13 May 2005

A masculine thing!

Heroism is a masculine thing. Or, so it seems from whatever literature I’ve read so far. Even David Krieger of NAPF corroborates this notion (see yesterday’s post): “The traditional hero has been a man (seldom a woman) writ large, larger than life.” Of course, you’d disagree, citing examples of female heroes throughout history, like Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and our very own Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi.

But, think about this for a moment. Could heroism really be the essence of a male domain? Is heroism always centred on a male identity? Would the image of a hero conjure in your mind a powerful vision of masculinity? Going by the symbolism in films emerging from Hollywood, it would certainly appear so.

If we were to go back to, say, the Middle Ages – to the days of knights in battle – maybe heroism was a sign of manhood. Donning so much armour, carrying a heavy broadsword, charging into battle against a thousand bloodthirsty men wielding similar weapon, and perhaps ensuring a violent death, would certainly require physical prowess and courage. Maybe even aggression and violence. Not exactly what women are known for.

Or, am I idolising a stereotype? Dying in a medieval battle, of the kind I’ve just described, is certainly going to be painful, but am I promulgating an ethos of valour and heroism only fit for a masculine gender? From a cultural point of view, is there a code of behaviour for heroes subscribing to a specific male anatomical description? Or, is this just a Western concept?

This question of heroic masculinity, from a Western perspective, has been addressed in some detail by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and the Members of Interscripta from Georgetown University in a 1994 (revised 1995) document called "Medieval Masculinity: Heroism, Sanctity, and Gender" – and is worth reading if you have the time. In India, traditionally, we have our Bhima and our Duryodhana who fit the Western stereotypical description of a hero. But, we also have our Lord Rama and Arjuna. And Lord Krishna. They, too, were combatants who went into battle and emerged as heroes.

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