Category Archives: Media Messages

Masters Of Sex: How Do We Do This Without The Men?

I just finished reading Masters of Sex, the book on which this TV show was based. My opinions have shifted, somewhat. There is of course the difference in the two media. With the book, I’ve been able to ponder it over several months without feeling the need to retrace my steps. With the show, I started in 2016, gave up when it got triggering and then restarted twice over. This time round, I had to steel myself to power through it to the end, which may have impacted my opinion. Now that I’ve read the book (and the show, to be fair, follows it quite closely), I feel like I have a better perspective on the story and more clarity on the thoughts that came up.

Unlikeability as Lack of Ability

Bill Masters was not a particularly likeable character. Even a somewhat forgiving (attempting to be neutral) viewpoint like Maier’s shows him to have been focussed to the point of ruthless. It made me reflect on several such men I’ve encountered, mostly in romantic context. In the past year, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that these men may not have been evil, chuckling geniuses out to exploit people (and me). Make no mistake, I don’t believe any of them or Bill Masters for that matter, were/are good people. They lack a fundamental empathy for other human beings, a trait that translates into not completely ‘getting’ social cues but also making it very easy for them to exploit, even abuse other people and move on seemingly with no moral compunctions. I’ve been wondering if this merely means that they are limited human beings with very narrow emotional and thus, mental range.

Emotional IS Intelligent

Yes, I clubbed the emotional and the mental together and there’s a reason this post appears on XX Factor. For centuries, we’ve thought of mental faculties as logic, rational, distanced from emotions which have been thought of as inferior, distracting, unnecessary. The ‘mental’ has been designated the domain of masculine and emotions the domain of hysterical females who need a steady man to keep them on track. But being able to access, understand identify and articulate emotions is a skill, one that most girls are taught since childhood. This training may not look and sound good since it mostly takes the form of prioritising other people’s needs over one’s own. But it also teaches us patience and eventually about delaying gratification. It demonstrates over and over, the value of playing the long game – of picking one’s battles, of factoring other people’s feelings when trying to achieve something. Take a look all around and tell me that doesn’t help women. Whether you look to the scheming saas-bahu narratives or the diplomatic ways that female media stars have climbed, these lessons show themselves as valuable.

So what does that have to do with Bill Masters and the men I’ve known? I think they’re people who lack something vital in their mental makeup. I am not intelligent enough to articulate exactly how they’re losing out because of this. Or maybe I haven’t healed from all the callous exploitation inflicted on me personally by them. But I’m convinced that being emotionally limited is a shortcoming and not a strength as I’ve been taught.

The Tragedy of Masters and Men

In the story of Masters and Johnson, Bill Masters does not come off looking good in any way. From all accounts, he was a very gifted and dedicated physician-surgeon already. And it would take supreme courage to undertake the study that became his lifelong passion. This study spawned a whole industry of sex therapy, foreshadowed medical developments like Viagra, was a forerunner of the sexual liberation and women’s empowerment. Importantly, it dispelled many of the medical community’s notions about sex, women’s bodies, older people’s bodies and dysfunctions. Not all the ideas proved correct (especially that problematic view on conversion therapy, which Maier concedes was probably a result of senility) but Bill Masters vision and work transformed how human beings thought of this most fundamental act of relating to one another.

But Bill Masters did not die rich. He was also never acknowledged again, let alone accepted back to the university where he began his project. The few people who tended to him in his last few years – Virginia Johnson herself, his son, his third wife Dody – were/are all seen as deserving of great sympathy and recognition just for tolerating such a terrible man. He certainly did not die loved and the few people who cared enough, probably barely did so.

Considering the need to leave behind a legacy seems more male than female (I suppose it has to do with not really knowing if one’s progeny is one’s own), this seems like a bleak possible future for most emotionally stunted men.

~O~O~O~O~O~O~

Women Aren’t Winning This Battle Either

This brings me to another thought I’ve been pondering for awhile. I anticipated in my 20s, that the toxic male behaviour I saw around me would have its repercussions on the male gender. I reasoned that the familial structures that supported their Raja Beta brattitude would lose their power as the doting parents got older. But in parallel, the women like me would have collected experiences and lessons in dealing with predatory/exploitative/abusive/cheating men and would reach a point of not needing to carry the burden of them anymore. That is happening. It is happening to me and I see it happening in so many ways around me, even with younger men and women.

The MeToo movement in so many ways was also about women saying that we didn’t HAVE to be exploited any more and if that shocked and destroyed men, why should we have to care?

Where does it leave us all, as a society now? Or as individuals? I know most of the perpetrators named in MeToo seem to have escaped without repercussions. But I know the echoes of this will linger on in every interaction between the genders, every intimate and professional relationship for at least some time to come.

We are a generation of embittered women saying we’ve got a raw deal when it comes to men so we’re not interested. And our counterparts are severely limited men, barely capable of identifying their own emotions right, now dealing with acute fear and no one to tell them how things work. I don’t know that the idea makes me, personally happy.

The last few pages of the book dwell on an ageing Virginia Johnson, after Bill Masters divorced her. A particularly telling section has her reflecting on the fact that she was brought up to be anything a man wanted her to be. How she may or may not have cared for the several men that she encountered (two prior ex husbands, Bill Masters, several other suitors/partners/collaborators).

Virginia Johnson was not a weak or needy woman by any stretch of imagination. Both the show and the book show her to be resourceful, practical, able to set aside her personal ambivalence to focus on what she wanted. One even wonders if she was a victim or an opportunist. But of course, you’d never wonder that about a man primarily because a man would not have had to make such choices but would be welcomed into achievement and exploiting other people readily. She makes for a most interesting character. I’m just not sure that she was a happy person.

It may be the men’s fault but it does mean nobody gets loved or laid.

