For the past seven months, I’ve been hosting weekly Instagram Lives – unscripted conversations with various people on themes of mutual interest. It began as a pandemic need, to feel human connection even if only via the internet. I’ve felt so shriveled and starved by the lack of conversations in the past year. I thought it would also be a nice way to rejuvenate my XXFactor self – the side that’s whacky, fiery, fun and also earnest & revolutionary about gender politics. My Live this week was with someone who over a decade ago, read my blog and insisted that I was feminist even as I argued that I wasn’t. What a full circle! The video of our conversation is over here and it’s themed ‘The Awkward Feminist’.
I found myself re-living conversations with other feminists, notably this toxic group.
Among the many things I’ve learnt from that experience, it was to fear weaponised jargon. I once wanted to see feminism be as cool, as comfortable an idea as violent filmstars, misogynist Whatsapp jokes and unhealthy beauty standards. It is starting to be. And I’m realising that anything that becomes popular lends itself to the basest behavior. Popular feminism today is about gaining social value by attacking other people.
I’m happy the feminist cause expanded to highlight LGBTQIA, race & caste aspects. I also understand why mental health has become such an important cause for the world. We are grappling with realities that the generations before us never dealt with and at least some of that is caused by feminism challenging traditional status quo. But I don’t know how helpful it has been to conflate mental health activism with feminism. Because of the nature of mental health (& illness), it needs more structured learning than feminism. For example, feminism is often boiled down to “equality for all people”. Mental health can’t be brought down to a catchphrase and it would be a disservice to it to try. That’s how ideas like ‘toxic positivity’ and ‘trigger warnings’ get mangled into weapons of aggression, rather than tools of self-reflection & healing. ‘Anger is valid’ which originated as a way to acknowledge difficult emotions rather than suppress them, is used to justify violence and pass on the cycle of abuse. I am no medical professional but I can’t imagine that it helps anybody’s mental health to externalize aggression & wreak destruction.
A fashionable cause is a direct path to social value via outrage. This means the focus is on creating drama rather than reflection & personal growth. We position ourselves as heroes by casting someone as villain. Aggression has replaced introspection. And where does that leave feminism? It doesn’t. Anyone who intended to explore how they could be better and do better is gunned down in the rush for cool woke points. I always believed jargon is the refuge of weak people and cluttered minds. This jargon comes with the extra protection of fascism where saying “I’m triggered” or “You are problematic” shuts down all conversation. A battle of words was always going to be won by the better orator. But how did this become a battle against our own kind, allies and other feminists?
I wonder now if feminism becoming fashionable is a good thing, after all. It gave us wokebros. It also gave us violent crusaders who don’t care about the damage they cause. I call them friendly fire feminists. Shallow outrage & drama reap social rewards. There is no room for different expressions of feminism. How can one person (or group) claim to be the gatekeepers of an ideology? That’s what the worst organised religion offenders have done and that’s why they’re ‘problematic’ (a word I heartily loathe since it absolves the speaker of having to justify harassing or cancelling). Aggression overrules compassion and is poised as an expression of independence. I could argue that aggression itself is counter-feminism since it’s cruel, selfish and focussed on causing damage. Toxic masculinity prizes these traits and patriarchy puts a premium value on them. So to embody them, no matter what label you call yourself, is to uphold patriarchy. Friendly fire feminism is not feminism.
Some of the most thoughtful people I know stepped back from the cause. Because they don’t want to be attacked anymore. This is sad because this retreat is from attacks by other feminists, not the original enemy – patriarchy. This is devastating and a major blow to the cause of feminism.
One step in my feminist journey was to try to make feminist messages more accessible. Asking someone to change their lifetime status quo is big. And patriarchy & discrimination are not restricted to bloody battlefields. They permeate every aspect of human living, from our language to science to social structures to rituals to humour, food, body language and more. Doesn’t it make sense for feminism to do so as well? I found Instagram to be a fun, (mostly) non-threatening way to engage with other people. I regularly post questions & polls, often on the theme of the upcoming Live. It brings in so many insights, so much authentic sharing and is also a lot of fun! This week I asked people about their idols who had disappointed them and about ideas that sat in their grey areas of feminist/problematic. I uncovered some deep and conflicted feelings about sexualisation, quota systems/affirmative action, Rupi Kaur, JK Rowling, Kim Kardashian and more. We all need safe room to be able to examine how we feel and how can we do that if we fear attack?
As protection, I felt the need to issue the following announcement before my Live. This doesn’t come from consideration, it comes from fear. Fear that my Live will be hijacked by overzealous trolls trying to prove how feminist-cool they are by cancelling me and attacking the others in my Live trying to safely explore complex ideas. Friendly fire feminism is a bigger threat than patriarchy since the latter is more easily identified & blocked.
I’ve always been a feminist, even when I didn’t quite embrace the label. Accepting the label of feminist meant opening up to a lifetime of learning. I will always grapple with grey areas & have to face up to my latent prejudices. This is true of us all. While there may be a place for the jargon-wielders and the fervent mobs, there has to also be a place to champion vulnerability. There has to be a place to model peaceful resistance to wrong. There has to be place to express fun that isn’t misogynist, humour that isn’t violent, empowerment that isn’t angry. There has to be a place for me. There has to be room for awkward feminists because I think we all are.
Dear ‘I like long drives’ guy,
This will be the one and only time the word ‘dear’ will ever be used in our conversation. We both know you think that saying something makes it true so try being quiet for once. That’s a more honest representation of who you are.
We need to talk about this long drives fetish of yours. By ‘we’, I mean I because of course you think a conversation involves only you speaking. But I’m in the driver’s seat and you know the rules about disturbing the driver. So yes, car fetishes. What, you don’t like my calling it a fetish? You got your idea of romance off a car advertisement. Let’s not even get started down the road of used car salesmen. No, let’s not even go down there.
