Tag Archives: toxic masculinity

The Venus Flytrap: Queer Eye For Reality

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Why is there a ceramic kitten under a grown man’s bed?” By the time I laughed out loud at this line, I’d already cried at least twice watching Queer Eye. I’d started watching it, a reboot of a makeover show I’d never seen called Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, because I’d wanted something as low-investment as possible, something that would let me mentally check out from everything that stress and distressed me in the world and within. What I found was that QE isn’t really about grooming, style and décor, but about the source of most of the turmoil itself: toxic masculinity. Even better, in its own sweet way, it addresses that source.

I first started watching around the time that author Junot Diaz published a powerful essay on being raped as a child, which he had kept secret. The flip side to this essay is that it was mostly about women he’d dated and subjected to emotional abuse because of his inability to come to terms with his trauma. Diaz was brave, but by no means heroic. The more I thought about the women he had hurt, the less the first seemed to matter. Was he only protecting himself, again, from being accused?

As I continued to watch QE – beautiful moments like one man talking to another about being comfortable with his own femininity; men vulnerably sharing how they built barriers so others couldn’t affect them and found themselves damaged anyway; men opening up to the possibility of self-love and self-scrutiny both; men crying from overwhelm, from grief, from joy – far worse events hit the headlines.

Still watching, my thoughts traced again one tender spot in the ways that cis-women, particularly cis-women who love men but do not love patriarchy, interact with cis-het men. On the one hand, we avoid giving them much rope unless they’ve jumped through burning hoops first. On the other, even as we strive to raise the standard for acceptable behaviour, it also takes very little for us to soften open to the possibility of goodness. This is not naïveté; it is belief in what one is working towards. It is belief that goodness is not idealistic, but something to nourish when found.

It is belief in a world unlike this one. This world in which a little girl took her horses to graze and never went home again, and so many believe that the brutality she underwent is fine. And then, if the situation could be more malicious, we learnt that web-users around India entered her name into search bars on pornographic websites, seeking pleasure in a child’s violation. This world in which each of them, in turn, is capable of the same crime. This world in which we weigh that against what Diaz must have done to the women who loved him, and we lick our own wounds and say “it’s not so bad” as though that can heal and not salt them.

I don’t owe it to them – the men of this world – to let a reality TV show be a balm for reality itself. But I owe to myself. We must breathe as we labour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Buffer Around Predatory Men

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There is a buffer around every man who mistreats women. This buffer protects him so that the wounded party can barely get the indicting words out of her mouth to begin with, and if she manages to, she will be dragged through the dirt for doing so. On a systemic level, it is the toxic masculine that forms this shield. Within this, for a certain kind of man – the kind of man who has a halo around him composed of charisma, privilege and erudition – his most effective layer is not simply made of men, but also, sadly and strangely, by women.

Women who say they know him well. Women who say they love him dearly. Women who didn’t feel abused when they dated him. Women who don’t think someone with such good manners would do such a thing. Women who harbour crushes but not expectations, who are content to be known as his associates and friends. Women deeply enamoured of his work. Women who dismiss the memory that under certain lights, his irresistible aura appears more like a sinister gleam, and they’ve seen it themselves, they’ve held the collar of their shirt a little tightly that day, they’ve almost stumbled as they tried to leave quickly that night without stopping to ask themselves why.

A person has a right not to believe what another is saying. The world is full of liars. But when doubt extends to protection of the alleged perpetrator, it’s no longer reasonable. And one doesn’t need to take a public stance to protect perpetrators. In fact, the far more damaging stance is in private. The thing said to the victim desperately trying to articulate her experience. The shrug. The wry smile. The “oh haha, but he’s like that with everyone, and actually he’s got a big heart (or a sad story)”. That’s just a basic example.

So this is in praise of all the women who reject a place within that buffer of cushy, complicit mutual protection. Here’s to all the women who don’t make excuses for reprehensible actions and those who made them. Here’s to the difficult women – difficult because they don’t make it easy for terrible men to keep coasting through life. The loud ones. The cold ones. The acolytes who chose ethics over patronage. The family members who don’t stand by abuse, even by their own kin. The exes who refuse to “stay friends”. The former friends who did the right thing.

As my feed filled with the #MeToo hashtag this week, I thought about some of those terrible men I’ve known. Their social media feeds would also have cascaded with posts by the women who didn’t defriend or block them like I did. Who hadn’t been sure of taking the risks of so clean and clear a cut. And some of those women would have been condescended to with these predators’ pretend empathy or outrage.

So let’s be difficult. Because I guarantee you: there’s another woman lingering somewhere, who doesn’t know she can choose not to pad up that buffer. There’s more than one, most probably. And maybe they need to know there’s more than one too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Illusion Of Safety Is A Highly Gendered Phenomenon

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Some years ago, a spectacularly acrimonious argument with an auto driver had me racing up several flights of stairs, palms sweating, ears ringing with filthy curses, desperately seeking the reassurance of the friend who opened the door. Shaken, I recounted the incident: the driver knew where I lived, I was at the drop-off location frequently, it was a long ride, he knew what I looked like, what if, what if…?

“Don’t be silly,” said my friend. “How many times a day do you think he has a fight? Do you think he keeps accounts of each one?”

His logic was so beautiful, so collected, that for a few moments relief washed over me. I was just being paranoid, I agreed. I mean, why would I think that… And then the genderedness of our perspectives clicked into place. My male friend lived in a city in which he could unzip his trousers by a random wall if the bathroom queues were too long, and no matter how many women dropped by, his neighbours still said friendly hellos to him. I lived in a city in which I never left a party without someone asking me to text when I got home, and none of those same neighbours ever looked me in the eye. Both these cities share the same name and map coordinates, and vastly different emotional echolocations.

Which city did the murder of S. Swathi at the busy Nungambakkam railway station happen in last week: his or mine? Entitlement or vulnerability? Both, as it happens, which is why the reactions to it have been so shameful and so confused.

Chennai is not any more dangerous than it ever was, so let’s drop that sensationalist line of thinking. Ask a college student, ask a transwoman, ask every person wrapping a dupatta on her body as though it was made of chainmail. If you hear women themselves saying that the city has “become unsafe”, what’s between the lines is this: if someone chooses to kill me publicly, they may just get away with it. The psychological stakes have been raised from eyes averted from slaps in parking lots and ears plugged to screams in the adjacent building to even greater non-involvement.

The need to categorise the murder as only an issue of urban safety is an act of obfuscation. True, we should be able to take for granted working CCTV surveillance and prompt responses from authorities, as well as protection for those who come forward as witnesses. But to ignore the larger picture of public indifference and poor socialisation means changing nothing about how things really are. We can talk about these things while still honouring Swathi’s family’s request to not speculate on her case.

We cannot address women’s safety without talking about stalking, specifically how treating love as a dinner table taboo and allowing misogynistic cinema to teach its ways instead has destroyed its spirit. Modern Indian culture does not empower people with respectful courtship etiquette, but neither does it empower them with the skills to handle rejection. And when a person confides that someone makes them feel afraid, how seriously do we take them?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 30th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.