although one has the option to accept or disregard dominance, doing so is often extremely challenging.
Masculinity in the Classroom
Let’s start with a co-ed school and bring our attention to the classroom space. In Indian classrooms most of the time if we look at the male-female ratio, males are more in number than girls. The sitting arrangement is such that, they sit in pairs of the same gender and even if in some activity or in a certain situation a boy is made to sit with a girl student, he tends to see it as a punishment or an embarrassment before his other male friends.
Specially in the primary classrooms, we see a widespread preference for female teachers, because we tend to assume women are care-giving and nurturing and can respond better to the needs of younger children as compared to male teachers.
From an early age onward, the binaries of gender can be seen in the choices made while playing with toys. Boys are given toys such as cars, trucks, guns, robots etc. and girls are given dolls, kitchen-sets etc. Even during role plays, boys fantasise playing roles that revolve around fighting, chasing, running and for girls it’s about taking care of children, teaching, cooking etc. These symbolic gestures and toys children engage with provide the means by which children can re-enact and explore the social worlds they see around them and develop a wide range of social and communication skills.
We can also see the group patterns of friendship in schools. Boys tend to have bigger peer groups than girls.
Perpetuating of the Gender Divide Through School Curriculum
The school perpetuates hegemonic masculinity in a variety of ways not only through textbooks and various subjects but also day to day practices that take place in school. Subject/stream differentiation comes in India when one has to choose between three different streams in class 11th. Often children may not have the agency to make the choice based upon interest as marks tend to determine which stream one is offered. You’ll hardly see boys in the Home Science class as it is considered to be a feminine subject and even if a boy takes that subject he is susceptible to bullying, mockery, discrimination etc. Boys choose subjects that may fetch them a good job in the market in future because they are considered to be the future breadwinners of the family. Even if they don’t study and get a white-collar job, the expectation is they still need to work for their family. They work as labourers, scavengers etc. to earn for their families. They can’t be married off and do household chores. Boys are expected to become protectors, breadwinners of the family and unlike daughters, their role is seen to be vital and crucial for the society.
In several kinds of schools children are expected to do their own chores, such as washing clothes, cleaning up their rooms etc. It creates a tension between traditionally ascribed gender roles. If young boys are encouraged to develop their physical and masculine qualities through physical exercise and sports, they are also invited to share in chores that are traditionally ascribed to women in patriarchal societies like ours.
In schools where students of a single sex are admitted, anxiety towards the other gender is often the result. Therefore they find various means to explore their sexualities such as by stalking and staring at girls, watching pornographic content etc.
This issue became all the more clear in the context of the Bois Locker Room controversy on Instagram. Here a group of young, school going boys exchanged morphed/inappropriate images of women/fellow classmates and had gender-insensitive/violative and pornographic conversations about them. The issue captured the national imagination and compelled us to rethink our socialisation and educational practices. This is what happens when a topic like sex is not dealt with. Talking about sex is a taboo in our country and children are kept in darkness but then, they have their own ways of exploring the sexual domain but this often happens in a wrong way.
Sex education is given in a very few schools. Children are also not encouraged to talk openly about such problems. In such a situation the solution to their queries is the internet and their peers, which always doesn’t give one the correct information or emotional support that one needs. This is the age when adolescent boys face discrimination and bullying. Hegemonic masculinity plays a very vital role here in safeguarding and policing the norms and children often in this peer pressure and in the process of normalizing find it very hard to fit in.
Many boys experienced conflict as they attempt to self-regulate their behaviors and body according to normative codes, while simultaneously finding themselves transgressing these very codes. When one doesn’t fit into this hegemonic masculinity and finds it difficult to resent, one is a subject of bullying or seen as feminine.
Children in such situations might have to face physical abuse as well with the emotional trauma they go through.
Language also plays an important role in sexuality. Ever wondered why most of the abuses are based on female genitals? Also, who uses these abuses. Mostly boys are seen using such words, because being abusive is often seen to be against the social reputation of “good girls.”
The family is the primary source of socialization. One cannot forget it’s importance as it determines one’s identity. It shapes the expectations that the family and the outer society has from us, the roles and qualities we are allowed to explore and build on, the privileges and constraints that shall determine our preferences among a host of other important things. Marriages too are considered to be patriarchally determined and are often reduced to a business like exchange where ‘strong, valiant, high-earning men’ are married to ‘beautiful, coy, domesticated, non-argumentative women’
It’s not easy being a male in Indian society. If it has privileges, it also comes with its constraints. Your masculinity is also determined through various other factors such as class, caste, education, profession, region etc. Also you’re not given a choice to select your own lifestyle. It is already predetermined by the society and if you rebel or break the norms you’re considered abnormal. But one needs to understand that certain things are not in our hands, such as disability. One doesn’t choose to be disabled, but is considered inferior. Similarly, the colour of one’s skin is another example. Boys work hard on their looks, body, and job in order to get a wife and all of this is not out of choice but compulsively.
When one doesn’t conform to such dominant rules they are considered inferior or effeminate etc. They are easily mocked off, bullied, beaten and have to go through various physical and emotional traumas.
But in comparison to other genders they are also highly privileged in the patriarchal society. It all depends on how one views and lives with masculinity. It is also important to think about masculinity amidst the pandemic and ask whether it will change in terms of its connotations at a time when we are all compelled to remain confined to our homes. Will such a unique time compel us to rethink masculinity and its implications for the home and the world?
Sarah David is an educationist who has been working exhaustively on gender and pedagogy.