There’s this radical new ad on TV, have you seen it? In the ad, a man stands in his kitchen, pours a lot of oil on the avocado slices in his sandwich, closes it and takes a huge bite.
It’s the first time we recall seeing a man in an ad doing something around the house, even if it’s as simple as using oil to cook food for himself. No anxious wife wondering how to satiate her husband’s poori-fixation without being the sole reason for his clogged arteries. No mother contemplating her own total failure as a successful human being because her son is shorter than his classmates. In fact, there isn’t even a woman hanging around anxiously or coyly in the background. Nothing. Just a man and his oddly disembodied shadow, preparing and eating his own food.
Yeah man! This is Saffola Aura, a cool new olive oil — with added flaxseed oil! The background music is Spanish, the man is a hipster with a man-bun, the sandwich has avocado, not cucumber-tomato. Sure, he may not have actually used fire to cook anything, but still, this is a whole new customer, and it only throws into sharper relief All the Ad Husbands We’ve Met Before.
And we’ve seen so many of them before. From Amazon groceries’ prospective father who’s in the kitchen because his wife is pregnant, but then ends up stumped because he doesn’t know what toor daal looks like, or Surf Excel’s grandfather-grandson duo, who by their powers combined, cannot turn on a washing machine without video-chatting mum to ask for instructions, or MTR’s husband who forgets to eat unless reminded by a stereotypically nagging wife who interrupts his business meeting to scold him (haha biwi’s scolding will take more than three minutes, unlike MTR’s ready-to-eat breakfast), or Reliance Fresh’s whiny thatha-husband who wonders what he’ll eat in the 5 days his wife is away on a trip with her girlfriends to Goa. It’s clear that in the world of advertisements at least, men are utterly useless around the house. Unless, of course, they turn up at our doorsteps to scold women and teach them how to clean toilets properly.
But minus the aberrations, the ad world, for the most part, seems to find it utterly charming and adorable when husbands are unable to take care of themselves. It sees wives shaking their heads lovingly and forgivingly as men find themselves unable to deal with even the most basic aspects of adult life, like wearing clean socks so that their feet don’t smell, or taking care of their own children in a meaningful way that doesn’t involve sneaking them snacks behind mummy’s back.
In real life though? Um, not so much. There’s absolutely nothing cute about a man unable to use common sense and take care of himself.
One of my uncle’s favourite stories about himself is one in which he accidentally put salt instead of sugar in my aunt’s coffee on a day when she was frightfully ill. He tells this story with a big jolly laugh, while my aunt looks oddly pained and contributes a token laugh at the punchline. My cousin’s wife, who moved to Detroit with him two years ago when they got married, laughingly says that she’s “trained” him to wash his own clothes, clean up after himself once he eats and do the dishes. All of this comes from a baseline where it’s taken for granted that men don’t know what to do around the house, and women can either put up with it, or take it upon themselves to “teach” them.
But what does this mean? Are men truly unable to figure out even the most basic of chores, while women just dive naturally into the world of household work?
Well, of course not. It’s just a matter of what men are expected to do, and what they’re taught to do from a young age. Women are constantly, and rightly, taught how to look after themselves: How to keep their clothes undamaged and cook nutritious food and keep themselves and their surroundings clean. Boys, on the other hand, are mock-scolded for getting themselves dirty, breaking things or messing up their rooms, and indulgently sent off with the thought that boys will be boys.
Well yes, boys will be boys, and boys will be what you make of them.
Journalist Samar Halarnkar talks about this phenomenon while exploring why men don’t cook in his book, The Married Man’s Guide to Creative Cooking. He calls it the ‘mera raja beta’ syndrome, where boys are fed indulgently, while their mothers watch them eat adoringly. This adoration, combined with a disinclination to let them in on the processes and hard work behind the meal they just devoured in 10 minutes, leads to men feeling that they’ve no place in the kitchen, and that the work that goes on there isn’t difficult or important. It doesn’t just apply to food: Once you stop to notice, you notice it in almost every aspect of men’s relationship to household work.
Back when Sushma Swaraj suggested that boys should be taught home science in schools to reduce gender discrimination, The Ladies Finger interviewed a few men who had studied the subject, and they said it taught them how to take care of themselves, be self-sufficient, and learn how to “make their home a happy place”. It also helped them see this kind of work as basic life-skills, rather than gender-specific work. Clearly, teaching kids home science could go a long way in breaking existing stereotypes and helping boys unlearn the discriminations they may be taught elsewhere. And there’s a lot to be said for men learning how to make their homes happier places.
But the thing is, while ads for the most part reflect an existing nation-wide pandemic of ‘mera raja beta’ syndrome, they also go a long way in perpetuating it themselves. Aren’t ads supposed to show us what we want, and what we want to be? What we’re expecting from life, and what we’re missing out on? When they play romantic music and cue sloppy smiles when a man can’t identify toor dal or switch on a washing machine, aren’t they telling you that this is what a good life looks like?
That’s why ads like Saffola Aura’s latest feel so nice and refreshing in the most simple and wholesome way. This isn’t the patronising empowered-woman message you get from the ads that tell you that you can do it all (meaning be pregnant, go to work, clean your house and cook for your husband), or one that slaps you in the face with it’s subverted gender norms. It’s much more satisfying than all that, because it really strikes at the crux of the issue. This ad, as simple as it may be, embodies an important feminist message for our times: That it isn’t women who need your upliftment right now, but men who need to check themselves, their excesses, their privileges and their assumptions in the most basic ways, and who need to start cleaning up their own damn mess. We’ll see what happens after that.