Tag Archives: gender

The Venus Flytrap: Stripping For A Cause

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There’s a reason why you may not have heard of actor Sri Reddy before she stripped in front of Hyderabad’s Movie Artist Association (MAA) to protest the sexual exploitation of women in the cinema industry. That reason is why she chose to protest: Reddy alleged that despite coerced sexual favours obtained by gatekeepers in the field, she and other women were still denied career opportunities. The protest came shortly after MAA rejected Reddy’s application for membership. Later, Reddy also told the media that she had been raped by a producer’s son.

One does not have to agree with everything Reddy said or did in order to support the larger cause of her protest. In one interview following the protest, the actor seemed to both vilify sex work (“Big directors, producers and heroes use studios as brothels. It’s like a red-light area.”) as well as make a derogatory statement about caste (“Naresh [veteran actor and senior member of MAA] said we have to clean that place [where she stripped] with water. That is a big crime. How can you talk like that? I’m not an untouchable girl.”). Her articulations are undoubtedly problematic.

But to claim that her protest was just a performance or an attempt to steal the limelight is wrong. The use of the naked body as a last resort to reclaim power or demand attention to a cause has a powerful history. Without seeking to draw facile parallels with Reddy’s protest, other examples span the range from preventing doxxing to political insurgency. In 2004, 12 Manipuri mothers stripped in an iconic anti-military protest after the custodial rape and death of a young woman. Australian musician Sia released a nude picture of herself last year to foil an attempt to auction it off. Just weeks ago, farmers from Tamil Nadu stripped outside Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan demanding drought relief funds. The body in protest is not sexual – in fact, it subverts the gaze by drawing attention elsewhere, to the cause for protest.

Reddy has been blacklisted by the MAA. She will not be able to work in Tollywood, and given that the exploitation she speaks of is widespread in most fields in India, may find it difficult to find employment anywhere. Disappointingly, other actors have not validated her allegations, despite the widespread awareness of sexual harassment and assault in cinema. But she joins the ranks of Sruthi Hariharan, Parvathy, Radhika Apte and a brave handful who have challenged the normalisation of misogyny behind the scenes (and onscreen) in their respective industries by speaking up.

Finally, there’s this. On MAA’s website, the very first category on a list of Galleries is literally called “Hot & Spicy”. This line of text precedes gratuitous images of women: “Maastars.com is an Official website of Movie Artist Association, you can find here Actress Hot and Spicy Photo Gallery. (sic)”

Proof, and how flagrant. A frustrated artist and rape survivor choosing an incendiary form of protest is not nearly as obscene as a mighty institution like MAA so openly celebrating the objectification of women on its online presence. Reddy is right – the industry is rotten, and thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to be.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady Snacks

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A writer in her 20s, to borrow from Virginia Woolf’s iconic treatise, needs a room of her own and disposable income. A writer in her 30s needs a room of her own, disposable income and no concern whatsoever for her slowing metabolic rate, because book-making and binging go hand in hand. Just ask the pretty inlaid tray that sits at the back of my laptop, currently filled with almond biscotti, dried fruit trail mix, coconut-coated peanuts and assorted chocolates (I already ate all the potato chips). It is literally behind every word I write. In the acknowledgements page of my next book, I will have to thank Netflix for a good work-life balance, Swiggy for recognising that a woman’s place is not by default in the kitchen, and God for inventing all the ingredients that go into peanut sticky chikki with rose petals.

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO, has been thinking a lot about snacking women lately. But there’s a sticker over my webcam, so her friends in surveillance couldn’t have included me in her recent field studies, based on which she concluded that there exists a need for a snack innovation: gender-specific Doritos. This might be why there’s only one line in this interview she gave about this breakthrough that applies to me (I think you can guess which one it is): “[Women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth… For women: low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

The lazy way to make a product gender-specific is usually through colour and design. Children’s toy manufacturers are notorious for this kind of thing, making everything from pink globes to pink go-karts, but equally so are several men’s grooming products, an entire category which can be described as “putting the same moisturiser in a dark blue bottle”. Doritos could have gone this way, and we’d have been appalled for about two seconds before gluttony and a Pavlovian attraction to vivid fuchsia packaging might’ve had us whipping out our ladies’ debit cards – the one with a stereotypical graphic of a shopper on them (this is a real thing). The amount of consideration that went into Nooyi’s announcement makes laziness preferable.

