Navigating A Feminist Identity
Last evening was a series of odd events. It started when I was hosting an open mic. One of the performers ranted about being friendzoned, spewing vitriol on the woman and ended up calling the audience boring because nobody would applaud. While this person was still performing, someone tapped on my shoulder and said, “You’ve got to call this out. This is problematic.”
This was heartening to hear. I’ve soldiered on alone for so long, being called all kinds of evil names, it just felt so good to know someone else found this outrageous and demanded action. When he finished, the silence of the audience was deafening. My god, this is what I touched when I did a silent performance. The whole room voiced their discontent with this problematic piece without making a sound. It was more powerful than anything I could have said or done because the community policed itself.
As a vocal feminist in this very space, I’ve endured hostility & harassment for calling out shit like this. It has also become my calling card, with ‘Have You Met My Feminism?’ getting much more recognition than any of the other pieces I worked harder on. SXonomics was my middle ground, learning to temper my fire to be more sustainable. So I wondered how to handle the problematic performer. I was, after all hosting and it’s my responsibility to hold the space as safe and diverse with minimal silencing or hate.
I decided to let him finish rather than disrupt a performance and then call it out. When I went back on stage, I explained why friendzone was a problematic idea, keeping it as personal attack-free as I could. And then I moved on. But I wondered if I had been too mild about it. It’s hard enough deciding which battles to fight and the decision of how hard to fight is even worse. As I explained it to some of the others who were enraged, later, as a host I sought to encourage anyone performing and helping them navigate their problem areas (including gaps in thought). Many of them thought it was pointless but I figured it was always worth engaging until the other person made it absolutely impossible.
After the event was over, a girlfriend commented on the incident. And then she said another performer had told her she liked performing when I was hosting because I was especially supportive of women performers. But, my friend said, I managed to do it without belittling or neglecting the men. So up my spirits lifted again.
I closed the evening catching up with a male acquaintance. I started to tell him about the incident. “You get why friendzone is problematic, right? No? Okay, let me put it this way. Men are the ones who complain about being friendzoned.”
He interrupted to tell me women got friendzoned too. I said, but the complaining is by men. He agreed and fell quiet….for about 3 sentences before interrupting to mansplain what these guys are like. I asked if he knew who incels were. He didn’t but it didn’t stop him from interrupting me and mansplaining about what men like these were like. I managed to get a word in about the shooters in the US. But not before he started talking about his roommate, yelling about how lots of Delhi guys were nice people. The next 4 minutes (the time it took to walk the road) he kept shutting me down, interrupting, his voice getting louder and his stance getting more aggressive by the minute.
When it got to him shouting (yes shouting) about how everything about me was gender, I just went very quiet and then told him to drop it. You see, this person is not a close friend. He’s someone who contacted me based on my writing (which has all been very strongly feminist and about gender politics). I didn’t even want to bother dealing with this kind of disreputable behaviour anymore.
He didn’t seem to realise I was ending the conversation. I reiterated, “This is over. Go home. It’s late.” He sputtered and said, “You say I’m mansplaining? You…you are woman-shunning!” I walked away before he could say anything more. Angry men are dangerous men. Half an hour later, my phone was beseiged with foaming-at-the-mouth messages from him. I told him if he ever contacted me again, I would report him. And I blocked him.
I’m aware that there will be a lot of people who think I should have patiently heard him out and explained to him. Because after all, I did take that stance with the first problematic man. I even told the others who were angry with that guy, that the only hope we have is in engaging and keeping conversations going. But I also have to draw my boundaries and definitions.
Tolerating men’s bad behaviour till they decide to be better human beings is NOT my job (or any other woman’s). From experience I know such men never will make that decision. Engaging with someone who wants to learn – there’s some merit in that but it is still my prerogative to decide I don’t want to. And I have decided not to engage with anyone who throws tantrums or silences me – I don’t do that and I deserve better than to be treated that way.
And finally, I don’t have to do all of this alone. Maybe the world is changing or maybe I’m moving to parts of it that hold more solidarity with my values. The respect and camaraderie of several women (and some men) who feel the same way versus surviving lots of toxic men – it’s an easy choice when I look at it like that.
Patriarchy is a shutdown, silencing, a one-way order. Feminism is a conversation. And a conversation can only be two-way (or multi-way). It can only be between people willing to listen to the other. Anything else is not my business.
Here’s something that came to me in the middle of a shower, turning up almost fully formed and demanding to be set free from my brain. I spilt the words onto my computer, edited it on the run and read it right off my screen on stage. The last time this happened, it turned into a piece that has become my calling card.
