Paromita Vohra: Judging by the cover
For years, when we spoke about gender and conditioning, the most common things to analyse were the covers and images in women's magazines. Their unrealistic beauty standards, their stereotypical assumptions about gender as well as whom they had decided to put on their covers were all quite rightly critiqued for their cultural impact. For some reason, we have never paid this kind of attention to the covers of men's magazines. It's time we did.
The last three years have seen a spate of sexual harassment charges against certain kinds of successful men, who are considered icons of the new entrepreneurial landscape or the worlds of culture and politics. From Tarun Tejpal to RK Pachauri and others, until most recently, Arunabh Kumar of The Viral Fever, these are men celebrated for unconventional thinking and dynamic actions. They are, in short, the kind of men who appear on the covers of men's magazines, emanating wealth and success, making eye contact in high contrast black and white shots.
When a woman's professional success is acknowledged anywhere, it is inevitably accompanied by questions about how she balances personal and professional life. Not so for men. It's often about how much money they generate, how many numbers they hit, how much space they take up and create and how expensive their tastes are. Somewhere along the way, how they are attractive to women (if they are known to be gay, then the matter will simply be elided).
Making new things and having big successes does change the world — or one part of it anyway. What about the other part of the world? The life part? Is it really enough for men to have only half a self as represented by this language of public success? Shouldn't men have to be more well-rounded — just like women are expected to be — to be considered icons?
Isn't it time for an upgrade on the men's magazine idea of iconic men or are they going to continue with the same hackneyed ideas they've run with for decades? For instance, if a man is known to be a jerk with employees, is he still exemplary? If he is known to make constant sexual advances, unmindful of context or invitation, and then be obnoxious when turned down, is that unimportant because he made money?
It's not to say that public achievements are cancelled out by private shoddiness. It's just that we do not think it matters when it comes to men. This is why, when a woman becomes a victim of sexual harassment, both men and women, while pretending to care about gender and sexual violence, will however, go on about her poor judgment as if that's to blame – why did she go there alone? Why did she fall asleep in an Uber? When a man is an aggressor in sexual harassment, it is sometimes termed a mistake and brushed away, and his every public achievement is brought out as proof that he cannot be capable of non-consensual sex.
We do this, because we have simply not spent much time defining what kind of man is a really 'fine' man. We have simply been judging successful men by their cover all this time. It's time we started to change that and think about men's success in terms of human regard and emotional respect, too. Men's magazines, we're looking at you.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com