“Walk Like A Man”: A reflection on toxic masculinity in Indonesia

How do we raise our boys into men? Reflecting on this question, Sadjad and Siregar discuss toxic masculinity in Indonesia. They find that recognizing toxic masculine traits was a valuable entry point to discussions of gender inequality. Unfortunately it is not the same with unlearning them.

Written by Mahardhika S. Sadjad, with research support and editing by Fajri Siregar

Credit: Pixabay/Carlo Quintero

“When I was little, my friends, teachers, and older siblings; when I cried, they would tell me not to be like a girl. Boys shouldn’t cry, mustn’t be weak, we are expected to be stronger than girls.”

(Jaka (pseudonym), from interview excerpt)

When my sister was pregnant with my nephew, we had a long conversation of what it might take to raise a boy. We understood that society requires boys to be strong and active beings, but we wanted him to also be thoughtful, gentle, and sensitive to others and their needs. We did not have this conversation when my niece came into the world six years prior. As women raised in a family of three sisters and no brothers, it just went without saying that teaching girls to be smart, independent, and strong was crucial in a society that often pushes them to be otherwise. If empowering our girls might allow them to meet their full potential, what do we do with our boys? Perhaps the answer lies in questioning dogmatic understandings of masculinity, which is often referred to as ‘toxic masculinity’.

This article is based on informal semi-structured interviews with four Indonesian women and seven Indonesian men. Fajri and I started by reaching out to four Indonesian women who identify as feminists, activists, and/ or researchers who are well-versed in feminist and gender studies. They helped strengthen our understanding of key concepts relevant to thinking about toxic masculinity. We then interviewed seven men, ages 25 to 35, on their personal experiences of ‘becoming men’ in Indonesia, how this was informed by and affected their relationships with women and other men, and their struggles in navigating various life-phases such as puberty and fatherhood.

Among our seven male participants, three identified as heterosexual men, three identified as gay men, and one identified as queer. While the seven participants come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, they all have at least bachelor’s degrees. Most participants live(d) in urban Indonesian cities, mainly Jakarta, and largely have had past or present experiences living abroad. They have various degrees of familiarity with debates on gender and sexuality, although only four of them were familiar with the term ‘toxic masculinity’ prior to our interviews.

Noting that our participants[1] are not representative of wider Indonesian society, we were not attempting to make any generalizable claims regarding toxic masculinity in Indonesia. Instead, this article offers insight into some existing forms of toxic masculinity in the Indonesian context, which we hope can contribute to readers’ reflection and engagement in discussions on gender relations and inequalities.

Patriarchy, Hegemonic Masculinity, and Toxic Masculinity

The term ‘toxic masculinity’ has become increasingly common in conversations about gender, especially in, but not limited to, Western media (e.g. Putri 2015; Salam 2019; Salter 2019). The term is often used to describe how idealized masculine behaviors and beliefs, such as toughness, the suppression of emotions, and a tendency towards violence, have detrimental effects on both men and women. However, toxic masculinity is often misunderstood to be a critique towards masculinity and men in general. Many perceive it to be a generalizing dogma that all of masculinity is toxic, and therefore men are toxic. Let us be clear: This is not what we mean by toxic masculinity.

We must start from the basic premise that masculinity is plural. Masculinity does not refer exclusively to men, although society commonly associates masculine behaviours and values with men. There are more than one way to perform masculinity. However, there are dominant constructs or ideas that inform how society teaches boys to become ‘real men’. These dominant constructs are often referred to as ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Connell (2014: 8) wrote:

Hegemonic masculinity means the pattern of masculinity which is most honoured, which occupies the position of centrality in a structure of gender relations, and whose privileged position helps to stabilize the gender order as a whole, especially the social subordination of women.

Hegemonic masculinity reproduces complex structures of gender relations in a patriarchal system, where women and other marginalised groups that do not adhere to dominant gender constructs are placed at a disadvantage. Therefore, masculinity is also relational, as it is not understood in a vacuum. As one interviewee, a PhD Researcher working on decolonial options, made this clear:

There are different types of masculinities, it is plural. The hegemonic masculinity teaches men to dominate… Men should be strong, alpha males, that need to subject women in their lives, men are rational, they cannot express emotions that are considered weak, like sadness. This deprives them from the opportunity to be complete human beings with a wide range of emotions. This type of hegemonic masculinity is toxic for both men and women, the relations between the two, and relations among men and among women themselves.”