This thought has been in my head for years now. I’ve already written it as a blogpost before. Misogynist whining masquerades as desi poetry. But this piece showed up in my head just last week, whatever be its backstory and I had fun giving it life.
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No, I’m not referencing my generation’s equivalent of Justin Bieber (times 5). I’m speaking of a very specific phenomenon that happens between men and women.
Say you’re a single woman who is friendly and lives in a place that affords plenty of interaction with both sexes. Most men’s first interaction with you tends to be at least a little flirtatious. You learn not to take it too seriously. After all, you don’t want to be one of those girls — the ones that imagine wedding bells ringing whenever a guy smiles at them. So, no, whatever, really, you thought I was going to go soppy on you, no dude, we are splitting the bill equally. You know you’ve had a close shave when the guys bitch and snark about those girls. You’re a Cool Girl.
It happens so suddenly you never see it coming. A burp here, a torn/food-stained teeshirt there. It’s okay, he’s human. Oh never mind that you NEVER do any of that around him.
Then he keeps you waiting for an hour and when he shows up, he says he got caught. Fine, you fume a bit but you get late sometimes too. Then he starts telling you about what a horrible week he’s had and how his job sucks. Well, you listen. I mean what else can you do? And he leaves before you get a chance to tell him you’ve been working 14 hour days straight. But well, okay, maybe next time. You’re We’re-Close Girl.
It’s all cool for awhile except he’s really busy. Then when you meet and you’re aching for some nice company, he’s distracted. He shows up on time but he’s constantly whipping out his phone. You go silent. He doesn’t even notice. Then he looks around (never at you) and says this place isn’t that great, how about leaving? You realise he is just not that into you. You thank your stars you didn’t fall in love. You eat some chocolate, drink some wine, talk a little too long to a girlfriend and then it’s okay. You’ve got a couple of other people calling and asking you out anyway. You’re Independent Girl.
Two weeks later he calls when you’re in a meeting. You can’t take his call and when you’re finished with work, you just want to go home and get to sleep. He calls again the next day and you can’t take the call just then, your head hurts because your period is due and you don’t really feel much like talking. Then your Whatsapp starts pinging like crazy so you have to look at it. He wants to know why you haven’t been responding and what’s wrong and are you feeling okay? You smile at the phone and think that’s sweet and tell him you’re not feeling too well so taking a day off. You have a pretty nice conversation on Whatsapp, which you don’t ask to take to a phone call. It is your day to yourself after all. You hang up after an hour feeling proud of your independence and your willpower, feeling good about the world. Even the period cramps don’t hurt so much.
The next day you call him. He doesn’t answer. Two days later you call him again. He answers with a curt, whispered “Hellocan’ttalkrightnowI’llcallyouback”. There is a phone call a day later which you don’t want to think about who initiated. There’s only this much willpower a girl can have right after her period. It’s been a crazy time he tells you. Same here, you say loudly, determined that this time you get to talk about your work woes too. You spend ten minutes mutual bitching and you decide to ‘do that event’ that evening. There are plenty of your common friends around so you barely have a full conversation. But it’s nice to see him. Your back is still aching so you leave early. He doesn’t offer to drop you home and if he did, you’d scoff. Pffff, are you mad, it’s only 8 o’clock, stay, have fun, I’m alright, just want to get to bed early. You’re No Fuss Girl.
A couple of more weeks pass. You had a couple of Tinder dates. All of them wanted instant sex. None of them even wanted a conversation. You didn’t want any of them. You are in touch. On Whatsapp. A joke, an emoji, a photo of his new Kindle, more emoji, a random sentence that you can’t decipher followed by “Sry ignire plz”. You shrug. You won’t be GrammarNazi Girl.
One time you call to tell him about this music event you’re going to and will you hang together? He says no, he’s working really hard. You go back to being Solo Date Girl.
It’s over a month before you hear from him. It’s a phone call and you tell your Independence to shut up lecturing you for feeling good about seeing his name flash across your screen. He’s calling to ask what was the name of that restaurant you went to once where you had to leave early because you didn’t like it? No, it wasn’t me you insist, he’s the one who had itchy pants that evening. He laughs at that and challenges you to a drink-off at that very place and you’ll see who has itchy pants.
You meet him three days later for the drink-off. It’s a Sunday afternoon but you might want to go home to your teddy bear after one Cosmopolitan he says. You give him a LOOK and order your usual rum-and-coke. You’ve always been A Girl Who Can Hold Her Drink. You finish before him and wait for him to catch up (sniggering, pointing out his half-full glass). He gets a call. You’re made to give directions, cafe suggestions, accompanied by elaborate indecipherable facial expressions from him. When he hangs up, he chugs his drink and calls for the bill. What, you start to ask. He tells you he has to go, he doesn’t want to keep her waiting and will it take longer to get there by road or should he take the train? Chuck it, he says, he doesn’t want to get smelly in the train. He grabs the first cab that comes along. You get a text from him ten minutes later saying “Sry babe, hope u dint mind.” You’re starting to get a sense of what Girl he sees you as and it’s not any kind of girl. Boys treat other boys this way.
