Does feminism need to win a popularity contest? It would help. There are too many intelligent women (and men) out there who believe it is a bad word. But, hey, here we are in 2016: A best-selling author in India has written a book on a “normal feminist” woman; a mainstream Hindi film has hurled an axe at the thicket of lies around women’s consent. Indian cricketers are wearing their mother’s names on their jerseys. The actor Sonam Kapoor has written about the self-loathing that consumed her as an overweight girl and refuses to leave her even as a fashion icon. Are you asking, as I am, if this is feminism’s pop moment?
Since the December 2012 gang rape of a 23-year-old, the toxic gender bias in Indian society has come up in Parliament, been headlined in newspapers and led to far-reaching changes in the law. Discussions have taken forward the scrutiny of how family, language, caste, even the presence or absence of public toilets, restrict female worth. Patriarchy is being challenged in homes, hostels, workplaces, fields, social media, Shani Shingnapur and Haji Ali. It is almost inevitable that popular culture wants in on this fascinating narrative.
Both Pink, a film that proposes a radical stance on sexual consent, and One Indian Girl, Chetan Bhagat’s first book with a female protagonist, are examples of how powerful male celebrities seem to be pushing the limits of what society concedes as women’s freedom. Amitabh Bachchan, who stars in Pink, is the totem of a supremely male-dominated film industry. Bhagat is a phenomenon of Indian publishing. His staggering reach, his newspaper column and a very vocal presence on social media give him a bully pulpit. Well done, both, if they can use that influence to seed disruptive ideas about “good Indian girls” in young minds.
Pink is such a jolt. In a Bollywood which long glorified stalking, its chant of “no means no” is ground-breaking. The film excels in showing how women go through daily life with a willing suspension of disbelief in the probability of patriarchy’s backlash: “I only need to get home before dark and it won’t happen to me.” In a Delhi weighed down by the particulate matter of fear and fog, three single women lead privileged lives. They shrug off stares and gossip, squeezing their independence when needed into pre-fabricated social selves, strategising about which clothes match which dark alley. Before it wanders into the grandstanding of a Sunny Deol courtroom, the film cuts to the bone by showing this fragile “normal” of lives led under patriarchy’s rules.
The commercial logic that makes Bachchan a Pied Piper for a feminist film also takes away a few of its brownie points. His ageing lawyer hogs the screen while saving the day — and the ladies. The quibble is not the character’s gender but that he seems to have all the agency and all the answers, while the three female protagonists steadily lose theirs, even the spunky Meenal who smashes a bottle on her molester’s head.
The world is what it is, perhaps, but it should not blind us to our longing for male intercession. The “good husband” who fasts with his wife on Karwa Chauth, even “allows” his wife to skip the fast, or the angry old man who intercedes with other men on behalf of vulnerable women, all these are ideals that cushion patriarchy from the shock of women asking the tough questions.
Unlike Pink, which ought to have left several people squirming in their seats, One Indian Girl is largely a man speaking to other men. Bhagat once wrote a column trying to convince Indian men of the benefits of a spouse with a job, urging them to choose wise, earning companions over those who only make hot phulkas. So perhaps, this new novel, written in a woman’s voice, is a step up.
Radhika Mehta works at Goldman Sachs, makes heaps of money, has an active sexual life and (spoiler alert) goes on to reject her former jerk-lovers. The novel’s blurb and pre-publicity insist she is an “unlikeable” woman. As with all marketing, the packaging is bulkier than the product. Radhika might be a cool cat, but she is no “nasty woman”, or even an angry one. Other than her big fat bank balance, there is little that is threatening about her. High capitalism’s warm, fuzzy embrace solves many problems of equity in this neat little bubble (that has always been so in Brand Bhagat land).
She is also set up as the lone female achiever in the book, surrounded by annoying, pancaked women. Unlike Pink, which paints a beautiful, detailed backdrop of female friendship, Bhagat appears as uncomfortable with a gang of girls as a first-year male engineering student. Where are your girlfriends, Radhika, you alumni of SRCC and Springdales School, Pusa? Who are the women you compete with, spent nights with dreaming about the future? Are you really Bhagat in Prada?
The idea of the exceptional female is an example of the limits of Bhagat’s “feminism”. In interviews, he’s sought to deflect criticism of his book by casting Radhika — and by extension, the 100 women he interviewed as research for the book— as “normal or real” feminists, as opposed to feminist “Nazis”. The former are “real women”, whose hearts break at being ditched by their boyfriends, as opposed to “elitist feminists” who allegedly hector women about crying over men. (Actually, Chetan, even us termagant feminists do cry when jilted and don’t worry about letting the cause down.)
Bhagat can be an enjoyable writer of friendship and romance but he has arrogantly positioned himself as someone who speaks, without a sense of hesitation or self-effacement, for and to the mainstream, the “average Indian”. His book is a somewhat engaging story of a conflicted, successful girl. Brand Bhagat uses it to turn a spokesman for a “practical” feminism — which suggests that you need equal rights, not feminism. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had the riposte to that old mansplaining argument: “Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general — but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded… For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledge that.”
As feminist ideas are multiplied into our mindscape, through organised movements, legal reform and social change, the establishment is eager to contain the narrative. Nothing exemplifies that more than Bhagat, who has used his “feminism-for-the-masses” book to wag his disapproving finger at those who might scoff at his cosmetic revolution of a destination wedding in Goa gone wrong. His is the classic manspreading move — the well-meaning man has hopped on to the ladies’ coach and now is telling the girls where to get down.
As feminism grows, it becomes a standard by which to evaluate language and systems for fairness, as well as a means by which to sell clothes, novels and films. But for any feminism to be meaningful, it has to remain a serious, disruptive force. It is a way of seeing that makes us question the most intimate and the most public of our relations, from the housework that is not shared to the near-absence of women in the national workforce, from the macho obsession with muscle and war to the ideas of propriety that stand in the way of self-discovery.
Does feminism need to win a popularity contest? Yes, but it should not vie for the pink sash of Ms Congeniality.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Don’t be Miss Congeniality’)