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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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Masters Of Sex: Wake Me Up When You Realise Sex Isn’t About The Man

I’m currently watching the TV series, Masters of Sex. It was the first show I began on Netflix when I first subscribed. I had to stop and move to other things that were easier. I’ve tried to come back several times and I think this time I’ll manage to finish it. I’m also reading the book that it’s based on, both versions being about the relationship between the two sex researchers Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters. The last time a show brought up so many thoughts was when I was being initiated into Cosmopolitans and Manolo Blahniks.

I think Masters of Sex in addition to taking on a very difficult subject also fell into the Season 2 trap of fizzling out after the first climax. The attempts at addressing racial discrimination, people of science against the might of money – none of these plotlines really worked. Having survived the subsequent season I have an idea why this happened.

Do we really need to know about yet another man’s daddy issues and how these are the reason (not gravity) that his organ doesn’t stand right up? Where’s the fun in labouring through yet another ponderous man trying to blame his infidelities, mansplaining, emotional stuntedness and instant gratification chasing on the people around? Bill Masters is not a likeable character and Season 2 rides on his cliched, boring, limited inner life.

This is especially striking because in the same frame is a character and storyline that’s solid gold waiting to be mined. Who is Virginia Johnson? She’s multiorgasmic, a divorcee, a single parent. Is she a gold-digger or a victim of sexual harassment? Is she brilliant or just great at faking it (and presumably convincing a qualified doctor to do so)? Is she that good in bed and if so, how? What paths led her to this place (inside her head, not just the superficial backstory she’s given)? What is her relationship with motherhood, her own reproductive system? We know her thoughts about sex and vaginas – or maybe not. Is she playing an elaborate game of agree-then-contradict to keep the interest of the one man who is her way out of a humdrum life? And why are these politics not explored better in a show that is literally about the politics of sex between two people who are studying, recording and analysing it?

The first season touched on some of these. It was also the first time since Sex & The City that I’ve seen a popular show acknowledge the

politics of the bedroom. What’s happening between Virginia and Bill is not an exception; it’s not ‘two fucked up people’ (that easy phrase that wrote off stories like Gone Girl). It is the truth of regular sex between regular people. People who are married. People who don’t love each other. People who use sex as an escape. Violent people. Traumatised people. Escapists. Survivors. People who don’t fit a box. People who can’t articulate their sexuality in a label. People who don’t know how to express love. People who are alien to the concept of human relating. People who are addicted to the endorphins. People who crave intimacy. Needy people. Distant people. Single people. Queer people. Cheating people. Religious people. People.

The third season attempted to steer us back into some of that but took the laborious route of nasty teenagers, whiny children, bored/cheating spouses and some casual lip service to current causes (race relations, queer representation). Still a whole lot of hullaballoo over a very boring, very self-obsessed, very dysfunctional barely human man. But the fourth season sees us back on the cutting edge stuff of fetishes, infidelity, traumas, ego clashes, gender politics and most importantly, how these play out in the bedroom.

I’m curious to know if my reactions are based on my gender and whether any male viewers agree with me. It’s not that men are not interesting in the context of sex. But this point of view, even this character is not new. There is nothing about this storyline that I haven’t already seen a thousand times over in popular music (both desi and international), Hollywood, gaming, poetry, books and theatre. We know the penis needs a lot of pandering and support and encouraging to function sexually. We know male dysfunctions are often psychological. We know of terms like emasculation and performance anxiety. What we don’t know is what’s going on in the female body? The vagina from whence we all came, she of the self-cleaning repute and multi-orgasmic ability – what’s up with her?

I was hoping Masters of Sex would answer questions like why are so many straight men fascinated by lesbian sex? The reverse doesn’t appear to be true with straight women salivating for gay sex. How about the overdone conversation around positions? Is there really a physiological reason that certain positions feel more powerful than others or it is just what we’ve been fed by the media and the big villain – patriarchy?

The researcher in me really, really wants to know and so does the woman.

Update: I’ve finished Season 4 and I unhappily report that it is a shameless pandering to current day political correctness. There’s a ghastly focus on gay/lesbian people and I call it ghastly because the portrayal feels so token and the ‘no conversion therapy’ message like they replaced scriptwriters with PR people.

I still do want to call out two things that really stood out for me in this show.

I loved that Season 3 addressed Margaret’s profound sense of betrayal while still feeling the need to be loyal to Barton. She even takes on the onus of the divorce by telling her daughter she was unfaithful, resulting in the daughter cutting ties with her. She takes on another unsatisfactory, demeaning relationship. And still, still Barton refuses to speak up. Which one is worse? – Outing someone or forcing someone else to suffer the punishment that would have been meted out to you? It’s not a question that the queer-friendly world I live in, likes to acknowledge. This is what I believe now. Outing a person is deplorable, an act of profound betrayal. But throwing someone else under a bus is also an act of profound betrayal. Being gay doesn’t make it okay to betray somebody. I’ve been facing this issue in a different cause (mental illness) and my stand is the same – nothing excuses a person from a basic code of respect and conduct towards other people. Your sexuality, your gender identification, your religion, your disability, your mental illnesses – none of these make it permissible to violate, abuse or harm another human being. This show was the first in recent times that appeared to at least imply this.

The other part that caught my eye was a scene with Virginia and a new male character. She rolls her eyes and says, “There it comes, the legendary XYZ charm”. It’s quite unlike her, the girl who seems oblivious to the unfairness meted out to her gender. She apologises shortly after, when said man helps her. But we also watch her crumble, bit by bit. She’s constantly being proven right and she’s constantly being attacked for it. I could so relate. All in all, for me Masters of Sex has been exactly like sex itself – so many insights, so much reflection but I’m not sure it has been worth all that.

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Go, Selfie!

I don’t understand what the problem with selfies is. I remember a time when people would keep handing their camera over to others and asking them to shoot their pictures. THAT was really annoying. Selfies put people in charge of their own vanity.

