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Is there such a thing as the metrosexual male?

By Mangesh Kulkarni

In the vast grey zone between the media-bolstered faAade of metrosexuality and the deep-rooted structures of patriarchy, an unprecedented transformation of Indian masculinity is taking place

If the English language press is to be believed, a new species has appeared in the staid zoo of Indian masculinity: the metrosexual. As the name suggests, he is a denizen of the urban world. His favourite haunts include the fashion industry and the audio-visual media. Unlike his conventional counterpart, he takes a keen interest in personal grooming, has an open attitude towards sexuality, and is in touch with his feminine side. The Hindi film star Shahrukh Khan -- who has recently featured in a gender-bender soap advertisement -- is often cited as an icon of Indian metrosexuality.

Is metrosexuality an Indian reality or a figment of the journalistic imagination, with its penchant for the latest Western trends? After all, the term was coined in 1994 by the British journalist Mark Simpson to refer to a new breed of young metropolitan males who had a strong aesthetic sense and spent a great deal of time and money on their appearance and lifestyle. Not surprisingly, men’s fashion magazines eagerly lapped up and used the expression. With the assimilation of gay men in mainstream society, ‘effeminacy’ lost its sting and the metrosexual subculture became quite prominent in many Western countries. The word itself entered popular parlance after Simpson wrote an article in 2002 projecting the soccer star David Beckham as a metrosexual par excellence.

Simpson clearly understood the political economy of the phenomenon: “For some time now, old-fashioned (re)productive, repressed, unmoisturised heterosexuality has been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying, modest straight male didn’t shop enough (his role was to earn money for his wife to spend), and so he had to be replaced by a new kind of man, one less certain of his identity and much more interested in his image – that’s to say, one who was much more interested in being looked at (because that’s the only way you can be certain you actually exist). A man, in other words, who is an advertiser’s walking wet dream.” Quite logically, marketing agencies deployed metrosexuality -- the word and the mindset -- extensively both to tap and create demand for a wide variety of products targeting men.   

Contemporary urban India reveals many telltale marks signalling the arrival of metrosexuality: billboards sporting male models in various states of undress, beauty parlours catering exclusively to men, and the proliferation of ‘gay’ characters on the celluloid screen. Mumbai recently witnessed a ten-day festival that sought to explore and celebrate indigenous metrosexuality. It offered a rich fare including talks, films, plays and an art exhibition. Himanshu Verma -- the young, Delhi-based organiser of the festival, who was himself an incarnation of the metrosexual persona -- had explained his perspective in a pamphlet which offered a critical account of metrosexuality in the West, even as it tracked various sources like the Kamasutra to construct an authentic Indian version of the phenomenon. 

Does all this mean that the stereotypical Indian man is undergoing a million mutations now? It is not easy to answer the question. Despite the appearance of books like Shobhaa De’s Surviving Men (1997) and Sandhya Mulchandani’s The Indian Man: His True Colours (1999), there simply isn’t enough reliable information on the subject. While feminism has taught us to look at women as ‘gendered’ beings and spawned the discipline of Women’s Studies, men are rarely seen (or see themselves) through the lens of gender, and the emerging field of Men’s Studies has, at best, a tenuous foothold in India.

But even if we discount the media hype, it is hard to deny that significant changes are taking place in the domain of Indian masculinity.

Signs of a New Age masculinity are apparent in the urban, upper-class milieu centred on the nuclear family typically comprising well-educated, employed spouses and their children. In such a setting, men often depart from the rigid patriarchal framework by participating in domestic work and child care, forming closer emotional/sexual bonds with their wives, and involving the latter in financial and other decisions formerly considered male prerogatives. Boys growing up in such families tend to imbibe the new values and modes of behaviour. They are also likely to develop more wholesome ties with their fathers, quite unlike the distant and even sullen filial relations that commonly prevailed. As the earlier account of metrosexuality has revealed, another characteristic of the New Age man, especially evident among the youth, is a preoccupation with the ‘body beautiful’, and a less inhibited, unconventional attitude towards sexuality.