He calls a week later and this time you’re out with a new guy, your first date in ages and ages (well maybe it is, but you’re not going to be the first one to call it that). You mute the call, resolving to call him back the next day. But Whatsapp starts ringing and you have to unlock your phone to mute it. And now he’s calling again. If you don’t answer it, you’ll have to tell your not-date why not. So you answer meaning to say you’re busy and can you call back. Before you can even say hello, there’s a barrage of words flooding through the phone in his voice. You look up at the guy sitting in front of you. You listen to the guy talking to you. Which one of them is likely to stick around longer in your life? You take a deep breath. You are an independent woman and you don’t have to let a new guy dictate your life. Your friend needs you. You get up and take your phone outside. He’s ranting about the shitty restaurant and can he come over right now? Not now, you manage to tell him, you’re outside. But you’ll meet him over the week. When you return, the bill has arrived. Your not-date is not a date anymore.
Rinse and repeat, Boyzoned Girl.
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I liked where the article seemed to be going (this is how the decision/marriage model has worked so far, here’s why those references are not valid anymore) till it got preachy.
Have you heard of the term ‘friendzone’? I think it was originally coined in the popular US show ‘Friends’. It refers to a friendship between a man and a woman, where a man is expecting things to go further and feels betrayed by the woman because she does not. It has gotten quite popular even in India, among the urban connected generations. Recently the concept has been getting some flak because some women (at least the thinking ones) seem to feel that it points to a certain entitlement among men over what they can expect from a woman once they get closer to her. Here is a webcomic strip that got shared around a lot awhile ago (by me as well) that breaks this situation down well.
The second is something you know already since I often talk about it. Access to education, careers, exposure to digital media (hence international living references) and greater freedom has done a lot of things for women. It has also made the proponents of the old order much more fearful and violent (crimes against women, negative social patterns like the above mentioned friendzone etc.).
Plus, for women, we are a ‘newly liberated’ species. We don’t have the same references/mentors/leaders to look to for direction that our male counterparts do. In a lot of ways we are like explorers of a new planet. Wouldn’t it make sense for us to be extra cautious? Factor in the arguably biological instincts of women being more cautious and less testosterone/impulse driven than men and that makes for less ‘Let’s jump in!’ and more ‘Let’s wait, take stock before moving ahead’
Both of these things are factors in my decision to be exactly the kind of woman that the author writes about. I have a lot of close male friends in my life. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with any one of them. If there was, they wouldn’t be my friends. But I don’t see a romantic relationship as an upgrade over friendship. These are two different things. I do not subscribed to the adage that a good friend makes a good spouse. On the contrary, I see enough of good friendships around me destroyed after they became traditional romantic/matrimonial relationships. Jealousy is one of the big reasons that comes up often as does the inability to deal with each other’s vices. We’re never really that jealous when it comes to a good friend and we’ll put up with his incessant gaming, her endless shopping — but it would be hell to be married to someone like that.
And finally I, and a lot of other men and women (yes, both) like me are starting to think marriage is one of the many lifestyle options, not the big prize at the end of a rapid-fire selection. I think the writer may not have considered either this or the point I mentioned in my previous para. It’s a new world, our relationship references are different, that’s all.
🙂 I enjoy having these conversations with you.
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What’s that you say? Women don’t get friendzoned? Allow me to introduce you to….
Exhibit A: The Queen of Friendzoned Females
Better known as Betty Cooper.
Hmm…sound familiar? Here’s her desi avatar.
Never mind the fact that both these women landed their guys after they dropped jock/geek attire and went babe. This is fiction, created for people who relate to being friendzoned. Nobody’s going to watch a movie that shows them losing out (just as they presumably do in real life). This, boys and girls (but mostly boys, for the purpose of this post), is what fairytales look like. When the above transitions to this:
(Interesting side note: The other female character in Yeh Jawani Hain Deewani, Kalki Koechlin, also gets friendzoned by her love interest, Kunaal Roy Kapur. This despite her being babe all along. And she never lands the guy.)
So women get friendzoned too. Routinely. I’d say, as often as men. Maybe not as visibly, not as obviously, but put that down to the average interested man being being more open/expansive in his gestures than the average woman. A lot of women still believe that they’re not supposed to give any indication of their interest since it’ll turn the guy off. That doesn’t stop them from feeling the same things that men do – affection, lust, love, the works.
