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Rethinking Masculinity In The 21st Century

By Kames Narayanan

Today, masculinity can be considered an unwavering internal quality that stands independent of an action or aesthetic.

In the opening scene of the 1977 film 'Pumping Iron' — a docudrama on bodybuilding that depicts two prominent competitions (Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia) of the time — a heavily built Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger, clad in gym garb, attempt fluid, feminine ballet moves. The giggle-inducing onscreen struggle of two burly men flexing their muscles with as much grace as they can manage — for a pageant, no less — opens the floor for a greater conversation on the preconceived notions on masculinity.

The expectations and responsibilities that weigh heavy on the male kind are aplenty. God forbid that men, whose forbearers are weapon-yielding warriors, globe-trotting adventurers and ruling politicians, step down from the pedestal of machismo they have always been put on. From the beginning of time, they have been looked upon as a symbol of unwavering strength and told their whole lives that real men don’t cry — we’re barely scraping the surface of an entire repertoire of can’t-dos.

While this socially constructed narrative continues to have a strong hold, the traditional perspectives are increasingly tested by more liberal views. The world today is shaping up to be one where women demand to be treated on a level playing field as their male counterparts. As the voices for greater gender equality ring louder than ever, preconceived notions on stereotypes, when considered in the contemporary context, lose their relevance.

This brings us to the question: What does machoism mean to the modern man? American philosopher Elbert Hubbard’s perspective that “the stronger a man is, the more gentle he can afford to be” offers us an insight. Hubbard’s outlook, at that time, may have been a jarring contrast to reality but today, it is an idea that men are unabashedly buying into — both literally and in a more metaphorical sense.

There exists a substantial repertory of newly coined terms that attempt to define masculinity that runs the gamut from the familiar metrosexuals and himbos to the lesser known SPURMOs (single, unmarried men over 30). The labels may be a dizzying array but they all find a common ground defined by a manner of dressing and way of life.

Earlier this year, the internet was sent on a frenzy with the debut of RompHim, a Kickstarter crowdfunded project whose proposition for the new male wardrobe borrowed from the romper (a womenswear staple). Despite the primarily pastel colour palette and vivid prints, RompHim’s launch collection sold out. Delving further into the fashion realm, menswear continues to borrow from feminine codes. At Gucci, pussy-bow blouses have found their way into the collections as staple wear. Alessandro Michele’s red carpet ensembles for his muse, Jared Leto — who once turned up in pastel pink pants at the European premiere of “Suicide Squad” — are epitome of a defiance against the archetypal menswear ensemble.

The Hollywood bad boy has for the most part of his career kept his hair longer than the average Joe — another trend that redefined the way men groomed themselves. About two years ago, we witness the meteoric rise of the man bun, when everyone from the man on the subway to Harry Styles wore their grown-out locks pulled back into a bun.

On the conversation of primping and preening, spa and wellness treatments are no longer untouched territory. For instance, at Australian skincare label Aesop, facial treatments geared specifically towards the needs of men are offered exclusively in selected boutiques across the globe. These trends can also be observed closer to home. According to reports by market research company Euromonitor International, the value of men’s skincare sector here has been on the rise since 2010. Potions and elixirs have replaced grit and grime, as men these days bask in a lap of luxury.

Looking beyond the frivolity, the male role on a day-to-day basis is a far cry from its chauvinist past. At home, house husbands are on the rise across the globe in both the United States and Europe; parenting is no longer just a women’s struggle as fathers have been awarded two weeks paid paternity leave off work in Singapore. And in the kitchen, male chefs reign supreme. Men may have always been participatory in the female world, but what differentiates the man of the moment is a willingness to participate. To string the idea into words, masculinity can be considered an unwavering internal quality that stands independent of an action or aesthetic.

If the hammer-yielding, hypermasculine superhero Thor sports blonde, shoulder-length locks and embraces an endearing vulnerability — will one ever forget the scene when his eyes well up upon Loki’s pleading request for him to return home — then men too, can hold onto their virility despite shedding a tear or two.