When the Bois Locker Room story first broke, I was reminded of the bodybuilding school boys in my local gym. I see them on my regular visits, every couple of months. They know exactly how to use the various machines and do complex exercises to build each body part to discrete perfection.
The boys of that Instagram chatroom must be of similar age and with the same kind of social capital and similar interests. I once tried to eavesdrop on the junior jocks and glean their teenage Ninja secrets. It turns out that one way to make your biceps look bigger is to build the brachialis muscle (the one in upper arms) that lies under it.
When I was their age, I exercised the brachialis to stuff my face. That was because I was fat and liked to eat.
So, by the time I reached high school, I was more man-boobs than moustache.
When Sexual Excitement Was Limited to Hemlines
Thirty years ago, that was totally kosher. In fact, it was okay to be mildly effeminate, to not be able to kick a ball, and yet be considered male, if one could use one’s intellect to dominate and intimidate.
What the brachialis does now, the cerebral cortex did back then.
This is why, the smarter boys mugged up obscure facts to become quizzers, read up on Aristarchus and Aristotle for suitable references during debates and dazzled classmates with mental math.
Sexual excitement was restricted to the length of hemlines. Overt sex-talk and sexually-charged behaviour was considered to be a sign of low breeding.
Boys who came from ‘good’ families, generally maintained a facade of civility. Whatever they discussed about specific girls remained within a small close-knit group, tied to secrecy by their collective culpability.
What Changed In Three Decades?
So, what changed in the space of three decades that made coolth descend from the brain to brawn? How did the technologies-of-the-self shift so dramatically that sexual aggression became such a constitutive element of elite male identity?
Two things caused it.
The first is that elite ideologies moved decisively to the right. And the second is the digitalisation of subjectivities.
Self-hoods are produced within intertwined fields of power and culture, and the past 30 years have seen some decisive changes there. The most significant is the dismantling of Nehruvian ‘socialism’. In the first 40 years, the overarching belief of the ruling elite was that ‘rational human knowledge’ could be used to direct and organise society for the greatest common good.
The valourisation of ‘knowing’ and its utility in social mobility had an immense impact on the formation of middle-class identities. This is what made quizzing sexy.
Today, the market rules. The intelligentsia, which had a huge say in pre-liberalisation India, now has a pejorative name – the Lutyens elite. Right-wing populism targets this old elite and along with that attacks every ‘liberal’ value that it stood for – individual rights, gender equality, tolerance and social justice.
Those who make money are seen as the real virtuous citizens of the nation-state. It is common to hear that an artist or a writer has “not done a day’s productive work in their lives.”
This system breeds a culture of illiberal anti-intellectualism, where all affirmative action is seen as a barrier to the ‘natural’ progress of the meritorious.
It Was Uncool To Be Openly Misogynistic, But Now Gender Roles Back With Vengeance
Along with this, there is a change within families. In the 1980s, the English-speaking elite were experimenting with gender equality. Women were increasingly going to work outside the house, and men were gradually learning to share housework and the task of looking after children.
My generation grew up in this atmosphere, where it was very uncool to be openly misogynistic, support traditional gender roles, and participate in patriarchal rituals.
Now, gender roles have come back with a vengeance, entirely driven by patriarchy in corporate offices. Men make more money and rise faster up the corporate ladder.
That means, husbands move past their wives professionally, even when they started at the same level, had the same qualifications and experience.
Maternity leave made no difference to my mother’s career as a college teacher in Delhi University, but it can set a top banker back by six months.
This has given rise to an individualistic ‘lean-in’ feminism, where a female professional acquires power within a corporate hierarchy, by effectively becoming a ‘man’.
Children In Affluent English-Speaking Homes Today
So, children in affluent English-speaking homes, see highly qualified women giving up their careers to be mothers. Their fathers have to choose work over family-life to keep rising. The corporate space is so cut-throat and competitive that trying to establish a work-life balance can cost one their career.
They hear adults deride feminism and social justice as utopian, impractical notions. Some are exposed to their parents’ support to right-wing politics that upholds traditional family roles.
Young boys and girls from affluent English-speaking families are growing up within this field of power and culture, which consists of three broad motifs – ruthless competition to survive and succeed, reinforcement of traditional gender roles as natural and pragmatic, and the belief that might is right.
These values are reproduced, every day, through repetitive practices in every institution that they inhabit – family, school, shopping malls.
This is nothing new. My identity as an individual was equally produced through the everyday rituals that were inscribed in the functioning of my family, school, college, workspace, and through the various discursive practices in the form of stories, books, songs, films and even gestures. The only key difference is that, in my formative years, I inhabited the corporeal world. Today’s teens also get created through their presence in digital space.
Monitoring Our Child’s Digital Footprint
The common attitude that parents have – including me – is to curtail a child’s digital footprint, by rationing their screen-time and vetting the kind of social media and messaging platforms they can be on. We believe that we have to protect our children from developing fractured personas, living different lives in the ‘real’ and the ‘cyber’ worlds.
I submit that this is an erroneous understanding of how identities are created. Print and visual medium had already given us ‘virtual’ spaces that we could inhabit.
They had a profound role in defining what we are and how we behaved. The only difference is that they appeared to be material – things that we could touch and feel.
Yet, the socio-cultural worlds they created for us to inhabit were qualitatively as ‘imaginary’ as today’s cyberspaces. In fact, both are real and material, and they have real effects and affects. Social media and the digital world are real parts of everyday life, which we traverse and negotiate as extensions of ourselves.
For young boys and girls, the simultaneous presence in corporeal and digital spaces makes up a composite, seamless world. They are what they are, within this continuous, edgeless space, moving freely from being flesh at one moment to megabytes the next, and back.
Older people can only partially understand or experience this state of being. And, this makes teenagers acquire an emotional disconnect from their parents, even as they are constituted by their families’ social practices.
I submit that this is true for all social classes where the young have access to social media and group messaging services – TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc.
In the case of India’s top one percent of super-rich people, this process is complicated by the isolated bubble they live in. All their children go to schools where annual fees run into several lakhs. Almost every child is being groomed to leave the country and study abroad once they finish high school.
Most of the kids treat English as their mother-tongue and speak halting grammatically incorrect Hindi. They have been to the Swiss Alps but probably never seen an Indian hill station.
Misogyny & Society Devaluing Empathy
Like their parents, they too, record every fleeting episode of life on their phone cameras. They post curated snapshots onto social media timelines, and these manicured moments become their real past. Through their digital lives they acquire quasi-American personas.
They follow Instagram accounts of their favourite stars and because they too granularly exhibit their private lives, social media allows these teens to live glamorous American lives vicariously.
The idea of a Bois Locker Room is a symptom, an effect, of this deeper structure of identity formation.
It encapsulates several elements of the field of power and culture that India’s affluent teens occupy. It begins by recreating an imaginary space where boys supposedly act out their raw nature – jousting, sparring and bonding like males in a herd of animals.
It alludes directly to the idea that might is right, and power can be asserted through physical force.
Its very existence is made possible by the denigration of feminism, gender rights and social justice, outside and prior to the coming together of boys in their locker room.
This is less about misogyny and more about our society’s devaluation of empathy. It is a celebration of an Ayn Randian ethic – where selfishness is a virtue and altruism a vice. And, you can discipline and punish your kids, but it won’t change this basic design flaw in the lives we have bestowed unto them.
(The author was Senior Managing Editor, NDTV India & NDTV Profit. He now runs the independent YouTube channel ‘Desi Democracy’. He tweets @AunindyoC. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)