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8. Femininity – Masculinity

Notions of Gender and Feminism

It is now accepted practice to make a distinction between sex and gender.

The first is a biological category, the second a social construct. This means, in effect, that a biologically male person can be feminine and a biologically female person can be masculine.

Masculinity and femininity then, can be described in terms of the qualities ascribed to them. Femininity is usually equated with passive qualities—something you can check for yourself by compiling a list of binary qualities and analysing the traditional associations with gender.

We go back here to what we read about binaries in the module on the nation. You will remember that binaries are hierarchical and function on an unequal plane, so that one is considered ‘better’ than the other. Feminist critics have pointed out that ‘feminine’ qualities are always the weaker half of the binary.

Masculinity and femininity make up one binary—which one is considered stronger? Keep in mind that the relations of power between the genders are fundamentally unequal—this is what is meant by patriarchy.

Feminism believes it is of vital importance to make a distinction between sex and gender, because when these two categories are blurred into each other the qualities of femininity are naturalized. This means that it becomes possible to say women are meek, timid, gentle and submissive with the same authority that one can say women have ovaries.

In fact, it becomes possible almost to say that women have these qualities because they have ovaries or just like they have ovaries—to ascribe these qualities to biology and make them seem natural and inherent rather than constructed. If women’s ‘weakness’ or ‘inferiority’ is a biological fact, it can no longer be questioned and the status quo can be maintained. This notion of the construction of gender in unequal ways is at the heart of feminism.
Feminism is too large a term to cover here, because there are very many feminisms. Indeed, it is inaccurate to think of feminism as one unified entity—the reality is that there are different kinds of feminism and not all of them agree on everything.

All feminisms however, are political discourses that are concerned with gender inequalities and their consequences to women in different spheres. Feminists over the years have analysed different issues and brought to light the workings of patriarchy in different areas. These analyses have included critiques of language, where they have shown how language is inherently biased in favour of the masculine, and the feminine is made invisible or inconsequential—think of the implications of words like mankind and history and their usage, and the even more damaging use of the generic pronoun ‘he’ to refer to any neutral human activity. Other areas of critique range from literature to politics to health




The History of Studying Masculinity





The history in the West


Feminist critiques like the one mentioned above are both theoretically sophisticated and politically powerful and they opened up the space to examine the patriarchal structures that shape our lives by foregrounding how notions of womanhood are understood.

In the 1970s, men woke up to the significance of this critique in understanding how notions of masculinity are structured. Much before this moment, the discipline of anthropology had ‘discovered’ men as an object of analysis. The enterprise of anthropology, which began by studying the ‘other’ of western cultures, did focus on men as gendering beings, especially in their studies on rites of passage. Thus, a body of literature that looked at notions of masculinity in non-western cultures came out during this period.

The second important line of theorizing that foregrounded how notions of masculinity are structured in our society came from the emerging queer theory in the 1970s. Thus, apart from the strand that came last—the one that emerged out of second wave feminism—the early studies on masculinities either took marginalized male identities as their object of analysis or came as a critique from the politics of the marginalized.

Also, the masculinities studies that are today a strand of study in the Western academy are more the study of and by heterosexual men trying to make linkages with marginalized identities. The primary agenda of this endeavour is to understand dominant ways of structuring masculinities.
Read Mick Leach’s “The Politics of Masculinity: An overview of contemporary theory”



Part II- The history in India





In India, the early studies on masculinities came as part of the historiography of colonial India. These studies were more interested in understanding the dynamic of Indian nationalism and in this endeavour implicitly foregrounded some of the most fascinating aspects of the discourse of gender in India. There were also works inspired by psychoanalytic theories that tried to understand notions of masculinity. This set of writers brought in popular cinema and literature as important sites for understanding dominant forms of masculinity. It was the third stream, which has become popular in the later 1990s that introduced anthropological interest in studying masculinities. The foregrounding of non-hegemonic masculinities happened at this point of time. In the earlier works structures of culture and history were the main focus of study whereas in the latter part men as objects of study made an appearance.

Read Mangesh Kulkarni’s “Reconstructing Indian Masculinities”—




Body and the discourse of gender




It has to be kept in mind that studying men and masculinity is not exactly the same as studying women and femininity. Femininity is articulated from the position of the marginalized. ‘Masculinity’ is a normative domain within which, in a specific historic and social context, bodies are gendered male.