Most women, even the most tradition-bound ones, show their interest in different ways. I mean, you can’t help it. If you like someone, you’re going to want to do nice things for them, you’ll be nervous around them, you’ll try and look good for them – all of this unconsciously even if you’re trying your damnedest to keep from doing so. Ask me. I may be an offbeat woman but I am a woman.
A few years ago, I went on a hike with some friends. One of my friends developed a crush on one of the other hikers and wooed her successfully. In one of our conversations, he mentioned another girl who had also been on the hike.
“I just realised, B has been calling or texting every couple of days since we got back. Once she mentioned a movie, another time, coffee. I mean…I think…”
“You friendzoned her.”
I told him.
“I didn’t even realize. My mind has been so much on A. But I just realised B has been doing the same things that I’ve been doing for A.”
Friendzone Alert! Poor B.
Then there’s another friend who’s had the uncomfortable pleasure of a drunken admission of interest. He doesn’t feel the same way, what to do? But he admits, the attention is very, very, very flattering.
And finally, the friend whose words inspired this post told me earlier this week about a woman he met at a party. They hung out a few times. And then it got to that kiss-or-not moment. He decided to walk away. And as he did, he asked himself,
“Hang on. Did I just friendzone a woman?”
Yes, indeed, I told him. It happened again, with another woman, he said. And both, he moaned, stopped being friends with him. Why, he wanted to know, why ever? After all, he was being a nice guy and not leading them on.
“Welcome to a woman’s life.”
Friendzoning isn’t deliberate. It’s not always an act of manipulation. It’s not a deliberate attempt to destroy someone’s ego and use them before discarding them. And it’s an equal-opportunity tragedy. If you’re a man, the chances are that you’ve friendzoned at least one woman in your life, even if you don’t realise it. It’s not the woman’s fault. It’s not yours either.
There are nearly 7 billion of us on the planet. We’re constantly making choices, dropping some, moving over some, running towards some and forgetting or overlooking the rest. Accepting one person means rejecting everyone else. So every single woman that you have not proposed to, not pursued a relationship with, not married, not attempted to sleep with, is in your potential Friendzone. There have to be dozens of them in your worldview already and if they exist on your radar but are not in focus, they’re in Friendzone.
Don’t believe me? Take a look around. Who told you the difference between a stiletto and a kitten heel? Who do you get ‘a woman’s perspective’ from? Who do you call to ask where you can get stuff to put in the kitchen? Whose advice would you need, to buy your girlfriend a gift? Take that further. Who do you talk shit about your boss or silly buddies to? Who do you bounce off your ideas about a Ladakh trip on? Who do you argue politics, work, books, music, movies or just about anything else with? Any of them women?
There you have it. Your base of friendzoned females.
Friendzoned people aren’t necessarily good-looking or successful or intelligent. The chances are they’re in the Friendzone precisely because you didn’t notice them.
They may be the wrong religion or the wrong age. They aren’t always single or the right sexual orientation for you. Those are valid reasons for friendzoning too.
Don’t strike any of them off just because:
- they’re an ex-girlfriend
- you’re attracted to them
If either of the above is true and you aren’t pursuing them, they’re definitely in Friendzone. Balance your guilt out with the gleeful realisation that maybe your friendzoners feel a little something for you too. They’ve just chosen not to act on it for their own reasons.
– A Woman in Your Friendzone
I like to call it a frisson in friendship, not even something important enough to merit beginning with capitals and being preceded with a ‘the’. It’s that elusive sense that you can’t quite catch. If it had tangible form, it would be the thing that you seem to catch from the corner of your eye but when you look for it, it isn’t there. It only turns up when you don’t expect it and the minute you begin to think about it, it turns into something else or vanishes altogether.
Say there’s this friend you have. For simplicity, let’s assume this friend is of the opposite sex (though I think the frisson happens with same-sex friendships too, sexual orientation notwithstanding). You’re comfortable with each other, if you think about it, which you probably don’t do much; that’s part of the comfort level. Then it sneaks up on you.
Like a faint whiff that came up on you as memory first (because the memory-center is very close to the olfactory sense center in the brain, so smells trigger off instant memories). You can’t quite smell it just yet, even if you really strain your nostrils. But it is there, unmistakeably. The next time you notice it even more, perhaps because the last time threw you off a bit.
It’s not insignificant enough for you to ignore. It’s there, the slight tremble that runs through you when they – your friend, you have to remind yourself – say your name. Or the tingling warmth in your cheeks that you’re aware will turn into a blush if you don’t clamp down on it by saying something very intelligent – and all because they paid you a compliment.
