Often, there are moments in motherhood when I feel compelled to think and express myself, to share my experience with the rest of the world. One such moment triggered a train of thoughts a few days ago, which I found immensely pertinent to the present day social scenario. It provoked me to think deeply of the ways in which we are raising our boys.
As often, this rumination originated with my nine-year-old brat's seemingly innocuous question - “Ma, why are most of the pictures in the billboards of girls and women?”
I was stumped, and needed a moment to figure out how best to answer him.
Well, the objectification and commodification of women would have figured in a few answers but I reckoned that he is a bit too young for that. I said, let's look at the advertisements one by one and try to find out the reasons together. It was my effort to inculcate a habit of analytical reasoning in him. The answer to his question is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. It is something that he will have to gradually work out for himself as he grows up. I needed to put him on the right track. And so, we embarked upon a journey of advertisement deconstruction.
Most of the ads that we came across were of jewellery, which he promptly categorised as ‘only for women’ stuff (I'm not even going into the complexities that lie inherent in that misconception - that would call for a separate discussion). But we also came across a few others showcasing cooking oil, schools, housing complexes and fitness centres featuring exclusively woman/girl models. I tried to show him some more advertisements of similar products showing either male models or both and tried to reason out that there are ample representation of both the genders on billboards except for a few typical products. He seemed satisfied for the moment. But I knew such questions would surface again.This incident also made me rethink a few of his recent comments and observations which were on a similar vein.
The first one was after listening to the 'beti bachao beti padhao' campaign that is now all over the FM channels. He asked me, why are people always talking about beti and not beta?
The second came out of the blue one day after school, “Ma, are girls always good and boys bad? All the girls in my class say that. But I never say that girls are bad!”
And the deadliest one came after watching Secret Superstar - "I'm sad that I am a boy. They always treat girls badly."
All these questions were perhaps his effort to understand the complexities of the gender equations in his own ways. And as a mother I felt responsible for his gender sensitization. These questions gave me a peep into his impressionable mind. On each of these occasions, I had tried to communicate to him the real social scenario and why we needed such campaigns. But at the same time, I gave him real life examples of men and women (and thankfully, I'm blessed to have a few such people in my life) who at various moments have transcended the pettiness of socially constructed gender differences.
My son's questions made me realise a gap in our training of these young boys which does not emphasise enough on their role in the society. This is the gap that perhaps leads to their questioning of such women-oriented social narratives. We need to celebrate womanhood to raise our girls into strong and responsible individuals and we are making efforts in that direction. Yes, I understand that there are still miles to go before we can even dream of gender equality in our society. But in that discourse, where do our boys fit in? Raising these boys in a hetero-normative non-inclusive society, where most men and many women still live and swear by patriarchy, how do we even instil in them values of gender equality, inclusivity and using it as an umbrella term, humanity?
The popular narratives that they are growing up with still stereotypes the male in his role as the macho protector of mostly women victims. Right from the Marvel and DC Comics to Chhota Bheem, to our epics and mythologies - the popular heroes of today's children and adolescents all fit into this role.
In the gap that lies between discourses of hyper male machismo, celebrated by our film and television industries and endorsed by a large cross-section of our society, and narratives of women empowerment that we are trying to forge through umpteen obstacles, it's time to also find a narrative of inclusion, trust and respect. To let our boys grow into complete humans, and not just as the ‘complete man’, just as we want our girls to be women of substance.
The answer perhaps lies in finding narratives where boys are not just protectors, but also care-givers and even victims, narratives which celebrate mutual trust and respect irrespective of the gender and a world where sensitivity and emotions earn a primacy over compartmentalised gender roles.
Views expressed are author's own.