Tag Archives: sexism

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: Funny, That’s Sexist

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In a clip that went viral earlier this week, entertainment journalist Anupama Chopra presented this question to a panel of professional comedians: “Is the comedy space more sexist than other fields in this country?” The context was Amazon India’s recent announcement of 14 specials, not one of which will star a female comic.

The question was addressed specifically to the only other woman at the table – Aditi Mittal. But the rest of the panel immediately began to rumble with responses – notably, with dismissals like how women comedians don’t have enough material for full shows, and the euphemism “situational outcome” (sure, if the situation we’re talking about is structural oppression). Much has been made about the mansplaining in that clip, but what stood out for me was how when Mittal finally got a word in, there was the palpable sense that the anger held in check in her voice and even on her face had silenced the rest of the table.

It wasn’t necessarily anger toward the panel in attendance – to them, she breezily threw shade by taking large, leisurely gulps from her mug as they proffered their opinions, making clear to the camera that she knew talking wasn’t expected of her. It was anger accumulated over working her way up through her industry, and how she ultimately found that her best strategy was in doing things solo (“I wouldn’t be [here] if I hadn’t distanced myself”), because solidarity was absent. These are things Mittal articulated without mincing words, sitting alongside her colleagues. She had never been a part of the brotherhood, no matter what they claim. In fact, as an industry insider pointed out to me, much of this boys’ club is even represented by the same management. And at that table, it was Mittal who had to represent. Sometimes a token becomes an envoy.

And that anger – deeply familiar. Because, really, Chopra’s opening question was inane. Any woman with a career, even in a field that is regarded as “acceptably” female (like nursing or teaching), knows: no, the comedy space isn’t more sexist than other fields in this country. It’s probably just as sexist as other fields in this country, but certainly not more.

For Indian comedy’s sexism problem to be largely a numbers game right now indicates that all of it (field and fault both) are in a fledgling state. It is only when more women are in the industry that we’ll begin to see more deeply-entrenched forms: from sexual harassment to the glass ceiling and more. In short, the everyday sexism that all working women encounter. As for sexist “jokes” – well, ironically, the comedy business doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Every corporate office in this country is full of those.

This brings back to mind something I’ve done often in professional contexts: drinking water so as to rein in emotional tension. Maybe that was what Mittal was doing too. Not throwing shade so much as telling her body to remain calm, to hold it together so she could say what she had to as clearly as possible. Because for once in her line of work, laughter would not be a compliment.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 1st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Your Women’s Day

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We don’t want your token rose because what do you think this is, Valentine’s Day? It’s not Mother’s Day either, and you need to find a way to respect women that doesn’t require them to be desexualised into a familial role.

We don’t want your chocolate unless it’s as dark as the history of our oppression, as bitter as you think feminists are, and full of nuts – which is what we’ve been driven to by all these antics.

We don’t want your “saree day at the office” dress code because we are not employed for your viewing pleasure. And – on this day or another other – if you have a problem with our bra straps showing, or our bare arms, or the fact that we won’t wear a slip under a white tunic, we’re certainly not going to make the effort for you.

We don’t want your special discounts. Unless that discount happens to be 25%, which is where the gender pay gap in India stands as per the latest report by Monster India. And no, we don’t want to hear your smug justification about how you spend 25% more time at the workplace than we do. It’s not our fault if you can’t manage your schedule as efficiently. It’s not our fault that we leave on the dot because when we get home, we have even more to do, because no one considers that housework is also work.

We don’t want your complimentary salon services unless you promise to ask each one of your patrons, “Who are you doing this for?” and have them at least ponder the answer before ripping hair out of their skins with hot wax. And we don’t want the allied weight loss programme, ever. Don’t even offer.

We don’t want your free cocktails, because we never liked Ladies’ Night to begin with. Here’s an honest poster for you: “Stags! Here’s bar full of half-drunk women disappointed with watery shots, just waiting to you to hit on them!” Yeah, that. Just try lowering our inhibitions while we’re busy raising our standards.

We don’t want your contests that basically require competing with other women. Just No.

We don’t want your televised speeches and mandatory tweets about the girl child, not when your misogynistic actions and ideologies contradict them.

We don’t want to hear how strong you think (you have to say) we are, because this isn’t a weightlifting tournament.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8th every year, so this is either a day late, or 364 days early. It’s been observed – not celebrated, necessarily, but observed – since 1909, and was initially known as International Working Women’s Day owing to its political (specifically, Socialist) roots. The day’s history is one of strikes and protests, and here are some in India this year: a silent protest by Garment Labour Union in Bangalore, a double-observance of Savitribhai Phule’s death anniversary called Chalo Nagpur, and.. I can’t even find one more to finish my sentence nicely. I dearly hope there are more.

The pink-hued capitalism and condescension we see around us this week demeans the day’s true meaning. How shall we observe it next year?

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

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Ms-Ing The Point

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The exorbitant price of the taxi could have annoyed me. Or, that my mobile data didn’t work between baggage claim and a definitely-long-walk past the arrival gates, thus making it impossible to connect to transportation apps. Or, my name being misspelt on the receipt.