It’s also not big enough to be able to tell what it is – sexual, romantic, both or neither. All you know is that it’s there. You see your friend in a new light. Then you start noticing them noticing you. Wondering if they feel those things too. Deducing perhaps that they don’t. But then, recalling a funny look in their eyes a few months ago. Then remembering that the two of you didn’t speak for about a month after that. But that was because they were out of town. Wasn’t it? You’re thinking about it. It’s that frisson that’s making you think all this.
I think the frisson happens in all male-female friendships at some point of time. Perhaps even all male-female relationships. It’s a sudden crystal-sharp awareness of the other person’s sex. Maybe it’s a natural balancing out. If you’re used to seeing each other in a ‘purely platonic’ manner, nature throws at least one such frisson your way where your brain thinks of nothing but the opposite, if only for a brief minute.
If you’ve been very close for a long time, it can be confusing. If one or both of you are in committed relationships to other people, it can be destabilizing too. I think it sometimes happens as a result of loneliness, horniness or one person going through a difficult time and the other one being there for them. Many of us tend to desperately attach onto the person that’s good to us, during tough times.
The frisson may not be harmless. It’s probably what causes cheating in relationships that are going through rough patches. But it is also probably where longtime friendships that turn into love, begin. Frissons aren’t always permanent or reciprocated at the same time. I think it at least adds a little spice and flavour to an already nice relationship – friendship. And like most other things to do with human emotion, they can be managed with cool heads and communication. Or perhaps not, a frisson is probably the one thing I wouldn’t want to discuss with a friend that I otherwise talk to about everything, precisely because conversation could make it bigger than it actually is.
Well, who knows? The frisson defies definition.
Alcohol is like a man. In its many variations, delightful or otherwise, it mirrors the vagaries of my favorite vice. Here’s how.
Breezer – This is the boy you grew up with, the one who sat next to you in fourth grade and helped you with your homework. You don’t really stay friends (unless you are a part of Orkutoholics Anonymous) but if you bump into each other at a party and don’t have any other choices, he’ll do to while away the time.
Liquer – Sweet, comforting, ladylike, can this one be anything other than the gay guy? This is the snazzy, sharp-dressing man-loving man who’ll understand you better than any of your boyfriends ever will. He’ll even understand why you just have to rush through a fun lunch with him, when you spot one of his sex (especially a particularly rough one) at the bar.
Beer – This is your buddy. A guy, who even though he’s straight, you can lounge about with minus make-up and in your PJs. He’s comforting (as much as a straight guy can be, anyway), he makes you laugh, he won’t mind if you throw up occasionally. You can fall asleep next to him but you won’t be sleeping with him, if you get my drift. You’ll also never fall in love with him.
Wine – The charmer, the one who woos you with chocolates and poetry. He’s most likely to bring you flowers on a date and also why women love to be spooned. He’ll slip up on you covertly like a sudden waist-hug from the back or a kiss at the nape of your neck. If you’re going weak in the knees already, stay away from this one. What’s the catch? No matter how much time you spend with him, you’ll never be able to tell when the power balance shifts and exactly when you’ll be at his tender (and cruel) mercies. And if you aren’t careful, you’ll be the one waking up alone with a pounding headache.
Vodka – The party guy, the metrosexual man. He’s hip, he’s what you want to be seen with if you want to get with it. He’s dazzling and upbeat and high-voltage. He’ll also be heavy on your wallet and your head, the next day.
Whiskey – The older man, deep, slightly mystifying and occasionally scary. Only if your tastes run to that type.
Tequila – The Bad Boy. The guy every woman must date at least once in her lifetime. He’s rough, he’s bad news right from the start and he’s irresistible! Take a chance and ride with him at least one night of your life. You’ll wake up feeling like your head is split right in half and your insides are screaming to take off to different galaxies. But you’ll never forget the experience and all the other moments of life will seem like background music in comparison.
Rum – The man you’ll finally want to come home to after you’ve gone through the rest. He’s subtle, something you’ll mistake for weakness if you come to him too early. He’s potent, also sometimes misunderstood for roughness. But if you take it slow and easy, you’ll find he’s just as good with fruits and chocolate as he is with coke. And finally, he’s in a class of his own if you’ve gone far enough to get him on his own. Fall in love with him, he’ll be just the right mix of steadiness and adventure that makes a perfect man.
* But remember, metaphors apart, NEVER drink and drive. It’s plain stupid, no matter who you are, no matter who the guy is, no matter what the drink is.
A version of this appears on Yahoo! Real Beauty.