Hero material: Role models are being reimagined, says Charles Assisi

Jul 27, 2023 10:39 PM IST

The idea of masculinity is getting an update to reflect the aspirations of Gen-Z males. Our roles, our goals are changing, and so are the people we look up to

One of the most compelling conversations I’ve had recently was a series of chats with my daughters. The elder one is in her late teens, the younger one, getting there. In the course of these talks, I realised that they have a rather condescending view of the boys attempting to woo them. “Most of them are dumb,” one of my girls said. “Don’t they have role models?”

In the 2021 retelling of West Side Story (left), the protagonist Tony is a sensitive and vulnerable young man as compared to his macho counterpart in the 1961 version. PREMIUM
In the 2021 retelling of West Side Story (left), the protagonist Tony is a sensitive and vulnerable young man as compared to his macho counterpart in the 1961 version.

A very interesting question, that one.

I asked them who their ideal boys (or men) were, and they pointed to actors such as Andrew Garfield of the Spider-Man movies, and the Indian actor Aditya Roy Kapur. I must say that, while these men look good, and may be good human beings, neither fits the idea of the “ideal man” that I was raised with.

“They’re sigma males,” the girls explained.” We didn’t have these in our time. My generation grew up on the highly flawed but universally accepted idea that there were two kinds of men: alpha males, and wimps. The former was top of the pyramid, got what he wanted, and embodied the masculine. Now, where does the sigma fit in?

I turned to Biju Dominic, co-founder of the corporate consultancy Final Mile and chief evangelist at Fractal Analytics, an AI-powered analytics consultancy for large corporations. He had some compelling pointers to offer.

The knowledge economy is such that most women can do what most men can do. Few humans need brute physical force in order to stand out today; most do need mental dexterity. “This can be honed with education. And when the data in India is looked at, over the past few years, women have been acquiring education in larger numbers than men. This happened in the Western world first,” he pointed out.

As women become breadwinners, higher earners than their male partners, and sometimes sole earners, change happens, from both an evolutionary and psychological perspective. This leaves many men feeling threatened. There is no role model for this life. Whom do they seek to emulate?

There is the sigma male. While he is a go-getter, he is also vulnerable and has no qualms about showing it. This is where men such as Garfield and Kapur fit in. But this model necessarily involves worldly success and a certain aesthetic appeal. What about young men who do not yet have either; or men who never will?

They wander the barren wasteland of the manhood-mentorship vacuum.

As opposed to that, women have role models across domains and life choices, from Lizzo to Padma Lakshmi and everything in-between.

One of the biggest problems today is the lack of diverse role models who genuinely reflect the realities and aspirations of Gen-Z males, and who can help them navigate evolving gender norms and life choices, while finding fulfilment in their own unique ways.

Instead, the “role models” that have somehow risen to the surface are largely influencer bros flexing their abs and offering encouragement that there are still women out there for whom this will suffice.

My daughters didn’t think twice before dismissing these as examples of toxic masculinity. “They think of us are creatures to be used and we’re not giving in,” the elder one said.

When I shared this with Dominic, he narrated an anecdote from his days as an ad man, working to launch a new brand of deodorant a few years ago. The makers wanted to position it as a brand “real men” used to seduce women. He recalls objecting that this wouldn’t resonate with Gen-Z. His objections were overruled and a high decibel campaign followed. It collapsed. The deodorant was rebranded as simply “for men”.

The truth is that there is no perfect role model yet for manhood. There are certainly no easy answers for living life as a woman.

We are all still evolving. But what is clear is that the clock is ticking on toxic traditional notions. It will be up to us all to help shape fresh narratives.

What’s a good place to start, I asked the girls. “You’ve been my hero,” said the elder one, little realising how she melted my heart entirely. She then shattered that perfect moment a fair bit with the addition: “But the ideal guy would be a lot more emotional… funnier… a lot less alpha.”

(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)

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