A chip without crunch is a soggy, less tasty one. But Nooyi is not wrong in her observations. From hiding the messiness of dining to hiding its very fact, should it invite commentary on the body, many women are conditioned to downplay their eating habits. Which means they probably will eat the inferior chip rather than the loud one. What PepsiCo plans would, in a classic capitalist move, irresponsibly perpetuate such conditioning under the guise of sensitivity.

The best way to point fingers at a corporation like this, which only mirrors society, is to relish licking the flavours off those same fingers, knuckle deep in a bag of carelessly self-loving, mojo-feeding, tummy-cheering yumminess. Shamelessly. Slurpily.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Opposite Of Rape

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What is the opposite of “rape”? Most will say it’s “sex”, with the understanding that rape is an abuse of power and sex is something that happens with consent. But what if the opposite of “rape” was not just “sex”, but “pleasure”? Sex does not automatically mean pleasure, after all. But does that make “bad sex” tantamount to rape?

These contemplations emerge in the wake of the published account of “Grace”, the pseudonym of a woman who briefly dated comedian Aziz Ansari some months ago. I opened the link hoping its headline was merely clickbait, wanting to believe that Ansari was the feminist he publicly seemed to want to be. But as I read, I saw that his guilt or innocence were not what was at stake. The larger stakes are about what people, women especially, experience while dating within a rape culture.

Even taking the position that what happened between Grace and Ansari may not meet the legal criteria for sexual assault, the profound unease of the situation and the distinct coercion and mounting disgust that Grace described cannot be dismissed as a lousy date. “Bad sex” is when you wanted to sleep with someone but you lacked chemistry or one or both of you was unsatisfied (this can still be respectful). Performing sexual acts under pressure due to shock, fear of violence and imbalanced dynamics is not “just bad sex”. So what’s the correct term for it?

Again, I will say that I’m less interested in Ansari’s situation than in the big picture. Are unpleasant sexual encounters, with undercurrents of manipulation, common? Absolutely. But their prevalence does not make them acceptable. Let’s forget the celebrity angle, and the starstruck (and the other thing that rhymes with “starstruck”) angle. Take gender and orientation out of it, too. What’s left is a nebulous space in which a discomfiting number of memories lurk. Affirmative, enthusiastic consent is not a grey area. This is.

It’s from this space that many women’s confusion about how to react to Grace’s narrative comes from (this does not include backlash that is purely rape apologia). It can be very painful to acknowledge that some of one’s past experiences were damaging, or simply wrong. We do not know who Grace is, and cannot attribute personality traits to her, so our responses may be projections. These projections cannot simply be classified as internalised misogyny. I truly believe that if the story was more explicitly violent, for example, most would lose their doubts. But it’s not a violent story like that. It’s a story in which a woman could have called the police from the bathroom, or screamed, or just left.

And it’s a story in which she didn’t, but you’re certain that you would have. Or more accurately, you would now. Why? The truth is that it’s a familiar account, and to hear it told this way complicates, then unravels, certain precious memories or padlocked narratives. And that’s why it’s so very upsetting. Because if this is wrong, then what else is too?

Let’s create the right language, the in-between words, for what is neither rape nor pleasure. It will help us heal.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Taking My Anger Into Another Year

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A fresh calendar year can bring with it so much promise, as dangerous as it is to be superstitious about it. Most people like to start new things, and even more people use it as a chance to leave certain things behind. This year, I’m very consciously bringing a “negative” emotion forward. I refuse to put my anger about misogyny and sexism in the past. Yes, it takes a toll on me. It makes me grit my teeth, stay awake raging, bear grudges. But no, I won’t give it up.

As this year turns, I finally feel this anger has a place to go: it is a hot, molten metal being poured into the mould of a weapon, made from the alloy of many. I finally feel like being an angry woman is not an aberration, but the status quo. I feel like after a lifetime of shouting that the emperor has no clothes, people are finally conceding that they too knew all along – but didn’t know it was okay to know.