Thus narratives of masculinity take recourse to a hegemonic definition of masculinity as a standpoint to evaluate gendered performances. To put it differently, any performance or enunciatory moment of masculinity implies a dominant form.

As we mentioned earlier, bodies that are termed masculine and feminine need not confirm to the biological distinction of men and women. Thus, as Judith Halberstam demonstrates, masculinity can be an attribute of a human being who is biologically female.


Look at the two sets of pictures given and write about the link between body and masculinity. Also think through why we would call someone masculine, in the context of these pictures.

Set 1: The Footballer and the Princess

Set 2: The Sailor

Set 3: The Autodriver




Masculinity and history of colonialism in India




In his influential essay ‘Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question’ Partha Chatterjee tries to understand how notions of public and private were structured in 19th century Bengal as a response to British colonialism. He argues that there was a discursive separation of the public and the private as constituting respectively the material and the spiritual/cultural, the world and the home and significantly, masculine and feminine. This analysis and similar work from other parts of have helped in understanding the link between masculinities and publicness, which is an important node for the study of masculinities.

Other historical works that have looked at masculinities include those of Tanika Sarkar and importantly that of Charu Gupta whose work on UP in the early years of 20th century presents fascinating material that helps us understand the link between masculinity and the public domain.
Colonial constructions of gender were very complex, and any explanation here will necessarily be only partial and perhaps simplistic, but there are a few points that need to be made.

You will remember reading in an earlier module how ‘Oriental women’ were exoticised as erotic objects for the gaze and desire of the coloniser. This interacted with a colonial discourse of masculinity that posited Indian men as effeminate in relation to the masculine British male on one hand, and as brutal savages to their women on the other, so that the coloniser became the heroic saviour of the exotic damsels in distress.

You will also need to keep in mind notions of gender in the context of nationalist ideas. Under threat from British imperialism and the ‘threat to Indian culture’ the Indian woman as the guardian of the private domestic realm was posited as the ultimate repository of the culture’s values, and became the site of both memory and aspiration with both traditionalists and reformers. In other words, Indian women embodied the glorious past and tradition and through reform movements aimed at them also represented the Indian male’s aspirations to modernity. Issues such as sati, widow remarriage and women’s education saw Indian men take opposing positions, with the woman as the site of contestation, and the figure of the male coloniser looming over both camps as the rescuer of the Indian woman.
Another important work that presents a richer picture of masculinities in the colonial period in is that of Mrinalini Sinha who argues that colonial power was organised around notions of masculinity. She argues that it was the context of a crisis of masculinity in that facilitated the performance of a hegemonic masculinity by the colonizers. It was a time, she argues, of the emancipated woman, especially with the women's suffragette movement, the discussion around homosexuality, after the arrest andimprisonment of Oscar Wilde. The discussion of the feminisation of British boys was strong at a moment which also saw the emergence of the boy scouts movement and the machismo of colonial power.

In India, there have been at least two kinds of responses to the discourse of the masculine Englishman and the effeminate Indian. One was in the form of the early revivalists who excavated masculine figures like Shivaji to make an argument that we were always masculine till the imposition of colonial power.

The other was from the likes of Gandhi, who argued that it was indeed the feminine qualities in a country like that could respond to the obscene machismo of the British. In the post independence era, radically different concerns have structured notions of the ideal masculinity. This included the production of a masculine ideal connected with notions of development and other narratives that complicated this picture







Take a look at this clip from the film The Legend of Bhagat Singh and discuss it in relation to the nationalist response to colonialism.


The production of masculinities





In the various narratives of masculinities that can be identified in the public, it is evident that there is a considerable amount of work that goes into the production of these notions. Thus, a structure of differences and separations need to be put in place to understand how notions of hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities are structured. Let us divide this section into two parts 1) Technologies, 2) Caste and class


Part 1: Technologies: There are two registers in which we can discuss the notion of technologies in relation to a discussion of masculinities. One is literally in the sense of enhancing the notion of masculinity through technological inventions as in the case of Robocop or Terminator. The other aspect is the kind of supernatural add ons that help bolster the narratives of hegemonic masculinity like in the case of Hritik Roshan in the film Koi Mil Gaya. Then we have the Superman, Spiderman narratives. These examples foreground the possibility of a layer of discourse that produces a body as masculine (and by implication feminine). In metaphorical terms, masculinity is an add on.
The second aspect is what could be termed the technologies of the self, where men in day-to-day instances perform their masculinity and try to produce the self as masculine, as for instance in the attempt to build a ‘masculine’ body and to dress a certain way.





