An interview with Anand Giridharadas
What’s a Man? is the name of a 10-episode podcast series which aims to engage “public and compassionate conversations about what it means to be a man in India today.” Based on 200 in-depth interviews with middle-and upper-class boys and men, including those across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, the series explores men’s experiences at home, in school, at the office and exercising power and expressing love. The series was created and is hosted by Deepa Narayan, the eminent social scientist, former World Bank researcher, and author of a small library of books, including Voices of the Poor and Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women.
What’s a Man? recognizes its limitations, noting that its “interviews focus on educated middle class educated men mostly from Delhi and Mumbai…” Narayan sees the podcast as an “ongoing research process that involves deep listening.” Like many in the gender equality movement, she recognizes the competing visions of masculinity at play today—the stubborn, authoritarian, seemingly invulnerable “strong man” versus the more sensitive, compassionate and introspective emerging new man. In the podcast excerpt below, she interviews the journalist and writer Anand Giridharadas, a former New York Times columnist and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World and India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, who is also her son-in-law.
DEEPA: There seems to be right now at least two competing visions of masculinity: one of the strong man or the alpha man, what used to be called the patriarch, and then there’s something else that’s emerging.
ANAND: This very confining alpha male definition to which so many men were subjected and what’s actually emerging are part of a multiplicity of ways of being a man, or just different ways of being a person. The rise of the LGBTQ community is the most visible expression of a bunch of people saying, “Hey, this definition you’ve got over here does not apply to me. The story you are telling is not my story…”
DEEPA: How is the total power and authority of a strong, tough man different from the new emerging forms of masculinity and power that you were talking about?
ANAND: The old model was based on a few things. There’s an aspect of this desire to dominate and compete and win. That is a very narrow understanding, but there’s a sense of the naturalness of this power distribution. That God wanted it this way. That men were made this way for a reason. It’s our job to lead or our job to be the providers. There’s also this notion of stewardship that that is a false notion, but a powerful one. Which is that others don’t need voice, and women don’t need voice, because we men are stewards of all. We’re not just taking care of ourselves. There’s this kind of false selflessness that you also see in philanthropy, where the power is upheld by this notion that the powerful are better caretakers of the powerless than the powerless would be for themselves.
DEEPA: One of the things you’ve written about recently is that to be a man is not to be a woman. Can you expand?
ANAND: It’s interesting how, when men steeped in this toxic model want to insult other men, some of the most common terms of abuse are simply to call other men a woman, or something feminine, or the body part of a woman. As though it is something so awful to be anything belonging to the feminine side…
You had Robert O’Neill, a Navy SEAL who claims he’s the guy who shot Osama bin Laden in May 2011. And on the dominant, alpha male model that prevails in American life, certainly among people like the Navy SEALS, you’d think that shooting bin Laden in the face would be satisfying to a man like that. But it turns out Robert O’Neill—like so many men steeped in this alpha tradition—is a gaping hole of perceived weakness and fear. Robert O’Neill is so afraid of his own lack of vigor that he felt a need not only to get on a Delta flight a few months ago and refuse to wear a mask, but to take a selfie of himself not wearing a mask. In the selfie, there was another guy wearing a United States Marine Corps hat behind him, who was wearing a mask, an older man.
And O’Neill wrote, “I am not a pussy” in the tweet. It was just profoundly revealing. I almost felt for Robert O’Neill, for what a gaping hole he has in his body. Even after performing the ultimate alpha male act, in that somewhat cursed model of manhood that we’ve been talking about nothing’s ever enough, and you have to claim to the world that I am breaking a law. I’m breaking common sense. And I am not a woman. I am not a woman. I’m not a woman. You have to keep repeating that to yourself and to the world simply to feel whole.
DEEPA: So it’s hiding a lot of insecurity and fear under the persona of being strong in this narrow sense of being an alpha macho male.
ANAND: Having met a lot of men in my life, I would say that they broadly fall into those two categories. I know a lot of Robert O’Neill men who basically cannot survive if they’re not reminding you that they’re not a woman every five minutes and who are basically paralyzed by fear. And then there are a lot of other men who are just out here living our lives.
DEEPA: What you’re describing is shared power, where men are not afraid to embrace a whole range of traits that are beyond what was allowed in an alpha male.
ANAND: The new model includes the old model as one of the possible ways of being. If you’re a president of a country, it’s totally fine to have a leadership drive. It’s totally fine to be a certain kind of alpha, but not the abusive kind of alpha, in certain contexts. What’s exciting about the new way is that it’s open to all the different ways of being a man. What was limiting about the old way was that it was only accepting of one way of being a man in a way that actually didn’t work for most men.
DEEPA: Do you think there’s a crisis in masculinity? Not just in the U.S. but in many parts of the world?
ANAND: Yes, but I think the crisis is not a crisis of a lack of change. It’s a crisis born out of change that is happening. It’s really important because when we think we’re in a crisis that grows out of things not changing enough, it’s very depressing and discouraging.
What’s actually happening is there is so much change in places like the United States and Europe, but there’s also change in India. A lot of the pushback you see and the thirst for a strong kind of a dictator daddy—strongmen rulers—is people who essentially see that broader change coming and don’t want to live in it. Backlash, you see, is just that—it’s backlash. It’s different from a failure to have progress. It is actually a measure of the fact that so much has changed. This is where there is a measure of failure for those of us who do want to live in the new world. I think we haven’t shown enough of those men that they will be okay in the next world. We have not taught enough of them how to be their new selves.
To learn more about the What’s a Man? podcast visit www.whatsaman.com.