Also, vanity. It’s defined as ‘Excessive pride in one’s appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements etc.’ The vilification of this probably came from people who were insecure about their own worth and wanted to tear down people who showed belief in themselves. Take away a person’s right to feel good about himself/herself and you’ve gotten someone under your control. I see selfies as breaking that horrid thing human beings do to each other.

What is the problem with vanity, really? There is a stereotype (and perhaps a valid one) that selfie-takers are predominantly female. The people who thought women should not be vain, also believed women should be seen not heard, that they should be long-suffering, never complaining martyrs. Vanity says that the person believes they are worthy of regard. Considering how much body policing the average woman endures, I’d say anything that puts self-pride back into her hands is good. Selfies do that by encouraging vanity.

So angle your camera, strike a pose and Go, Selfie!

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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.

The ‘Only If You’re Sad’ Guy

There’s a certain kind of man who gets off on sad women.

It’s an entire trope – The Depressed/Tortured/Troubled/Damsel-in-distress that the guy ‘rescues’ with minimal emotional investment by clowning around. He is not a Manic Pixie Dream Guy. No, the original in that trope is not a person and only exists to further the male hero. This kind of man, in contrast, is all about himself. He’s a BIG personality. Too big to allow anyone else to exist as anything else but a stage for him to clown around on. Okay, maybe he isn’t always this loud, big flashy star guy. More likely, he’s mousy and awkward. But this setup allows him to act out his big personality fantasies.

This kind of guy passes off very troubling behaviours as kindness or empathy. It is in his interest for the woman to be sad and helpless. He’s very good at mansplaining mental illness. He’s excellent at validating and amplifying what may be normal feelings of being hard done by. If he actually cared about you as the person, he’d be invested in your happiness, your independence. He would not be unnaturally attached to your sad feelings, your low moments and your poor health (mental and physical).

This is the friend/partner who is ‘there JUST when you need them’. If he isn’t interested in talking to you when you are feeling decent and don’t have a pressing need, it means he doesn’t actually like you when you’re content. He cannot relate to a person who is complete on their own. He doesn’t feel needed unless the woman is in desperate distress. And we know what most men do when that happens – they attack the woman for not being dependent enough.

This is the same man who had a problem with a film like Veere di Wedding, which above all was a story about female joy in each other. This is the one who leaves me comments or emails me telling me that he ‘senses a deep well of sadness inside me and how strong I am’. This is also the writer of those dreadful, woebegone songs about the (always male) protagonist helping a woman when she’s down and then she *gasp* dares to go on with her life (presumably with someone else). Can you see how this is the same kind of entitlement that makes men say ‘friendzone‘? Empathy or help should not come with the expectation of sex or emotional dependency.

What’s really troubling is how closely this is linked with popular (and toxic) male icons. The brooding loner is not sexy; he’s socially inept. Jon Snow is not a good leader; he’s emotionally deficient. The sulky ‘deep thinker’ isn’t all that; he’s very limited in his communication skills. These don’t have to be character flaws but they are certainly not traits to romanticise, especially when you consider how poisonous this kind of a human being is to other people and their well-being.

I’ve been there as well. Especially when one is in a difficult place or situation, someone who seems to provide support or listening (especially a man because WHEN DO THEY EVER LISTEN?) seems so attractive. But I’ve also watched what happens when the situation passes, as they usually do. I realise that same man does not have any actual answers. Not even basic ones like how he feels or who he is. He exists only as a brave hero to your inner damsel-in-distress. He has no sense of personhood beyond that.

No wonder he enjoys Batman, angry hiphop, rage politics, shooter games and all other such narratives that are bleak and only require him to survive. He wants to keep you trapped in there with him too. If that’s your thing, well, I can’t speak for how that works because it’s not me. But if it’s not and you want to someday get back to the land of laughter and peace of mind, watch how the hero turns.

I’ve gone around in circles describing the same kind of toxic male that is worshipped by our culture and that a lot of modern men pattern themselves on. We can give it different names. And I can get stymied or shouted down by the NotAllMen and other such MRA crusaders. But the facts don’t change. A guy who’s only happy when you’re sad is never going to be happy or allow you to be happy. You choose.

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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.

Ocean’s 8 — Feminist Or Not?

The Ocean franchise is what I like to think of as Smooth Masculine (but still very masculine) — a format popularized by the early James Bonds. They’re stylish and suave. They actually talk, even intimidate, with words rather than their fists. In itself, this digresses from the usual toxic masculine image of an overmuscled, underarticulate (only they call it ‘brooding’) male. Hey, they even show the main leads crying. The Ocean series is also about male bonding, another digression from the antisocial guy, his social ineptitude glamorized as ‘lone wolf’.

Now we have an all-woman spin on the Smooth Masculine. Is that enough to make it feminist?

Let’s start with the plot. The Ocean’s trilogy was respectively about robbing a supersafe, racing to steal a Faberge egg and breaking a casino. Admittedly the first is also about Danny Ocean showing up his rival in love in a schoolboyish fashion but that is a joke underlining the slickness of the operation. All three movies are about cracking a joke at the expense of some guy who eventually lands on his butt. Every plot is a game with an emphasis on fun and some snazzy lines thrown in. The Ocean trilogy isbuilt on the foundation of Danny Ocean and Rusty’s read-your-mind camaraderie and infused with inside joke humour.

And now let’s take a look at what the girls get. There are just 8 women which made me hope there was going to be a line about 8 women being able to do the job of 11 men or about the wage difference. Nope.

Are they having fun? I’m a woman and I’d be hard-pressed to call what they’re doing fun. Shopping, wearing pretty clothes and ogling a shiny necklace — nope, assuming that’s what women bond over is pretty sexist. Which brings us to the object of the plot. Danny’s boys took on casinos and museums, the money and objects themselves of scant interest. It was the thrill of adventure that drove those plotlines. In comparison Debbie’s girls string along listlessly with motivations as flimsy as money, to chase the most clichéd object in the history of women’s desires — jewelry. So far Ocean’s 8 is already lagging behind than the three male dominated movies on story.