Instead, what made my teeth clench was what came before that misspelt name: “Mrs”.

The man behind the counter had either glanced at me and assumed this, or only used one of two options anyway: “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Why did he not use the impartial “Ms”, which does not indicate marital status, a factor that is no one else’s business except in a few specific scenarios?

Most women are used to sundry mailers addressing us as “Mr.” This week, I received a tax exemption certificate – a semi-legal document – which addressed me that way. Do only men buy property, earn incomes or give to charity?

This default gendering extends even to corporate entities. The “M/s” before a company’s name actually stands for Messieurs, the plural for “Mr.” in French. The world is full of unquestioned maleness, and we maintain it unthinkingly.

This is why, when PV Sindhu embraced Carolina Marin, who had just beaten her for the gold medal at the recent Olympics, she was lauded for her “sportsmanship”. But try this simple exercise: “Michael Phelps displayed wonderful sportswomanship.” How does it roll off the tongue? Now pick anybody and try “sportspersonship”.

It may not change anything at the level of your conversation. But it will have an effect somewhere else, in someone else’s discrimination scenario. When we’re told that “he” is grammatically correct when in doubt, always dare to doubt it.

Then there’s the supremely gender-neutral “Mx.” But, baby steps. One of those baby steps, however, is sensitivity toward queer pronoun choices too. People are who they tell you they are, at least as far as gender pronouns go.

It’s wrong to assume that anyone you encounter in a position of power is a man. It’s wrong to assume that companies are always run by men. It’s wrong to assume that a woman is married because, say, she has clearly been travelling alone (and no one “lets” a single woman travel alone in your shrunken-heart version of the world). And it’s offensive to demonstrate this wrongness through, among many other methods, the terms of address you use.

I was taught in school that one should always begin letters with “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Mr./Ms.”. (Personal resolution: I’m going to start reversing the order wherever possible). The example used to illustrate why was “Imagine if the person who has received your resume is a woman and she gets angry? She’ll put your application in the dustbin!”

Were we supposed to think she was personally insulted? Or that she simply would not hire anyone whose worldview didn’t even have room for the slightest nuance of gender, knowing full well what kind of employee, colleague and decisionmaker that person would be? I don’t know what the teacher intended, but the only right answer is the latter. You see, two decades later, I am that angry woman. And I know exactly why she’s angry.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 1st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Female = Flight Risk?

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I should be in Australia when you read this, basking on a beach (caveat: it’s winter). While applying for a visa, I encountered again that bizarre requirement often made of Indian women travellers: an NOC/permission letter from my father, along with his documents. If I had a husband, I would have been asked to furnish these from him instead.

I am a working professional in my 30s. But I am – as one travel agent made clear – “also an unmarried woman going abroad alone.”

If this surprises you, you might be a man. My Tweet asking about similar experiences unleashed an avalanche of responses from working women across India, across age strata, travelling everywhere from Greece to Chile on work and leisure. Men were incredulous unless they’d provided such letters on someone’s behalf. To clarify: it’s travel agents, not most embassies or consulates, who make this request.

For the sake of brevity and anonymity, I’ll share highlights. Leading experts having to submit consent letters promising they’d return from conferences (i.e. not run away with a foreigner). Honeymoons on which only the bride had to obtain parental permission to go. A “certificate of character” from an employer, ostensibly testifying to – what, exactly? One traveller even realised later that the passport number on her NOC, forcibly submitted after a long fight, had been wrong – so what was its purpose?

“I really felt like I was being blackmailed at the time, and there was no transparency,” one woman echoed a common sentiment.

Travel can be stressful, and many give in – after all, it’s just one more piece of paper. But what if it’s not possible? I heard some harrowing tales: demanding an NOC from an ex-husband without visiting rights over a child; not being allowed to attend a celebration of one’s work due to having neither father nor husband; agents refusing to process paperwork even after their claims that it’s the law were proved false. Demanding NOCs is not just infantilising, insulting and arbitrary; it’s actually prohibitive.

I’ve furnished such letters in the past too, owing to pressure and misinformation, but not this time. As I collected my passport, I enquired about this procedure. My agent admitted he hadn’t questioned it, but shared guidelines for French Schengen and UK visa applications, which list documents from “spouse” or “relatives”. These gender non-specific terms are applied exclusively, in practice, on women.

Kausalya Padmanabhan, who owns Destinations Unlimited and declined anonymity, has been in the travel industry since 1979. Not only does she never require such letters from clients, she has even put it in writing in certain cases that a submission has been made without an NOC at her own risk as an agent. She insists the bias is homegrown. “There is no rule. If embassies required it, the same would exist worldwide, and it doesn’t.”

Certain Middle Eastern countries still place restrictions on women’s travel, and Ms. Padmanabhan speculates that travel agents simply extended these across all destinations. “It’s we in the trade who must take it up, train our staff accordingly, and refuse to ask for such documents.”

And we, who travel, must stop letting ourselves be bullied.

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