Published in The Express Tribune
James Gandolfini was television’s least likely leading man and, partly because of it, its finest. Big, breathy, and balding, Gandolfini defied all casting rules as Tony Soprano, a crime boss at work and emotional cripple at home. And it was for the latter part that he changed the small screen for good. With an unbearable sadness in his eyes, Gandolfini lamented the fall of masculinity for six seasons of The Sopranos. ‘Whatever happened,’ he would plead to his therapist, hating himself, ‘to the strong, silent type?’
Unlike those types, Tony Soprano was overcome with feelings of inadequacy. A baby boomer who would never feel the purpose of wartime, a family business heir cheated out of his father’s self-made success, Tony felt that ‘I came in at the end…that the best is over.’ The story was an original one – a monster in midlife crisis, seeking meaning in manhood. But yearn though he did for Old World values, much of Tony’s own manliness was a lie. Terrified of emasculation, he murdered, philandered and overate his way to pure misery.
As was expected from the role of a lifetime, it was punishing for the actor as well. James Gandolfini died from a heart attack last Wednesday at 51, leaving behind a depth to television programming never before thought possible. But the impact wasn’t just higher quality TV. For a man whose breakout film role too consisted of ten minutes of savage violence, his work was itself an indictment of violence, and the machismo that fed it. Gifted at playing unglamorous men with uglier souls, the cost was heavy: Gandolfini, prone to self-directed rage in real life, from time to time fell into an abyss he created.
It makes one wonder whether we’re truly at peace either, operating in the culture we’ve created at home. Nearly ten years and two novels ago, Mohsin Hamid wrote, ‘Ours is a society bombarded with machismo. We have a commando as our president. We read about warrior-martyrs in our schoolbooks. We pull wheelies on speeding motorcycles in heavy traffic for no apparent reason. We grow beards and buy guns and get into fights over imagined instances of disrespect.’
And that’s grazing the surface. Witness our Lollywood films exploding in blood and body parts, or all the locales we’ve stamped with martial goodness: Cavalry, Cantonment, Defence, Teen Talwaar. We celebrate dead foreign invaders with our Napier Roads and Port Qasims. Even our gardens are named for serious men – Ayubia National and Jilani Park – though both generals were at least fond of natural beauty (and durable protégés).
Why expect anything else from what is, inarguably, a hard country? ‘We are tough,’ Mr. Hamid rationalized, ‘and we need to be. Ours is, after all, the most dangerous neighbourhood in the world.’ But he went on to say, ‘A great deal of strength is required to be un-macho in our society. And strong, dedicated, un-machoness is essential. It opens up space for expression which might otherwise be bullied into silence.’
But before expression, the first casualty of a knuckle-dragging society is, well, its women. Yes, there is the argument that the more masculine a society, the more extraordinary its ladies. We are home to the Muslim world’s first female prime minister, men with moustaches say, and it was a Samina that scaled Mount Everest this past May.
No doubt these are encouraging outliers, but that is what they will stay. The problem is a cultural one, and it hits us where it hurts; the way we treat our women, how we exhibit girls’ illiteracy rates to the rest of the world year after shameless year, how we feel the tiny female fraction in the workforce chimes well with our nuclear status.
It’s the same problem in different places. Like doctors prescribing addicts more heroin, India’s very real rape endemic is being combated with more machismo. The idea is less studied sociology and more ‘80s Bollywood: ‘real men’ don’t let women get hurt, or experience the ‘shame’ that rape victims must feel by obligation. Campaigns in the Indian press (calmly lifted by their Pakistani brethren) beseech men to be men and protect women, as opposed to raping them.
Celebrities like Farhan Akhtar pledge to make Delhi safer for ladies, and then ask ‘Are you man enough to join me?’ As rebutted by Indian activist Kavita Krishnan, ‘patriarchal male protectors’ aren’t the solution. But the point is an even simpler one: claims to manliness need not be wrestled away from the rapists. Had anyone stopped to notice, it was never being claimed by them in the first place. Of all the adjectives the media could have chosen to attack rape with, ’naamard‘ was a poor first choice.
The recently departed Qazi Hussain Ahmad, doubtless a ‘patriarchal male protector’ for Ms. Krishnan, spoke on the subject with a clean heart. Paraphrasing Iqbal on scent and prayer, Qazi sahib thought a woman’s person sacred and her role mumtaz, sublime. For Qazi Hussain, the Quran held the rights of women and men as equal. To protect them was a trust. Qazi sahib arises strong opinions, but it was an explanation that tugged at the heartstrings (in isolation of what his party actually reduces women to). The Jamaat’s last gasp of air, he passed away last January, two months after a suicide attempt on his life. Allah bless his soul. The suicide bomber, meanwhile, was a woman.
These are strange times we live in, but seeking the truth is for when one’s not busy surviving. And if being the strong, silent type is linked to survival, so be it – making peace with ourselves can come later. Dr. Johnson once wrote, ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’
But as with the amazing Jim Gandolfini punching himself, there usually comes a toll with too much testosterone.