Speaking of listless, the movie boasts a starcast even glitzier than the original Ocean trilogy. But only Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchette have any kind of meat in their roles (and even then, I’d call this a low-fat chicken broth compared to the prime ribs that George Clooney and Brad Pitt got). We know the women were partners earlier and that they team up on this. But beyond that, the two characters are pretty much interchangeable as pissed-off (and entitled) white women through the story. Ocean’s 8’s female characters also have worse roles than their male counterparts in the preceding trilogy.

Speaking of white women, much has been made about Anne Hathaway’s self-referential humour but no, it wasn’t that interesting. Neither was her abrupt about-face at the end of the movie. A hot filmstar joins a bunch of crooks because she wants friends? Sounds flimsy. Helena Bonham Carter is (yet another) wasted talent in the film. It takes no mean talent to act like you’re a bad actor and that’s the extent of her prowess on display in the film.

Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter in Ocean’s 8

Rihanna, the queen of inclusivity and the MET ball, shows up in a grungy avatar as the genius geek. But her tech wizardry extends to making the apartment’s lights flicker on and off and hacking into the museum’s security cameras. This does not impress anyone who grew up among teenagers hacking into government systems. What’s more, her ‘wizardry’ has to be supplemented by lame things like angling cameras to blind spots. This is accomplished by tricking a sad-faced old man with a bogus site about puppies (culled from his Facebook feed). Women and technology = Facebook stalking + clueless old people? Compare this to with the hologram of Ocean’s Twelve and the magnetron of Ocean’s Thirteen. This feels like a comment on women’s supposed ineptitude with technology. Or maybe, just lazy writing. Count one for Ocean’s 8’s misogynist subtext.

Mindy Kaling in Ocean’s 8

Mindy Kaling, another POC star is introduced inside a shop that looks like a parody of Bollywood — flimsy fabrics, garish designs and an atrocious Hindi accent, arguing with a similarly parodic mother (slightly less atrocious accent). Her only contribution to the heist is to blend in with the kitchen wash staff and then break the necklace up, in the toilet. I imagine she’s supposed to be the girls’ version of Virgil-and-Turk but she doesn’t have any of the lines or even the situations to add comedic timing. As an Indian, I can’t help feeling she’s this movie’s version of Anil Kapoor in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol — The token brown fool. Add whitewashing & racism to Ocean’s 8‘s troublesome nature.

There is another token Asian who is a pickpocket but as with Rihanna, her part in the heist has to do with a lot of convenient coincidences and other people acting in stupid ways. I thought she might have been a replacement for The Amazing Yen but no, he shows up in a throwback to every dance-through-laser-beams sequence ever (including Toulour in Ocean’s Twelve). Could the makers really not find a female acrobat/contortionist? Even the snazzy action sequences of Ocean’s Eleven’s lift climb are missing.

Rihanna in Ocean’s 8

Okay, so may be the last three points are more about racial inequality than feminism. Maybe not. Feminism like any ideology, is evolving. This movie may have been impressive in the 90s when a film with no brand-name male stars would have been inconceivable. But 2018’s feminism is intersectional. These glaring instances of tokenism run alongside casual racism — in one scene, Cate Blanchette tells a full-mouth chewing Sandra Bullock (when did Debbie Ocean become Gracie Hart?) “I don’t speak Ukaranian”.

Sarah Paulson, arguably a smaller star than Rihanna, still gets a bigger role showcasing the soccer mom/illegal goods fence. This is probably the least cardboard character but is exploited for very little nuance or humour.

No one in this movie is suave or smooth. Perhaps that’s a feminist statement about women not needing to be these things (but I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel for salvation here). I won’t bother going into the utterly unnecessary nasty ex subplot. Then, I want to know, where’s the movie?

I didn’t get the great lines that made the Ocean’s trilogy such a delight to watch. I didn’t see any fantastic female bonding. I missed the cool gadget wizardry and tech tricks. I didn’t spot any fun action scenes. And I sure as well didn’t enjoy watching talented women grimacing their way through such hackneyed, restricting roles. Even the necklace wasn’t that pretty.

So let’s do a feminism round-up.

Intersectional? Not. If this movie were based on an actual story, it would probably involve whitewashing.

Aspirational female characters? Nope. Every character is replaceable, barely propping the other up or surviving because men slipped up. Add incorrect messages about ‘feminism = male-bashing’.

Breaking stereotypes? Uh, no. I’m looking at you, jewelry chasers, Indian-with-marriage-obsessed-mom, vindictive exes, dumb bimbette who ‘just wants friends’, splashing about on luxury & beauty goods regardless of logic or danger.

Entertaining? No and since this is a film, that is the prime purpose. A story that gives talented actors so little room to entertain, does them (and the audience) grave disservice.

All in all, I think it’s clear that Ocean’s 8 is not only a bad movie, it’s also actively anti-feminist. What else would you call setting up so many talented women in a film that shows women and these actors so poorly?

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I Know It’s Pride Month But I Hate Strangelove | GaysiFamily

(I originally wrote this post on 13 June. But a certain prominent feminist website showed interest in publishing it, held it in queue and then decided that it was ‘too harsh’ and unsuitable for Pride Month. I don’t think I should talk down to the LGBTQIA community and letting this problematic film pass because it waved the rainbow flag, feels like just that.)

I reviewed the Netflix Original film ‘Alex Strangelove’ and Gaysi agreed to run the post. I haven’t written for this lovely site in a long time so it’s great to have my piece up there again. It’s also testimony to their inclusivity that they neither chose to question my sexuality nor edit my piece down for ‘harshness’.