Hegemonic masculinity is not only placed in contrast to femininity, but also to marginalised forms of masculinity that exist in society (Connell, Ibid.). It is important to emphasize that the term toxic masculinity does not suggest the demonization of men and masculine constructs. On the contrary, toxic masculinity is meant to highlight hegemonic masculine behaviors or beliefs that subjugate women and men who fail to live up to what patriarchal societies perceive to be ‘ideal’.

Experiences with Toxic Masculinity in an Indonesian Context

“My family told me to walk like a man. My voice needed to be more forceful.”

(Firman (pseudonym), from interview excerpt)

When asked for their opinions on toxic masculinity all eleven participants used similar words to describe what they felt were common toxic masculine traits, such as “domination”, “strength”, “power”, and “violence”. Most connected these traits with the subjugation and objectification of women, giving examples such as the subordination of women’s roles within the household or the normalization of sexist jokes. As conversations developed and our male participants were asked to reflect on their own experiences growing up, all seven of them recognized their own limitations and struggles in fulfilling society’s expectations of ‘ideal’ traits of masculinity.

Their stories illustrated how these expectations influenced participants’ self-confidence, limited or affected their choices, and, for some, contributed to a sense of exclusion and confusion about their gender identity. When asked when or how they started to perceive themselves as ‘boys’, most participants referred to childhood friendships, toys, and sport activities that were considered ‘appropriate’ for their gender identity. Meanwhile, a few participants recalled their struggles to fit in with peer groups of their own gender. As children, even before realizing their gender orientation, three participants who identify as gay, experienced bullying by male peers and preferred the safety of friendships with girls.

For example, Firman (pseudonym), who as an adult self-identified as queer, experienced a lot of bullying as a child. His peers would call him a sissy (banci/ bencong) and well-intended family members pressured him to change the way he walked and talked to become more like ‘a man’. It was not until high school, when he made the conscious decision to talk less and exclude himself from his peers, the bullying started to subside. The idea that boys and men need to play with certain toys, walk and talk a certain way at the cost of excluding those that do not fit in, is part of what forms our understanding of a toxic masculinity. It stops us from thinking of masculinity as plural, imposing on boys a narrow idea of how to become ‘men’.

During interviews, as reflections shifted from childhood to their teenage years, most participants associated masculinity with sports, Paskibra (youth organization that mimic military marching traditions during flag hoisting ceremonies), and tawuran (brawls or violent clashes between groups, mostly between different schools). In high school, Irfan identified three groups that were perceived to be what he called the “male among male”: the ‘brigade’ who were the authoritative muscle of the school’s student council, the ‘nature lovers’ (pecinta alam) that climbed mountains and sought adventures, and the ‘bad boys’ (cowok bandel) who challenged authority by skipping school, smoking, and getting into fights. While these three groups represented hegemonic masculinity, their performance of masculinity differed.

Irfan recalled one student who was part of the ‘bad boy’ group, bragging about getting a female student drunk and imposing sex on her while she was unconscious. It was only later, as an adult, that Irfan understood this to be rape. Irfan cannot know for certain that this incident really happened or whether this student was making up a story for bragging rights. However, it was clear in the way the student told his story as triumph, that sexual domination over girls was not only accepted, but also encouraged as a performance of masculinity. Interestingly, despite being considered ‘superior males’, this group of ‘bad boys’ were in turn mocked by a nearby vocational school that sent a bra to them for not getting involved in inter-school fights (tawuran). The domination of women, violence as performance of masculinity and the association of femininity (in this case through a bra as a female undergarment) with weakness are part and partial to toxic masculinity.

While this may seem like an extreme example, toxic masculinity may also appear in other, more nuanced, forms. During an interview, Neqy, founder of komunitas perEMPUan and activist, talked about an experience she had during a protest in Jakarta:

I was there with friends and colleagues who were raising awareness on violence against women; we formed one line consisting mostly of women. One moment, it started to become really crowded and the lines of protesters started to move forward. Suddenly a group of young men, university students, wearing their new varsity jackets, yelled, “Girls, get to the back of the line!” Me and my friends refused.

