Karan Johar and the Fight Against Femininity

Pop Culture

Karan Johar and the Fight Against Femininity

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Most boys don’t want to be caught dead playing with a Barbie doll. Neither did Arjun.

Back when I lived in Cochin as a fourth-grader, I would play with my tall, chubby, and immensely kind friend every evening. But Sunday afternoons were really special. Arjun would come over to play with my collection of dolls. By then, I’d already lost my fascination for Barbies, but for Arjun, it was almost new. He’d dress them up, give them names, and play with them like any little girl. And he made me promise that I would tell no one about it.

Our little pact expired when I moved to Mumbai, and I’ve often thought about Arjun. Since then, I’ve met very few boys like him, who admit that they like to play with dolls or wear high heels, or engage in any activity which doesn’t align with their prescribed gender identity. Those who manage to admit it, do it with a furtiveness reserved for a shameful peccadillo.

I was reminded of my old friend while reading the opening chapters of Karan Johar’s memoir An Unsuitable Boy. Johar writes with candour about how he was made to feel ashamed of his mannerisms, how people would “advise” him to tone it down, that otherwise it would be difficult for him out in the world. In one instance, his public-speaking coach, whom he clearly looked up to, took him aside to let him know that his “gestures were very feminine”, and that his voice was too squeaky. He offered to give Johar classes to introduce a baritone in his voice.

There’s been plenty of chatter around the book, but most of it has come to be centred on the question of his sexuality. Yet, what stood out for me was his description of how after each jibe or friendly counsel, he made an effort to gradually diminish his femininity. This rejection of a man’s “woman-like” qualities, his negation of what is accepted as femaleness, is treated like some sort of an improvement project to finally become more like a man.

I wonder whether Arjun was asked to improve too. Did someone discover his secret fascination with Barbies and tell him he ought to behave more like a dude?

This idea of improvement is premised on a basic fear of women and the qualities they supposedly engender. Some of these ideas were first reflected in the 1932 essay “The Dread of Woman” by Karen Horney. The psychoanalyst – discussing phallic narcissism, castration anxiety, and “the wish to be a woman, which younger boys utter without embarrassment” – spoke about how, in her experience, “the dread of being rejected and derided is a typical ingredient in the analysis of every man.” “One of the exigencies of the biological differences between the sexes is this: that the man is obliged to go on proving his manhood to the woman…. The ideal of ‘efficiency’ is a typical masculine ideal.”

Of course, the essay was written nearly a hundred years ago, so some of its hypotheses should be taken with a pinch of salt. We have broken significantly away from the narrow gender definitions that existed in 1932. But this horror of supposedly weak, watered-down female qualities and of not being considered masculine/efficient enough, seems to be stuck in a time-warp: An ancient demon that must be vanquished at all costs.

Johar, who rearranged the way he speaks and gestures, conquered this threat to masculinity. At the time, the director didn’t tell anyone about his voice classes. Gradually, his voice altered, and his hand gestures “improved”. I wonder whether Arjun was asked to improve too. Did someone discover his secret fascination with Barbies and tell him he ought to behave more like a dude? I hope he never gave in.

Connor Manning, a YouTuber who talks about mental health and sexuality, addressed how he struggles with the idea that his voice, bisexuality, and the fear that the manner in which he conducts himself makes him less of a man. He admits that he, like Karan Johar, muted the parts of himself that made him feel less manly, out of fear that his “man card” would be snatched away. He was terrified that he – like the men Horney interviewed nearly 90 years ago – would no longer be taken seriously.

Unlike Johar’s efforts to flatten his female characteristics, Manning decided to sharpen them. He braved the waves of societal disapproval by wearing crop tops in public. And while he might have drawn some confused looks from passers-by, being in Los Angeles, he was largely met with support.

Karan Johar, I suspect won’t be wearing a crop top any time soon but I derived great solace from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Ranbir Kapoor’s hennaed hands in “Channa Mereya” with his clean-shaven face and teary eyes stunned me into silence. It was as much as Bollywood would ever allow for femininity in a male character but it was enough. Even though it was wrought with emotion, not once was Ranbir’s character ridiculed in the film’s universe and there was no trace of insecurity about the way he carried himself during the song. From the man who was probably asked to stop dropping his wrists came a man who painted his. Maybe this was Johar’s real growing up.

This is an updated version of an article published earlier.