This post has been read by two gay people, one bisexual person and one feminist all ratifying that there was nothing problematic with this opinion. If you are an ally, please be very mindful of what thoughts you entertain or support, in the name of the rainbow cause. Movies like ‘Alex Strangelove’ amplify some very problematic ideas, all while gaining the social credibility of doing something for Pride Month. As always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts – here or on the Gaysi site.

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Updated on 29 June 2018: This story was first published on Gaysifamily on 25 June 2018.

Alex Truelove (yes, that’s his real name, haha, look how post-hipster we are) is a sweet, nerdy boy reclaiming those hitherto derogatory labels. June being Pride Month, millennial-catering businesses are awash with ‘look-how-inclusive-we-are’ rainbowness. Let’s call gayvertising, shall we? Highly promoted on Netflix Originals, is a teen flick called Alex Strangelove. You get the gist of the story from its promos and the description text but for the purists who manage to button-mash quicker than Netflix forces promos on them, here’s your spoiler alert.

Alex Truelove (yes, that’s his real name, haha, look how post-hipster we are) is a sweet, nerdy boy reclaiming those hitherto derogatory labels. He’s good-looking enough to be at the top of the American high school hierarchy (or so other teen movies would have us believe) but he isn’t up there. He’s also class president and has a beautiful girlfriend who shares his penchant for obscure animal factoids. He doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to have sex with said girlfriend, regardless of peer pressure. Yay for sensitive men and down with toxic masculinity.

Then the couple decides in true teen style to ‘just do it’ (even if that is a 20-year-old reference) and set a date and venue. Only in the week before, Alex meets a charming gay boy and suddenly we have the plot of the movie.

What didn’t work about this movie?

Literally everything from here onwards. Just what about Alex makes him this attractive to members of all sexes? Let’s assume that teenage minds of every sex are wired to make bad choices. So we have a ‘regular’ teenage boy who is suddenly the object of everyone’s affections. What does he do? First he goes along with gay boy’s obvious flirtation and is a real dick to his needing-support-during-mom’s-cancer girlfriend. Then he weasels his way back into girlfriend’s good graces but also returns to the gay boy to jump his bones, then gay shames/blames him. He then runs back to the girlfriend to cheat on her (yes, it’s called that even if it happened inside your own mind especially when you’re still inside her, jerk-face). He is an utter asshole, literally while they’re both still naked. If this isn’t enough, he also later cheats on both people with a random stranger (female by the way, not that it matters when you’re cheating) at a party and the best friend (remember sage dude?) gets beaten up for it.

And what’s the end result? Shitfaced Alex is rescued in his drunken glory by the long-suffering girlfriend while best friend gets his ego and black eye massaged from the girl he’s been stalking for years. Boy, the makers of this film really hate women, don’t they?

Oh but wait, it ain’t over. Humiliated girlfriend and shamed gay boy get together to try again to give Alex the life he wants. Who does this and why should they? Alex takes every single inch he’s given and more with the kind of entitlement that makes him completely unlikeable. After the girlfriend graciously sets him up with the gay boy, he chickens out ‘because people are watching’. When the gay boy walks away in disgust, he chases him, suddenly sure that he is gay.

Inadequate Sexuality Labels

For a film that supposedly challenges heteronormativity, this one reinforces some highly toxic stereotypes about sexuality. Alex’s reticence towards sex is set up in a don’t-virgin-shame message but ends up reinforcing the notion that if a man isn’t a ravenous for sex, he is gay.

Who are these sage best friends who shame him for not rushing into sex (a la The Big Bang Theory) but are also wonderfully conversant with the gender-fluid, pansexual, polyamorous attitudes of their generation? Speaking of polyamory and pansexuality, the writers of the movie don’t know that these are two different things, as has been pointed out by several irate people. And in this sexually self-aware world, how come no one so much as hints at bisexuality, bicuriosity or good old sexual ambivalence?

Alex is a teenager, a time in his life for sexual experimentation. ‘Man crush’ is given lip service with no depth or dimension added. The fact that Alex has been in a straight relationship for over a year suggests that he has been attracted to women too. The flimsy plot suggests that the gay liaison may just have been a one-off reaction to a fear of sex. Alex’s actions also seem to suggest that bisexual people are just entitled enough to want everything, even at the cost of other people’s feelings.

There’s nothing to indicate that Alex lives in a homophobic world. Even his toxic male best friend (who stalks women, virgin-shames and sends unsolicited nudes) knows about sexual liberatedness. Homophobia is assigned one terrible scene towards the end of the film. Even this latter is more about school bullying and at best, a flimsy excuse for Alex’s need to please. It does grave disservice to the harassment and harm meted out to queer people all over the world. And it definitely does not address the fact that Alex hasn’t been attracted to men before this or that he clearly has felt attraction for women too.

Alex Problematic

Not once is Alex’s terrible treatment of everyone else called out. Instead the film turns queerness and sexual ambiguity into an excuse for bad behaviour, no responsibility and zero consequences for hurting other people. I’d say this is typical old, white Hollywood at its worst, turning out a weak, self-absorbed white male protagonist with everyone else around serving as props in his entitled journey.

Instead of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, they have (also) a Manic Pixie Dream Gay. It doesn’t seem like the makers of Alex Strangelove actually like gay people very much or they’d be more sensitive to how the gay boy as well as a prime ally of queer people (straight women) are treated within the story. If you take pride in sexual freedom and in allying with the rainbow cause, give this one a skip.

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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.

6 Bollywood Characters You Didn’t Know Were Feminist | FeminismInIndia

My first post for Feminism in India is up here and it’s about two of my favorite topics – badass women and Bollywood! Read the full story here: ‘6 Bollywood Characters You Didn’t Know Were Feminist

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Update: 29 Jun 2018 – Here’s the full post now.