Neqy’s experience highlights how the masculine expectation to ‘protect’ women, often leads to women’s exclusion. The male students’ assumption that men are inherently more capable to handle potentially dangerous situations, such as during a protest, failed to consider people’s experiences. The division of roles based on gender, rather than merit, could have potentially put less experienced men at risk and undermine women’s abilities to take up active roles in public spaces.

The idea that men must protect women does not only lead to the potential subjugation of women, it can also harm men as they are expected to showcase strength and hide vulnerability. Jaka (pseudonym), for example, talked about past experiences with alcohol and drugs as mechanisms to suppress and cope with vulnerable emotions, such as sadness. Five of the male participants admitted that they rarely discussed issues related to their emotions or feelings with male friends.

As adults, our participants feel more secure in their gender identities and sexual orientations. However, they also discussed the pressure they feel to perform masculinity through successful careers and/ or marriages. Irfan, a single heterosexual man, admitted to contemplating more lucrative career paths when dating women he perceives to be more successful; Jaka, a married heterosexual man discussed the pressure he felt to live with his in-laws because they don’t think he and his wife are earning enough to live independently; while Surya, a homosexual single man, feels pressure to never fail in his career to compensate for the fact that in Indonesia he can never fulfill social expectations of starting a family. Teaching boys to be strong in order to be considered ‘men’, is often done at the cost of allowing space for vulnerability and empathy.

Moving Beyond Toxic Masculinity: Blurring Binary Lines and Embracing Plurality

In our interviews, toxic masculinity offered a useful point to open conversations to reflect on the reproduction of rigid masculine gender identities during different phases of our participants’ lives. It allowed participants to discuss their past and present struggles with societal expectations shaped around hegemonic masculinity. It was also useful to identify masculine traits that are toxic such as the suppression of emotions, tendency towards violent or self-destructive behavior, a resistance against vulnerability and empathy, and the subjugation of women and marginalized masculinities.

However, recognizing the potential harms of toxic masculinity does not fully answer the question we started with: what do we do with our boys?

Rio (pseudonym), a manager at a research institute, felt he was faced with a dilemma when asked what gender norms he planned to teach his young son. While recognizing the need to teach boys to acknowledge the privileges they enjoy in society because of their gender, he also said, “This is difficult. I wouldn’t want my son to lose when he is older. I want him to rule.” Despite recognizing the harms of toxic masculinity, the binary between boys and girls as if opposition to one another, the assumption that empathy and respect are potentially disempowering, and the notion that power is a limited resource that is fought for in a zero sum game, make it difficult to look beyond pre-existing gender relations.

Ghana (pseudonym), who identifies as gay, faces a different dilemma. Ghana admits to being suspicious and distrustful of men. He believes this is because he has witnessed firsthand various examples of toxic masculinity in the ways his mother was treated by his father, his sister was treated by her boyfriends, and having been assaulted by a man himself. This negative perception against men leads him to feel protective of the women in his life, while being dismissive of the feelings of other men. When prompted, he acknowledged that his neglect towards men’s feelings and the potential hurt he inflicts on male partners also reproduce toxic masculinity. The simplistic dichotomy that men are perpetrators of oppression and women are their victims, needs to be unpacked to acknowledge that gender relations, while indeed unequal, are also complex and nuanced.

As the two interview excerpts with Rio and Ghana indicate, recognizing toxic masculine traits is not the same with unlearning them. Moving beyond toxic masculinity requires us to talk openly and personally about gender identities in more inclusive and fluid ways. This does not only demand a need to look inward into our own gendered experiences, it also requires us to look relationally to the ways our gendered expressions and expectations affect those around us: from our loved ones to members of our communities that we have often left neglected on the margins of society.

[1] We will use various ways to refer to our participants, depending on their individual preferences. Among the eleven participants (four women and seven men), six asked that we used pseudonyms, one preferred to be referred to using initials, one wished to not be named, and three consented to the use of their real names.

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