As a child, Dr Deepa Narayan remembers her father’s looming presence at home. Without anyone saying it, she came to realise early on that he was the boss of the house. “His stature hung over us like cotton candy,” is how Narayan describes the influence her father. But she would bypass him and go to her mother if she wanted something as it was difficult to negotiate or change his mind.
The society may have progressed and become more gender sensitive now, the act of bypassing men continues. “We empower women by working around men as we feel the men don’t want to change or cannot change,” says Narayan, former senior advisor in the Poverty Reduction Group of the World Bank, in her new podcast ‘What’s A Man?, Masculinity in India’. The podcast attempts to understand men’s perception of masculinity, and their experiences in homes, schools and offices.
For instance, in one of the episodes, you hear a young man asking another, “Do you believe in gender equality?” to which he receives an affirmative response. Yet, the belief doesn’t translate to action.
“They don’t know how to practice it; the cultural hold is a lot more stronger. In spite of having this layer of intellectual things, there’s a layer of initial childhood conditioning, which is quite deep,” says Narayan. Illustrating this, she says that no man wants to be a woman as the characteristics associated with women are devalued and yet, they believe in gender equality. “So, they (men) have to unlearn a lot, whereas women have gone much ahead,” she says. Through the podcast, which concluded recently, Narayan wants to highlight the problem, without any judgment or attack.
Spread across 10 episodes, the US-based psychologist and anthropologist tries to understand what men are dealing in terms of their perception and society’s expectations of being a man. Some of the guests include banker turned author Amish Tripathi, drag queen and actor Sushant Digvikar, comedians Neville Shah and Abish Mathew, psychiatrist Dr Harish Shetty, Godrej Culture Lab founder Parmesh Shahni, retired army general HS Panag, Universal Music Group’s Devraj Sanyal.
The episodes are also interspersed with select sound clips from men she interviewed while working on a previous book Chup, which dealt with women’s inequality in 2018. At the time, she interviewed about 200 middle and upper-class boys and men from across age groups in various cities of the country, which dictated the various themes discussed in the podcast.
One of the things Narayan has learnt through the journey of this podcast is how men feel about their bodies. While women have been going through body shaming for a long time, men go through the same issue but no one talks about it, she says.
“Look at the men’s image portrayed in media and popular culture; the man’s tall, handsome, and muscular. No matter the question, the concept of man and masculinity would keep come down to strength and muscular body. What if you are not muscular and tall? We need to education boys about their bodies, as they have body anxiety too, and no one is talking to them about it,” she says.
Even the characteristics men attribute to their gender hasn’t changed over generations. The most common adjectives ¬associated with “man” - strong, tall, dominant, aggression, muscular, hairy – continues to be the same. The societal conditioning hasn’t changed, she remarks.
“The only place I saw a change in perception was if the boys or men had been raised by single mothers. The women were seen as having both masculine and feminine characteristics. It makes me think, do we have to wait for families to disintegrate for this change to happen, or can we bring this change earlier?” she says.
In fact, the concept of both genders possessing masculine and feminine qualities is not a new to India. Indian epics, folktales and literature allude to this. “In fact, feminism is not a western concept. The word is, but the idea of gender equality existed in ancient India,” she says.
Ultimately, Narayan’s goal is to motivate boys and men to question the concept of masculinity with their friends and families. The podcast is just an engaging tool to achieve it.
Besides a dedicated website, the podcast is available on various popular podcast platforms.
Also Read: Can we talk about the gender pay gap?