If Friday begins with the box office clanging in anticipation, Saturday full of tweet-opinions, by Sunday, the analyses have begun on a film’s politics – whether it’s a spy in Karachi or wedding shenanigans in Delhi. Is this feminist or not, we ask as we analyse how much screen time each actress had, what she spoke about and what she did. Can on-screen feminism go beyond the samajh-sudharak, the abla naari turned Kali maa and the speech spouting devi? Let’s meet some of the subtler on-screen feminists.

1. Saare Niyam Tod Do! – The Subversive Feminist

Manju (Rekha) in Khoobsurat (1980)

When a 1980 film titled Khoobsurat graced the big screen, a fresh-faced Rekha frowned from the poster. As Manju, she staked out a place in her sister’s marital home, breaking rules and making jokes (also a broken rule). She played bridge, started a kavi samelan, danced kathak, organised a musical production and snapped into action during a health crisis. In a time when a playback singer wouldn’t sing ‘bold’ songs, Manju made subversive both sexy and sanskari as she entreated us all to ‘Saare niyam tod do’ (Break all the rules).

2. Hawa Hawai – The Fearless Feminist

Seema (Sridevi) in Mr. India (1987)

She was a crime journalist, running sting operations on a national terror threat. She didn’t like children and was vocal about it. And she ruled the screen in a children’s movie. Sridevi as Seema in Mr. India may have been its real hero, since she didn’t need either a backstory, hero worship from the oppressed masses or an invisibility gadget to battle the forces of terrorism. That’s feminism sitting right under our noses, just next to the Calendar, khaana lao jokes.

3. The Tangewali Rides First – The Independent Feminist

Hema Malini as Basanti in Sholay (1975)

One of Bollywood’s biggest blockbusters had the testosterone-ridden plotline of prisoners, gunmen, mutilated cops and murder. Sholay also had a taangewali. We laughed at her talkativeness and marveled at her beauty, but did you notice that Basanti single-handedly managed the only public transport through the dacoit-infested roads to Ramgadh and Belapur? Some heroes use their fists, some wield the reins of a horse. As Basanti, Hema Malini’s opening spiel even referenced the matter of consent: “Yeh Basanti ka tanga hain, kissi zameendar ki bekaari thodi hain ki marzi na marzi, karna hi pade!” (This is Basanti’s tanga, not bonded labour. You get to choose whether you want to or not.)

4. Life Is My Favourite Game – The Responsible Feminist

Geet (Kareena Kapoor) in Jab We Met (2007)

In a country that kills in the name of honour and associates rape with victim-shaming, the pursuit of love is a distant dream for many women. Kareena Kapoor’s Geet in ‘Jab We Met’ tided over sanctioned harassment (“Akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah hoti hain”), the family patriarch and even geography in her quest for Mr. Right.

She managed to have adventures, befriend a heartbroken Shahid Kapoor and ride through the mountains. When she was jilted, she took a job to work through her grief rather than run back to her family or to another man. She said, “Kal ko main kissi ko blame nahin karna chahti hoon, ki ji tumhari wajah se meri life kharab ho gayi. Meri life jo bhi hogi, mujhe pata hoga ki meri wajah se hain.” (I don’t want to have to blame somebody else for any of my problems in the future. Whatever my life brings, will be because I chose it.) Feminism was always about taking back the control of our lives and Geet’s refusal to be a victim is just that.

5. The Show woman Must Go On – The Ambitious Feminist

Geeta (Hema Malini) in Seeta aur Geeta (1972) and Manju (Sridevi) in Chaalbaaz (1989)

‘Twins with opposite personalities’ was a popular Bollywood trope. With female twins, it was a way to show two different ways that a woman could be appealing – the demure lass but also the firebrand. Hema Malini’s Geeta climbed the tightrope and the social ladder to nicer clothes, a richer boyfriend and a better life in the 1972 Seeta aur Geeta. Geeta was a hero to the oppressed, while breaking the formula of man-rescues-woman. The 1989 update, Chaalbaaz, had Sridevi depict an even more unapologetic Manju climbing her way to ‘Superstar Manju Micheal Jacksoni’ while taking on thugs, abusive relatives, a gaslighting buddy and a besotted rich boy in her stride. Geeta or Manju – nothing says feminist like a dreamer working her way up.

6. Taal Se Taal Na Milaye – The Intersectional Feminist

Mansi (Aishwarya Rai) in Taal (1999)

1970s and 80s Bollywood was full of gaon ki goris to whom terrible things happened. They were kidnapped by criminals and rescued by heroes. They were duped by smooth charmers who redeemed themselves before God or a moralizing hero. Occasionally, as the hero’s sister, they’d be raped by the villain and commit suicide or be killed so as to give the hero a quest of vengeance.

We met Aishwarya Rai’s Mansi in the traditional introduction of this very girl – through the hero’s eyes as he spied on her dancing in the rain and undressing. Bailed out by a rich papa, love and familial friendships developed. Eventually, as the story goes, the khandani daulat (family wealth) got in the way. Manasi’s family of folk singers was humiliated by the hero’s industrialist family, adding class prejudices to their ladkewale supremacy complex. But unlike the lachaar aurat (helpless woman) of yore, Mansi dared to voice what doesn’t get said even in 2018 – “Tumhare papa ki izzat, izzat hain aur mere baba ki koi izzat hi nahin?(You talk about disrespect to your father but you disrespect mine?)

Mansi would go on to push back on her producer’s bullying, while steadily climbing in her career. She’d eventually accept two different proposals but always while prioritizing herself, her family and her career first. Taal was a story of one woman transcending gender repression as well as class barriers, proving Manasi was Bollywood’s intersectional feminist.

Did you notice any other instances of feminists in Bollywood that I missed?

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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.