Now, my anger doesn’t overpower me. I’m comfortable giving it space, even making more space for it, so it is less reactive, and therefore more capable. Recently, in what was neither the first and probably isn’t going to be the last time, it was brought to my notice that photos of me were being circulated on an online account sexually objectifying women. Once the account was reported and taken down, I went looking for more such accounts, and reported as many as possible. There are hundreds if not more, on various platforms. All of them steal images of women and caption them provocatively. Someone pointed out a potential danger to me: if someone were to see me in public and assume not only that I offered sexual services but that he was entitled to them, I would be at physical risk (this is a risk that sex workers experience constantly).

But another thought troubled me far more deeply. Not everyone will react with indignation alone to having her photos stolen. Some will feel profound, potentially dangerous, shame. Others will face consequences from their families. As someone well-meaning but with obviously undeveloped political sense said, “It could ruin ladies’ lives.” Yes, it can. It’s all well and good for someone like me to keep posting selfies no matter how many creeps there are on the Internet, or someone like the musician Sia to release her own nude images so no one could else profit from them, but there is a huge majority of women for whom such criminal activity has manifold consequences. Women whose pictures were stolen from matrimonial profiles, for instance. Women whose first taste of liberty came with a cellphone or a social media account they thought was private. Women held hostage by love. I didn’t get to my anger without wading through shame, without having my own education truncated, without being ostracised. I came from the same frog-pond too.

So this is why I’m staying angry. Because there’s still a deficit. I’m just helping hold the fort down until all the women have arrived at the same conclusion. And they will.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 4th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Compliments For The Crime

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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that not only do you never get the one apology you deserve while it still matters, but in the meanwhile, all manner of crooks and creeps you stopped caring about will keep trying to get a foot beyond the padlocked door. Last week, Hawaiian judge Rhonda Loo delivered a sentence to one such super-persistent villain. Daren Young couldn’t take a hint, which led to his ex-girlfriend having to get a restraining order – which he then violated by sending her 144 nasty text messages and calls in under three hours one day this May. He served a prison sentence of a few months before this trial, where a Maui newspaper reported that Judge Loo minced no words, saying: “It’s so childish to think a grown man can be so thumb-happy.”

She went on, mincing even fewer words, “I don’t know whether I should cut off your fingers or take away your phone to get you to stop texting.” Instead of either the inhumane first option or the insipid second one, she devised an unconventional punishment. In addition to fines, a probation period following his prison sentence and community service, Young was also instructed to write 144 compliments to his ex-girlfriend. One for each text or call that had harassed her. The extra catch (I like this judge!) was that he could not repeat any words while doing so. What fun – like something in a creative writing class! He has 144 days to complete this punishment. Imagine – a haiku a day keeps the handcuffs away.

I can’t speak for the ex-girlfriend, but I’d have absolutely no interest in the wordplay of someone with no respect for boundaries or for why people even set them. The criminal in this case has promised the court that he will stay away from the woman in question in future, and I hope he does. This would be a more sordid story if it wasn’t for Judge Loo, and I hope she gets a good chuckle from his list of compliments. She deserves it, for the levity she’s brought briefly to the very sinister, extremely common crime of stalking.

Most of our stalkers don’t wind up in court. It’s easy to say more of them should – but inherent in that expectation is an increase in the trauma we must first go through. It’s easier to use the block function, easier even to change our numbers than to take something to a justice system. This is all the more challenging when one has had a personal relationship or friendship with the stalker at any point, and private or intimate communications become legal evidence. That’s why I haven’t named the ex-girlfriend in Young’s case, although the news reports have. She doesn’t need to be permanently associated with a protective order she was forced to take out. Only the potential employers and future dates of the man she had to protect herself from need to know about it.

If Young happens to Google himself and see this, he could definitely use this as one of his 144 court-ordained compliments: “You, woman whom I hurt and harassed, are so very brave.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Every Woman’s Instagram Messages

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My Instagram direct message requests folder is currently full of men who think they’re on Tinder. Every single day for a few weeks now, I’ve been blocking a steady stream of unwelcome messages. It’s like having a dripping tap: it may not seem like a great inconvenience, but it adds up. You could tune it out if you’re wired that way, but it’s constant nonetheless. Drip, drip, drip. Heart emoji, “hai so hot”, unsolicited dick pic. Probably. Instagram has one security feature – blurring out the sent image – but even if was a floral “Good Morning” a la Whatsapp groups, I’m not about to give anyone the benefit of the doubt so quickly. If there’s a way to turn off DMs from people you don’t follow, I’d love to know it.

