I watched two super successful movies recently that tried to portray strong female characters: The widely-adored Tanu Weds Manu Returns and one of the highest grossers of 2015 in Hollywood, Jurassic World. Both were ridiculous movies with low to zero entertainment value, which makes you wonder afresh at humanity, but what troubled me more was how bloody wrong everyone was about what they think makes a strong woman character.
Claire is independent, single, doing well at her work and in control - till her days are routine. The minute something goes wrong, she rushes to a man whom she claims to dislike because he wore the wrong clothes (wow, so feminist) to the one date they had. Because Claire is a strong woman, she cannot remember her nephews' ages, and has no time for family. She has a short sharp hairstyle (look, no soft curls) and a borderline nasty manner of talking to people that makes you wonder if the dinosaurs didn't eat her because they had better taste. Much is made of the heels that Claire wears in the rather uneven topography of Jurassic World. In the end, when she saves the world, the camera pans to her heels, once scoffed at by Mr 56-Inch-Chest Hero, to painfully underline the message: A woman in heels is not a liability in a crisis; she can save the world standing on stilts if she pleases so f*ck you. Yes yes, of course, great but is that even the point? Is it anti-feminism to expect a girl who works in a freaking jungle to wear sensible shoes? Wearing heels is a choice but wearing heels to a trek is just daft.
Tanu, on the other hand, has returned from London to Kanpur and tries her best to upset everyone. She is a brat without a cause, good for her, who has made it clear that she sets her own boundaries. Well done. That's great. But why does that boundary include her deciding for her sister whom she should marry? Does the sister's opinion on the seemingly dull man not count or are we assuming that she is oppressed because she lives in a small town? Also, can we truly insinuate that a small town family is regressive for getting up and leaving when confronted with Tanu In A Towel? If one went to meet someone and parts of their family marched out in towels brushing their teeth with rum, one might retreat hastily too, only pausing to leave behind the number of a trusty psychiatrist.
The great strong character of Tanu first slaps a false charge on her husband (wow, so feminist) and then goes on to manipulatively washing plates at his second wedding because she wants to get back with him. This is not a strong female character; this is a hysterical person who is unsure of what they want and so want everything all the time. Tanu is a joke and this is why masses of Indians loved her: They were having a good laugh at a woman 'gone rogue'. No one can object to a woman letting her hair down, but when she ties it back up and starts whining pathetically about her choices in life, don't hold her up as a symbol of feminism.
What is feminism? One would think it has something to do with creating an equal opportunity, not judging women for their choices, and not forcing your choices on us whether you are a man or a woman. But I am no longer entirely sure. And, going by the debate over at GenderLogIndia's Twitter feed last week, it seems not too many people are. The overlong discussion, where everyone failed to show each other how wrong they were, made one thing clear to me: Everyone is confused about the concept of feminism yet everyone wants to claim it.
Most of you might be aware of the uproar. The person managing @GenderLogIndia last week disagreed with X when X said it was okay for people to choose to wear the niqab, burqa, pallo, dupatta etc. The original discussion was about there always being two sides to a story and this interjection by X raised the bar of the debate - or should have. Everyone knows the niqab is a problematic issue. Some people think it is one's choice, or even duty, as a privileged person to choose to wear traditional symbols of oppression to reclaim these symbols; others think it is irresponsible to reduce such oppression to tokenism or a political statement.
As someone who has not been oppressed by anything more than Delhi's summer all her life, I really wanted to hear the two sides of this story with both X and @GenderLogIndia sticking to their points and having a reasonable argument. I did think X had the stronger point to begin with but it didn't help that she did not make any serious attempts to engage with GenderLogIndia and replied with a somewhat petulant "it doesn't matter what you think" and went on to mute her. This is not how we are going to change the world.
There is the small matter that women who are forced to wear the niqab aren't exactly looking at the US, France, or even India, for inspiration - there is going to be no revolution in Yemen because someone in Paris or Delhi has reclaimed the burqa. Further, I suspect wearing the burqa is the least of Muslim women's concerns in, say, Saudi but then this is my opinion and, according to some people who like to appropriate the feminist debate, what do I know because a) I am not Muslim, and b) I am so privileged I thought savarna was a south Indian fast food chain.
If I was to follow everything the conversation around feminism has thrown at me, I cannot call someone miss or female or woman (call me Mx Prasher only if you want me to puke on you) or wear heels or comment on people wearing heels; not cover my head nor comment on someone who does, always be open to other people's ideas except if I am to call myself a feminist because then I know everything already, talk about equality but not touch some Mx's appropriated territory on any matter related to gender. I can never, gasp, laugh at a joke about boobs in my lowly manner and generally idiot-proof every single thing I say. Most significantly, according to one of the people who manage @GenderLogIndia, one must not criticise fellow feminists because it is "not constructive". So now we are to presume that all criticism of feminism is unconstructive instead of taking it on merit? If this is how tough you are going to make it for people to attach themselves to the cause, good luck to you, feminists, I am withdrawing my application and going to watch Terminator X.