Lust Stories: Wham, Bam And A Thankless Ma’am

This weekend saw the Netflix Originals premier of ‘Lust Stories‘ – a format repeat from the 2013 anthology ‘Bombay Talkies’, with the same four directors, each contributing one story. Let me pause a minute to CRINGE at that name so you can understand why I was expecting something along on the lines of the sleazy Hate Story franchise. Happily, it wasn’t all that bad. None of the stories are titled so I’ll refer to each one by its respective director.

Anurag Kashyap‘s tale was a moody character sketch of a woman just like most of his films. I disliked her then I related to her and finally I accepted her – echoing my experience of every Kashyap film I’ve seen. This story assumed female lust and agency as a fact. If we embrace those, then this is the most nuanced depiction of a woman and her desires since the arthouse period of Rekha, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi films. The introspection-by-4th-wall-breaking was really annoying but it added a certain relatable flavour to the central character, making her a human being with her irritating quirks, rather than an ephemeral nymph/predatory cougar. She is both and she’s more. I had a ‘Shabd‘ flashback but given that Kashyap took forward the sexual politics of the situation and gave it a woman’s voice, I think this movie stands as the best of the Lust Stories.

Zoya Akhtar‘s story was a lot like her tale in Bombay Talkies – a simplistic, privileged view of middle class India that still charmed because it stopped short of preaching. Just short. This story was less about female lust and rather labored the point of women being sex objects for men. It didn’t say anything we haven’t heard before and served as a neat filler sandwiched between two intense (and good) stories. I do want to clap for Bhumi Pednekar’s performance in this film. I counted exactly one dialogue by her in the whole story(“Saale nange”). All the rest is lingering gazes, a trembling hand, a stuck breath and it is everything that is good in this film.

Dibakar Banerjee‘s film was my favorite in the lot because of the character nuance. The story explored male vulnerability and fragility with sensitivity. But female lust was the subtext of this movie rather than its central point. This is a story about male emotions rising around and (partly) manipulated by the female object. The Wikipedia page of the film only describes Lust Stories as being about lust. But given that the promos only feature the female characters, one is led to assume that they are about female lust – wherein this one doesn’t fulfill the brief. Manisha Koirala as this seniormost actor (even if a faded one) in this entire anthology rocked even her straitjacketed part, moving from a Waheedaesque Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna nymph to a throwback to her Akele Hum Akele Tum sorrowful self. The one lovemaking scene in this film pans on her smiling indulgently and sorrowfully as her lover grinds (with tears) above her. It captured the entire essence in a story that should have been about her, rather than the men that she happens to.

Karan Johar‘s story was the big disappointment. No surprises there since his story in ‘Bombay Talkies’ was the weakest too. What a mercy that time, his plotline arrived at the end. It felt too much like a discarded script for a Hollywood movie, hastily cobbled into Indian context. Mile high club fantasies and casual usage of dildos in college libraries? Nope, not smalltown/lower middle class India at all. Even the comic relief was borrowed from The Ugly Truth (not exactly a great reference point on female empowerment or for that matter, female lust). I got the sense that this part was the ‘moral of the story’ bit where the audience is meant to be informed of the fact that female libidos exist, masturbation is okay and that Indian males are clueless about this fact. Okay, thank you.

All in all, I think ‘Lust Stories’ was a nice enough watch. It was adequately sensitive without once becoming sleazy. All four stories remained in the realm of believable (though the realm had to be very elastic in some cases). And yes, India needs more stories like these. We’re a country of a billion people who gave the world Kamasutra but are terrified of the thought of orgasms or masturbation, especially on-screen.

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If You Won’t Let Us Laugh, Someday We’ll Make You Cry

I watched ‘Veere di Wedding’ today. Don’t worry, this is not a review. The film is getting enough of hatred on social media to inspire enough curiosity in you to watch it. There is uproar over the swearing, the drinking, the raucous laughter, the sex talk. Everyone and their grandmother is horrified.

I’ll give away no spoilers and just say, I loved every minute of the film. And now I’m cueing up ‘Gone Girl’ on streaming as a nighttime watch. Me, who shudders at the thought of Bollywood horror films and basic slashers — I enjoyed the story of the sociopath and I will gladly watch it again. At night. You know why?

Because it gives me a sense of vindication, of justice even. I won’t talk about ‘Veere di Wedding’. Let’s talk about ‘Gone Girl’ instead. Why did so many women LOVE it? Because every single one of us has identified with the feeling of doing so much, being so much and still being edited and worse — invisible.

What does that mean? It means we don’t exist the way men exist — as people. We exist like a 24 x 7 customer service operation that must seamlessly and boundlessly cater to the male gaze, the male need, the male ego, the male everything. We don’t even get paid for it, let alone acknowledged. And any sign of our own humanity comes with severe, very severe consequences. What consequences, you say? Slut-shaming, body-shaming, single-shaming, rape culture, violence against women, silencing of women, mansplaining, manspreading. To name just a FEW.

I could not see a single reason any reasonable human being would dislike ‘Veere di Wedding’. It was funny, it was frothy, it was glossy and it was entertaining. It made a few digs at the expense of men’s glaring flaws but you didn’t REALLY believe that we never talk about you, did you? Wait, you did? Then why is the Bechdel test even needed? Literally that if two women can have even one conversation on screen that is not about a man, it passes. So few films do. So clearly we’re expected to yap about men only all the time. Did you think we wouldn’t complain or joke about you? HA!

Curiouser still, didn’t you all really enjoy ‘Hangover’? How about ‘Pyaar ka Punchnama’, that gut-sucking punch to every woman on the planet? That looooooooong diatribe against the entire female race that all of you liked so much, it’s practically a viral poem on Youtube now. ‘Veere di Wedding’ didn’t have even a third of all that. The ‘motherlover’ line? What, now we’re not supposed to tell the truth? You do worship your darling momma, don’t you and wish every other woman was more like her? It’s called The Oedipal complex and all she was doing was stating that. I guess we should leave personsplaining to the men.