What makes me feel bad is that all this unwelcome attention came after I posted a photo against the sexual objectification of women, using a particular hashtag. Body positivity, empowerment, style as a form of identity, freedom of expression: clearly, none of these matter to the hundreds of men who began following and messaging me. They didn’t even read the caption.

Even in the best case scenario, they saw photos of a woman they found attractive, and decided she would appreciate and respond to their interest. They’re foolish enough to think that a woman they don’t know will say thank you, privately – if not more. And I’m only talking about the more polite, non-explicit ones here. I’ll go so far as to say that many of these strangers must think they are complimenting me. But that’s not how this attention has made me feel.

I’m also aware that among these strangers must be a few really contemptible people who are perfectly cognisant of the effect their messages have on the recipient. I’ve encountered plenty of men like that: ones who take pleasure from provoking women, desperate to register their presence to her even in the most annoying of ways, if that’s all they can do. Then there are those who feel that if a woman shows her face or her shoulder or her cleavage or her toes on camera, she is duty-bound to receive their responses to the same. They cannot imagine, even though it is gospel truth, that her photograph has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them.

When I started to write this piece, I wanted to explore how – hypothetically speaking – a man could express his attraction to a woman he doesn’t know, whom he has seen online in a non-dating app context. He can’t, really. Because her inbox is too full of unsolicited sexual attention. And her hackles have only been getting sharper and sharper.

So let me reverse the gaze and tell you what I’d do. I’d do nothing. I’d engage with his work if I found it interesting. I’d enjoy my crush on my own time. I would never think I was entitled to his attention just because I gave him mine. And the funny thing is: this has worked out for me once or twice. And once or twice, I’ve noticed someone doing just the same, and said hi.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 26th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Buffer Around Predatory Men

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There is a buffer around every man who mistreats women. This buffer protects him so that the wounded party can barely get the indicting words out of her mouth to begin with, and if she manages to, she will be dragged through the dirt for doing so. On a systemic level, it is the toxic masculine that forms this shield. Within this, for a certain kind of man – the kind of man who has a halo around him composed of charisma, privilege and erudition – his most effective layer is not simply made of men, but also, sadly and strangely, by women.

Women who say they know him well. Women who say they love him dearly. Women who didn’t feel abused when they dated him. Women who don’t think someone with such good manners would do such a thing. Women who harbour crushes but not expectations, who are content to be known as his associates and friends. Women deeply enamoured of his work. Women who dismiss the memory that under certain lights, his irresistible aura appears more like a sinister gleam, and they’ve seen it themselves, they’ve held the collar of their shirt a little tightly that day, they’ve almost stumbled as they tried to leave quickly that night without stopping to ask themselves why.

A person has a right not to believe what another is saying. The world is full of liars. But when doubt extends to protection of the alleged perpetrator, it’s no longer reasonable. And one doesn’t need to take a public stance to protect perpetrators. In fact, the far more damaging stance is in private. The thing said to the victim desperately trying to articulate her experience. The shrug. The wry smile. The “oh haha, but he’s like that with everyone, and actually he’s got a big heart (or a sad story)”. That’s just a basic example.

So this is in praise of all the women who reject a place within that buffer of cushy, complicit mutual protection. Here’s to all the women who don’t make excuses for reprehensible actions and those who made them. Here’s to the difficult women – difficult because they don’t make it easy for terrible men to keep coasting through life. The loud ones. The cold ones. The acolytes who chose ethics over patronage. The family members who don’t stand by abuse, even by their own kin. The exes who refuse to “stay friends”. The former friends who did the right thing.

As my feed filled with the #MeToo hashtag this week, I thought about some of those terrible men I’ve known. Their social media feeds would also have cascaded with posts by the women who didn’t defriend or block them like I did. Who hadn’t been sure of taking the risks of so clean and clear a cut. And some of those women would have been condescended to with these predators’ pretend empathy or outrage.

So let’s be difficult. Because I guarantee you: there’s another woman lingering somewhere, who doesn’t know she can choose not to pad up that buffer. There’s more than one, most probably. And maybe they need to know there’s more than one too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.