Monthly Archives: April 2021

The Awkward Feminist & Friendly Fire Feminism

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.

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If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

To The Guy Who Likes Long Drives

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.

Sincerely yours,

The reason I swiped left

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If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

In The Court Of The Bombay Begums

If you haven’t already seen Bombay Begums, consider this your spoiler alert. I approached the show with trepidation and a lot of thoughts. For one, it falls squarely into what I recognise as a Netflix India formula. A cast made of a yesteryear star, a sprinkling of Bollywood also-rans and a variety of character role new darlings. Queer people (and bi women are cutting edge because gay men are so passe) and a precise/antisepic quota of cultural differences for ‘diversity’. Gratuitious nudity & sex scenes that go on forever, around 1/3rd into the start. Lots of dark interiors with an occasional too-bright scene (usually an unpleasant situation) and soft-focus (blurry) shot to convey relief. Yes, I have been watching A LOT of Netflix in the past year.

raniLet’s start with the prime Begum, the one in all the promos, 90s bad girl Pooja Bhatt. My generation saw her enter public limelight as a mere teenager and thanks to the movies she was cast it, her trajectory as a spoilt/confused adolescent, a pampered diva (Poo but from the 90s) and some kind of awkward young woman not very comfortably cast in the traditional glamorous/sanskari Bollywood heroine mold. The last I heard of her is that she moved on from a rollicking and very public sex life with numerous starling boyfriends and married the Haryanvi farmer from the MTV promos. On one hand it’s startling to see her play the dignified CEO, Rani. On the other hand, the composure that is hard won, the quiet inner turmoil, the shrewd/soulless compromises, the jaded emotions feel real because we remember a younger Pooja Bhatt. I have no idea if this is how she is in real life but it would make sense to me if she was.

I remember steeling myself not to faint or double over in menstrual pain while making an important presentation. I was surrounded by men circling like vultures, waiting to pounce on the slightest stammer or hesitation. At one point, I said, “I’ll hand it over to <vulture colleague> for his thoughts” and bolted to the bathroom to puke my guts out. Then I washed my face, took a deep breath and walked back in, with a mug of coffee pretending I’d done it on purpose. All the times Rani masterfully tides over hot flashes to push through the boardroom made me feel seen, heard and most importantly, lauded.

Rani is not so much a grey character as a complex depiction of Strong Woman. She’s not damaged or broken but she isn’t quite whole. She is hyper-functional, never once losing her cool but we see the toll it takes on her health, her relationships and sense of self. She looks sore from carrying wounds that will never heal. She hasn’t made peace with her past as much as struck a kind of grim truce with it. And that’s real.

two

It made me really happy to see another depiction of the strong, successful corporate woman in the form of Fatima. Like her, I’ve struggled to look for mentors. I have also grappled with the guilt of not having it as bad as the women before me, anxiety that I’m not doing better (or for that matter, even average), been bewildered at how little the conventional gender expectations fit me, been a success in things that I’ve wondered if they were worth it. All the regrets as well as the helplessness that regret would be a part of any scenario, no matter what decision was taken, that’s Fatima. It wasn’t comforting to see it spelt out on screen but it was relief to know I haven’t been alone.

Shahana Goswami is a brilliant casting choice, especially fresh off her role in A Suitable Boy. After playing the flighty, society madam, she brings real dignity & restraint to her performance. Fatima (BB) & Meenakshi (ASB) both have adultery play a big part in their storylines but it is as if one is watching different people and it never occurs to you to compare because they’re played by the same person. I don’t know if every woman who has worked in a cutthroat corporate environment can relate to these two characters but I could. I could see myself in scenes of both these women.

I only want to mention the child character Shai because she’s presented as one of the ‘begums’ of this story. She wasn’t memorable except for her annoying voiceover narrating between scenes. What 12 year old talks like that? I can’t see the sense of depicting the inner lives of complex adult women in the writings of an unrealistically articulate brat. I think she’s less a character and more a prop to detail Rani’s life.

lilyI quite enjoyed Lily and her cheery, never-say-die personality. But I am aware that her story looks exactly the way someone like I would think of it. I only have hearsay references for what life really looks like for a single mom commercial sex worker in Mumbai. I have a feeling she was in the story to ensure that it was taken seriously and not written off as a saga of ‘high-class auratein’. I’m not sure it does people like her justice but it probably was a valiant effort anyway.

Which brings me to the character that troubles me the most. Ayesha *deep breath*. I loathe this character so much, I got into a bad mood every time she appears on screen. She’s exploitative, inept and entitled. She sleeps with anyone who can help her but considers herself superior to Lily who does the same but also bears social judgement. Ayesha enjoys the privilege of middle-class respectability but doesn’t value it in the least. She smokes up in her PG accomodation that doesn’t allow it, sleeps with the ex-boyfriend she’s staying with even as his girlfriend sleeps in the next room, leads on a colleague so she can live with him but also cheats on him. She carries out the same horrible behaviour in her workplace, getting fired for ongoing ineptitude, being reinstated in a bigger role, sleepwalking through the work & pretending she’s destined for better things. The only people she values are the ones that draw clear boundaries with her – a lesbian friend who sleeps with her but tells her they’re not exclusive and a senior manager who takes sexual favours from her in return for a (completely undeserved) promotion.

ayesha

I needed some time to digest the story because of this character, so visceral were my reactions to her. But now I’m realising it’s because she represents a very uncomfortable question. Does any woman, whoever she is, however she is, deserve rape? Can we consign such an unlikable character (and similarly real people) to that horrible fate? She falls prey to a system designed to exploit her. The moral policing that calls any independent action, rebellion. The objectification that reduces women to their bodies and their bodies to sex objects. The rape culture that prizes aggression in men and victim mindsets in women.

As far as female archetypes go, if Rani is the Queen Bee, Fatima the Rising Star, Lily the Amazonian Warrior and Shai the Fragile Princess, then Ayesha is the Professional Victim. She is not a good person or even a sympathetic one. She has no redeeming qualities. The best we (and other characters) feel for her is pity and even that is easily gone when she blunders into her next selfish move. She’s not a begum and never will be. But she’s who most people become when faced by life’s hard questions. Being a woman, makes these questions harder, louder and many more.

This wasn’t intended as a review so I won’t post any recommendations to watch or not. But if you have seen the show, post a comment. I’d really like to hear more thoughts on this story and its characters.

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If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page and the Youtube channel. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

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