This transformation of masculinity derives from and feeds into the logic of the globally integrated New Economy centred on the knowledge-driven service sector and geared to non-traditional, varied patterns of consumption. Such an economy requires greater participation of educated male and female workers in the production process, enhanced purchasing power, as also demand for novel products like cosmetics for men. This is not to discount the autonomous role of ideologies and movements that have brought about a genuine alteration both in forms of social existence and consciousness. The role played by feminism and the women’s movement is of paramount importance in this context. 

Though the male response to feminism has often involved indifference or even outright hostility, this is not the whole story. Many men have treated the cause of women’s liberation with sympathy and solidarity. An organised and self-reflexive manifestation of this affinity may be found in the pro-feminist men’s groups that have emerged during the last decade. The Mumbai-based group Men Against Violence and Abuse (MAVA) -- claiming to be the oldest group of its kind in the country -– is a prominent representative of the pro-feminist tendency. Formed in 1993, and run as a voluntary agency by a small group of middle-class men, MAVA has conducted several awareness-raising/training/counselling programmes and campaigns geared to gender justice. Along with women’s groups and other like-minded organisations, it has particularly sought to target the youth through initiatives like sexuality education workshops.

Especially noteworthy is the annual Marathi publication Purush Spandana (Men’s Heartbeats) that MAVA brings out in collaboration with Purush Uvach -- a like-minded group in Pune. Probably the only publication of its kind in India, the magazine focuses on gender issues from the pro-feminist man’s point of view. It carries essays, autobiographical narratives, stories and poems voicing the ideas, views and sentiments of men from diverse walks of life. It has a niche readership and has received prizes from various literary bodies in Maharashtra.

New Age masculinity is also reflected in the modicum of visibility and social acceptance gained by gay men in recent years. The publication of Yaraana (1999) -- an anthology of gay literature in India -- by a mainstream publisher like Penguin signals this changed scenario. But discrimination against homosexuals continues and groups championing the gay cause seek to end it through different forms of intervention. Specifically, they target Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code -– a colonial piece of legislation that criminalises homosexuality by treating it as an ‘unnatural offence’ involving ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Their efforts to get this section repealed or amended have so far not borne fruit, and it continues to hang over the gay community like the sword of Damocles.

However, the concerns of gay rights groups are gaining a wider audience in the aftermath of the AIDS pandemic. The gay cause has vocal and media-savvy spokesmen like the Mumbai-based activist Ashok Row Kavi. He launched the newsletter Bombay Dost in 1991 to provide a forum for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. As it could not adequately address the problems of the community, the Humsafar Trust was formed in 1994. Over the last decade, the Trust has grown into a recognised organisation dealing with issues concerning gay men and men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM). It seeks to free these men from the bane of invisibility and infamy. It is active in educating them about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. It also provides them support structures and access to health facilities.

All this is not to claim that patriarchal masculinity has ceased to hold sway, or that feminist interventions have met with no organised resistance from men. The depressing statistics of violence against women and the declining sex ratio sufficiently testify to the ravages of patriarchy. And, as Anand Patwardhan vividly demonstrates in his film Father, Son and Holy War, the mainstream constructs of aggressive, sexually warped and misogynist masculinity feed sinisterly into the communal politics that has been playing havoc with our society. Moreover, the limited but very real achievements of the women’s movement in the field of legal, institutional and policy reform have provoked palpable anxiety and resentment among certain sections of men, who have sought to defend their supposedly threatened rights.

Yet, the fact remains that an unprecedented transformation of Indian masculinity is occurring in the vast grey zone between the media-bolstered façade of metrosexuality and the deep-rooted structures of hetero-patriarchy. This is the space to watch for those seeking to understand and shape gender dynamics in the country.

(Mangesh Kulkarni is convener, Forum for the Study of Indian Masculinities, and international advisory editor of the Sage journal Men & Masculinities. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features February 2006