What’s that? You thought listing ‘long drives’ on your dating app profile would make you sound cool? And just what makes you swipe right on women’s profiles? Ah, how they look. Is that why your profile has the following pictures:
- a long range shot/weird angle showing your right ear
- a famous landmark shot at the most well-known angle
- a quote about hearts, friendship, love, life that Hallmark greetings made their fortune off in the 90s
Enjoying long drives is not a personality trait. It’s not even a hobby. Not in India and boss, how often do you drive internationally? It’s not even a masculine thing. I know lots of women who like driving and they don’t act like it’s a thing that people do together on a romantic date. I know you think the front passenger seat is made for female butts but bro, a steering wheel is made for any kind of human hands. And we’ve established I’m driving this. But unlike you, I’m willing to let my passenger be something other than a silent object. I’m not a collector; I don’t even like stuff on my dashboard. So tell me, exactly what about this experience makes you think it’s an amazing offer to a woman you don’t know?
It can’t be the conversation. Those can be had literally anywhere. But in a car that you’re driving, you get to shut the other person up, right? Shush, don’t touch the driver. So yes, you were saying? The umm, aah, uh.. Yes, that’s what I thought. Don’t bother whining that you’re bad at speaking. A car is not a translator.
It is however, a trophy. That’s it, isn’t it? If it wasn’t, you’d be fine having a date in an Uber. Ah, there’s the rub. A car is a trophy where you get your prey (uhh…date) in complete seclusion and totally under your control. I grew up in a time when one of the first SUV models was inadvertently rebranded ‘the kidnap vehicle’. No, you don’t remember that?
Aww okay, let me play you a song I think you’ll like. This is how I think of you.
The reason I swiped left
I haven’t been writing about men or dating much, have I? The last year has forced me to sit with myself, without everything that I thought was my life but which were actually coping mechanisms. Stripped of those, what did I have? Lots of wounds. I’m glad 2020 is over.
I’ve been back on and off the dating apps sporadically. It’s a thing I do when I’m feeling slightly hopeful about life and to build on that seed. I am a gardener after all, and I tend to think the best things always have a chance of bearing fruit if given a little time, attention and watering. But I’ve also been isolating a lot more than the average Mumbaiker. I’ve always been super responsible. And after three years of relentless family health issues, panic scares & more, I’m not easy to carelessness. There are times I resent it and others where I’m thankful for a valid excuse to stay in and not be part of other people’s noise.
I’m realising I tire really easily around other people’s noise and other people are noisy. In their uncontrolled, unmanaged feelings. Men are the most of this since they’ve never been allowed to or required to own up to their own feelings. It’s hard enough to look at a man beyond his misbehaviour. Because I can see where the misbehaviour stems from and have plenty of burn marks from having had empathy, I feel further muddied. It’s cleaner not to engage or not engage too much with men in romantic contexts, where the universal assumption is that I’m required to be punching bag, mommy substitute, sex toy and therapist all in one.
I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot more. Truly acknowledging my scars. Prising loose all the gaslighting about how I should be over it, how I’m a strong woman and this shouldn’t affect me, simultaneously how all men are like that and also not all men. Accepting that I am correct and in my right to write off the male gender. That has let me understand the empty space under all that.
Is it loneliness? Yes, there is that. But it’s not as much as might be imagined. Always, when one thinks of the price to be paid to remedy that (and I’ve paid a heavy price with abuse, violence, assault), it feels like a minor need that doesn’t merit it. But past that I found something else. A desire for companionship. Not a need. Companionship isn’t a solution to loneliness. It is a different bird altogether. What does that require? Someone whose company is inspiring, entertaining, relaxing, fun. Company, not a crutch or a cage. And that’s when I reinstall the app.
With this approach, I find myself less brittle when on the apps. Make no mistake, the DM sliders, the inappropriate messagers, the offensively rude, the condescending misogynists continue to exist. I continue to weed them out. I even let myself feel rage about them, about the male species, about patriarchy. These rages are lingering less. I’m not feeling the need to uninstall to escape the horrors as much because they don’t horrify me as much.
Right now, I’m having three or four nice conversations. I don’t think about any of them when I’m going about my day. But in moments I’ve set aside for social leisure (as opposed to reading leisure, walking alone leisure), I find myself tap-tapping a witty comment, a new thought, a curious expression of interest. After all, good conversations are inspiring, entertaining, relaxing, fun. And men are some of those people with whom I can have these conversations.
Maybe you can only converse with others when you’ve first spoken to yourself a lot.
I think I can only experience romance when I feel happy. I can only play the games of flirting when playfulness is possible. I can only smile at the mirth of charm when I’m just looking for an excuse to smile anyway.
That’s why love becomes a common destination for romance. True love. And that’s only possible when you feel loving & lovable. This is a hard thing to feel, when you’re an independent-minded woman with a strong sense of self. Because most interactions are about gaslighting you, shaming you, harassing you, caging you into smaller versions of yourself or worse – someone else’s idea of who you should be.
Where are the love stories for women who like being the hero? What odes are written to the girl who talks too much & too loudly? What romantic gestures are planned for a damsel who doesn’t fear distress? What proposals are made to a woman that’s got better things to think about than pandering to an ego? How can romance have one set definition when its very purpose is to make a person feel special & desired over all else?
A romance, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, cannot be forced onto someone it doesn’t fit. But that doesn’t mean tiny glass slippers are the only footwear a girl deserves. Bring me a good ol’pair of walking shoes and bring them with a pair of wings. And I’ll show you romance can also be in adventure & flight.