Discuss the following pictures in the context of the above discussion.


Class and caste




Let us discuss this with examples. Take a look at the following pictures. Pic 1, Pic 2.


These are pictures of violence from the carnage of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. These pictures were circulated in the media at that time. This picture of violence is coded in gendered terms in the context of a discourse of masculinity, which narrativizes the conflicts between Hindu and Muslim communities as one of competing masculinties. You may also wish to listen to Sadhvi Ritambara of the VHP in Anand Patwardhan’s documentary film Father, Son and Holy War. It is a discourse of gender that structures an incident of violence as a narrative of masculinity. Rearticulated ad nauseum, these incidents of violence and power get structured as one between competing masculinities historically.
Let us make this clearer. You have already read how women formed the site of competing masculinities in colonial times. A similar formulation also prevails in the context of the communal conflict.

Women are posited as the carriers of the community’s honour and thus any violation of the women of one community by the men of another implies the dominance of the latter and posits the men of the former community as effeminate and unable to protect their women.

This kind of formulation has resulted in the discourse of the violent, lecherous Muslim male who desires and desecrates the pure, chaste Hindu woman, and it is from this that Indian men are exhorted to protect their women and avenge historical wrongs against them.

Tanika Sarkar’s studies have shown how women in right wing organisations urged their men to violence during communal riots by challenging their masculinity.

The Muslim woman is seen on one hand as the victim of the Muslim male and on the other as easily available to the Hindu male. One point of comment is the unprecedented high proportion of rapes of Muslim women in the Gujarat violence of 2002, as the Hindu male underlined the superiority of his masculinity over that of the Muslim male, who was traditionally assigned the role of virile plunderer of women. In this way, incidents of violence are structured through a discourse of gender to construct them as a historical contest between competing masculinities



Exercise - I


View the film Pinjar (or 1947- Earth) and discuss how religion and gender are narrativised.

Now let us see how caste is narrativised in masculinity debates. Here is another still: one that has become emblematic of the political churnings in in the early 1990s.

This is a still of Rajiv Goswami, a student from Delhi, self-immolating during the notorious anti-Mandal agitation in 1991. Here we see a frail non-macho man going up in flames. This photograph can be understood only in the context of the discussion at the time, which presented Dalits as over-masculine figures, powerful because of reservations. There was also the famous banner held by an upper caste woman that said that they [upper caste women] want employed husbands.

In such a context the self-immolation becomes a moment of heroic masculinity (remember Sati, which produced heroic femininities in dominant gender narratives).

Discourses of caste have also provided similar formulations as the colonial and communal ones outlined above. These have naturally changed over the years but in the case highlighted above, it is again a moment of reversal of sorts.

In general, especially in feudal setups, the lower caste/class woman is seen as available and accessible to the upper caste/class man, whereas the women of the latter segment are pure, chaste and inaccessible. The upper caste/class male can and does underline his superiority by sexually using lower caste/class women.

The moment captured in the photograph is not about a contest on sexual grounds but on the social grounds of employment, where reservations are seen as having made the dalit powerful and having weakened the upper caste male, especially in the eyes of the upper caste woman.

Where dalits cannot protect their women from sexual abuse, upper caste men are perceived as no longer able to support and provide for their women.

It is in this context that this incident can be seen as constructing a moment of heroic masculinity.


Exercise - II


See this clip from Hindustani and discuss the coming together of caste and masculinities.

1. Watch the films Hum Tum and Gayab and pay attention to how class and masculinity intersect in the male protagonists of these films.

2. Look at the articles on the 'metrosexual man' that has appeared in the last couple of years in leading magazines/newpapers in India. How does the notion of the metrosexual man relate to other models of masculinity

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