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Unveiling Male 'Red Flags' and Toxic Masculinity in Pakistani Media

For decades, Pakistani dramas have been incorporating the traits associated with toxic masculinity (i.e. aggressiveness, misogyny, obstinacy, ego, and a need to control the weaker sex, etc.) to fashion their male characters. In general, toxic masculinity refers to an unspoken set of social norms that males should and shouldn't follow. The sad part is that instead of speaking against such problematic behaviours, the media perpetuates the notion of 'toxic masculinity' and instead glorifies it to such an extent that the story is portrayed as a 'romance' or a 'love story'.

A red flag meme that had been viral on Instagram

According to an article I read earlier on the internet today, a girl named Nemrah Ahmed Niazi offered a critique of the entertainment industry's obsession with basing their stories on toxic male leads and remaining oblivious to the consequences. She made note of how these toxic male leads, also known as 'red flags', give women a warped idea of love, thus implying that a woman is viewed only through the 'male gaze'.

So, the next question for us to explore is: how are such toxic males represented in our media? The first element that goes into this 'making' of a red flag male is the clothing and wardrobe assigned to the lead character. In the case of the man belonging to an urban-class elite family, this comprises expensive Western attire; however, in the case of the man belonging to an upper-class feudal family, shalwar kameez/ waistcoats are used. The priciest watches, huge cars, and a mehal-like bungalow often accompany this. Usually, the camera shows are vertical-panning in order to give the audience an insight into the opulence and magnificence of his lifestyle. Along with that, the music track and dialogues used in the drama also justify such problematic behaviour of the toxic male leads by disguising it under the notion of 'love' and 'romance'.

The biggest symptom of 'red flag' behaviour is a complete disregard for the woman's consent, which, in turn, generates a flawed idea of love under which the male lead forces him into the life of the woman. Opposed to the notion of love as 'unconditional' and as a force that liberates someone, such toxic love stories implicitly send the message that love is something that has to be forced onto someone. Love is UNCONDITIONAL, and CANNOT be forced at all! It provides one with the agency to choose and gives a sense of emancipation. However, the following clip from 'Ishq Hai' shows the male lead (Danish Taimoor) holding a gun against his head to force the woman (Minal Khan) to marry him after he kidnapped her from her wedding. Despite Minal's attempts to resist, he blackmails her, makes up a suicide attempt and says: "Mein tumhein kisi aur ka nahin honay doon ga" and "jab tak keh tum hamesha kay liyay meri nahi hojati, tab tak tum yahan say kahin nahin jaa rahi ho". This shows the man's lack of respect for the woman's decision (ironically, who he claims to 'love') and his stubbornness about marrying her despite acquiring her consent, hence creating a false notion of 'love' and a 'toxic' love story.

Toxic masculinity is often manifested in the form of physical, verbal, sexual or even emotional abuse. Sadly, instead of condemning it, the Pakistani media is okaying it, and therefore, it would not be wrong to say that the media is a central medium that perpetuates this kind of abuse. Consequently, individuals in our society, especially those unaware of such issues, such as those belonging to the lower class, are internalizing this as completely normal.

This clip is taken from the drama 'Khaas' that was aired on Hum TV in 2019. It shows Saba (Sanam Baloch) going to her husband, Ammar's office since her job application has been accepted. She waits to tell her husband about it and calls it a 'surprise', but contrary to her expectations, Ammar is furious when he finds out that not only has his wife secured a job in his office but also that she would be paid more than him and would be equal in rank to him. This relates to the idea of 'toxic masculinity' discussed above as such male leads are shown as having inflated egos and as dismissive towards the accomplishments of women, especially their own wives.

In addition, this video clip is from the drama 'Kankar' aired on Hum TV in 2013. It shows the woman (Sanam Baloch) being brutally beaten by her husband (Fahad Mustafa) when she throws away the ring that had been gifted to her by her husband in response to his refusal to abide by the promise made to her parents to visit their home. Not only is the male lead shown as insensitive to his wife, but he is also shown as indifferent to his yet-to-be-born child's health since the physical abuse causes the woman to lose her baby. Interestingly, her husband commits this heinous crime only because his wife had told him to "change his attitude"; in response, he not only throws her onto the ground mercilessly but also warns her: "dobara meray saamnay zubaan chalanay ki koi zaroorat nahi hai". Another interesting aspect encapsulated in the clip is that while the wife (female) is supposed to go to her in-laws' house after marriage and treat them well, there are no such expectations from the husband (male). Even in our society during the present times, girls are taught from an early age that they need to respect their elders and learn basic manners and etiquette since they need to go to their in-laws one day who will criticize the parents of the girl-child if they find a fault in her. However, no one tells the male child from a young age to learn basic courtesies and treat the opposite gender well since he will also have to marry one day. In this clip, Fahad is shown saying: "koi interest nahi hai mujhay tumhari behn mein, tumharay khaandan mein ya tumharay ghar walon mein...meray paas aur bhi behtar kaam hain karnay kay liyay". This statement supports the argument I have just made - while girls are taught from a young age to respect their elders and are specifically trained to please and serve their in-laws, no such training or messages are imparted to the boys. As a consequence, girls are taught to be passive and subservient, while boys are taught to be dominant, 'manly' or 'masculine', which means that they have unwarranted authority to do all that they want. This distinct gender binary eventually results in 'red flags' and toxic masculinity in men as portrayed on our TV screens.

According to the article I mentioned previously in this post, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country for women with respect to domestic violence, abuse, and rape. To quote directly from it, "More than 28% of women from the ages of 15-49 have suffered from physical violence at the hands of a partner" (2017-18, Pakistani Demographic and Health Survey). PEMRA needs to take account of this and stop its portrayal of 'red flags' or male leads involved in behaviours of 'toxic masculinity'. Not only will this change the condition of our women, but as a result, a better and prosperous Pakistan can emerge.

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