But never mind all that. Clearly you can’t handle women’s laughter. But want to know what happens when you suppress her natural positive instincts? ‘Gone Girl’ is what happens. It’s when this woman wakes up one day and realises that this life is shit and it really is so much better without you. She runs everything of course, without credit and with all the harassment and silencing. Why does she need to carry your sorry-ass as well?

Sure, call her a sociopath like Amy. After all, what was Amy but someone who loved Nick very, very much? Yes, that is wrong. You certainly don’t deserve it.

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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.

Madonna’s ‘Bad Girl’ – Feminist Or Not?

If you didn’t grow up in the 90s, you may not have seen this video.

Indeed, you may never have experienced the phenomenon that was Madonna. Madonna was such an important reference in pop culture at the time, not necessarily because she was that talented but because of how she represented boundary-breaking of the time. Of course, she’d be a feminist icon of a sort.

I want to run this video/song through the feminist lens. I’m skipping her bigger hits like Erotica, Like A Virgin and others in favour of this one primarily because I lived through the lifetime of this song. MTV had just come to India, when this song came on air. The glossy frames, the shocking sexuality, the unusual sounds — these marked the 90s when I was growing up, discovering who I wanted to be, what I believed in and who I was going to become. I saw this song sneak into the ‘New Releases’ and then creep up the charts to hit Number 1 on the Billboard Top 20. I knew the lyrics by heart (not from an internet site because they didn’t exist in those days) but because it was played so often.

Let’s start with the title ‘Bad Girl’. You don’t see that term get used very often these days, especially to denote what it did at that time. The video and the song lyrics are a perfect illustration of what was considered a Bad Girl.

Bad girl, drunk by six
Kissing someone else’s lips
Smoked too many cigarettes today
I’m not happy when I act this way

Alcohol, sex and cigarettes — the unholy trifecta that made a woman ‘bad’. You can see this attitude in India’s reactions to ‘modern women’ today, well represented by the backlash faced by Vogue’s ‘My Choice’ video starring Deepika Padukone.

At the time, it felt like the song was trying to reclaim personhood for a girl who did these things, with pride. At least, that’s what you’d expect from the woman who told us, “Express Yourself” with the following lyrics:

Long stem roses are the way to your heart but
He needs to start with your head
Satin sheets are very romantic
What happens when you’re not in bed
You deserve the best in life
So if the time isn’t right then move on
Second best is never enough
You’ll do much better baby on your own

Don’t go for second best baby
Put your love to the test you know, you know you’ve got to
Make him express how he feels and maybe
Then you’ll know your love is real

Express yourself

But ‘Bad Girl’ showed that same girl seemingly in regret over those choices. In the video, she goes from man to man, waking up and walking through the day with a gnawing sense of emptiness and lights a cigarette, swigs some booze ending in,

“I’m not happy when I act this way.”

I never fell into addictions the way popular culture did and still predicts women like these will meet their end in. But those addictions represent a certain hollowness under the victory. And that definitely resonates.

Let’s go back to the video. Even as a teenager, I was creeped out by the strange dude watching her without her knowledge. I assumed he was a stalker (though we didn’t know the word at that time since in Bollywood, that just meant The Hero). He watched her at work, he watched her cry, he watched her drink too much, have sex with strangers, do the walk of shame, wash her panties. It seemed like he disapproved. And then after she died, she joined him on his rooftop perch. As they watched her dead body being taken away, he passed her a cigarette, which she looked to him for approval and then took. The End.

That really, really confused me. Was Madonna trying to say that she was giving up her independent thinking and succumbing to the system (patriarchy, I know that now)? Did the Man conquer her, quite literally to death while also rubbing her subversions (alcohol, cigarettes and sex) in her face?

Years later, I read that the man was supposed to be her guardian angel. Ah. That made the eerie hovering in the air, the weird dancing without music, the hanging out outside her window and watching her have sex make more sense.

It’s very possible that the story was about encountering the isolation that happens to a woman who goes against societal norms and her succumbing to it. As a woman who is struggling in a life just like that, I don’t judge this at all. There is no shame in succumbing to a system that is horribly biased against us. Any woman that has failed after trying to subvert the system, is actually dying with honour, after putting up a good fight. That’s feminist.

Watching the video in 2018 made me think the point would have been made a lot better by showing a woman as her guardian angel. Yes, that would have been dangerously close to cliche — the fairy godmother trope. But the guardian angel protects and guides. What would the guardian angel of such an independent, strong human being do to provide value? They would empathize rather than judge.

The one thing any strong woman flying solo needs and lacks is just that. It’s not money or fame or material wealth — she earns it all without needing to pander to men. It’s not self-esteem — she’s learning to manage that too. It’s not motivation, not protection — she’s self sufficient. What she lacks, what we all miss is empathy. As subversive women, the world (even those who claim they are not outright against us) withold empathy. “But you are a strong woman!” they say deeming the need for empathy to be weakness.

I know I don’t absolutely need a boyfriend or husband. I can go without sex, possibly even for the rest of my life. I have taken a stand completely alone more than once so I know I don’t need the numbers. But the crucial difference between a happy life and a well-appointed one is this — empathy from the world. I have none of it. And that is what I would expect a guardian angel, if they existed, to provide.

The man in the video shows not an iota of empathy. He embodies disapproval and judgement. The only touch of softness in his demeanor comes seconds before he knows she’s going to be killed — as he kisses her and then looks at her. With pity, not empathy. Such a male thing. I think a woman would have translated that nuance a lot better. And the whole video would have looked very different.

So that’s that — my feminist analysis of Madonna’s ‘Bad Girl’. If you liked this, drop me a comment and I’ll do more. Well, I’ll do more anyway. But if you have a specific music video or story or film or any other pop culture reference you’d like to see me put through the feminist filter, comment letting me know and I’ll give you a shoutout when I do.

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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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