The French have a terribly sexy sounding (but actually kind of sexist) saying – “Cherchez la femme”. “Look for the woman.” If there’s a lacuna in the alibi – look for the woman. If it doesn’t add up – look for the woman. If there’s a missing motive – look for the woman. Wherever there is a problem, in short, there is usually a subplot that involves a woman, a tussle for her affections or a drama of her machinations.
I’ve never had reason to drop that phrase into a conversation (never mind that I don’t actually speak French – touché!). Yet I observe its variants around me. There’s a particularly intriguing power dynamic that has nothing to do with an individual’s influence, and everything to do with tacit hierarchy: the curious phenomena of reflex loyalty between and towards men.
Like all deeply-entrenched problems, it’s most evident of all in one-on-one conversation. I’ll share something with a man – an observation of or experience with another man. And my companion will shrug, flash a micro-reaction (a millisecond of a nod or a Cheshire grin) and deftly deflect the topic. It’s not that he doesn’t agree with me. He’s glad I said it, so he didn’t have to. But he just can’t give his bro away. Even if he knows me better than he does him. Even, in fact, if he’s never met him. It’s a response that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The eerie sense that he thinks that he’s looking at the woman, i.e. doesn’t have to look for the culprit. When loyalty is drawn along any demographic line, be it gender, caste or any such category, injustice abounds.
But here’s the reason I’ve never had reason to drop “cherchez la femme” into conversation – I wouldn’t. The only thing scarier than automatic bro-loyalty is internalised misogyny. Which is to say, when the person saying “look for the woman” is herself a woman. There’s no easy way to say this: but in the same way that many men are raised to trust one another first, many women are conditioned to trust one another least.
The woman who rats her colleague out to the resident jerk because she feels ashamed to have confided in her about an abusive partner. The one who would rather believe a distant relative than her molested daughter. The one seeking public office who wants to uphold the two-finger rape test, or criminalise abortion. Each story is equally appalling, and ultimately predictable – in each one, she will pick the man, any man (or “The Man”, as in the one the cool kids stick it to). Over any woman, including herself.
Blind loyalties, stark betrayals. Both in the service of patriarchy. The women unfortunate enough to be tangled up with these turncoats – whether anecdotally or in actuality – get the raw end, every time.
Which is why when I hear an unpleasant story involving an alleged villainess, I do look for the woman. I look for her perspective. I don’t automatically side with her. But I refuse to automatically side against her. Sometimes femme fatale really means femme fatality.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 7th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.