Autumn of the patriarchy
The bro code can only truly be challenged by a loud and united sisterhoodUpdated: Oct 21, 2018 00:15 IST
Autumn’s a fine time for a revolution. The season signals the fall of the old order in nature. The social order too has its periodic changes. The voices growing around the #MeToo movement might be angry and aggrieved, but they come from a place of hope beyond cynicism. One of the most powerful things of this particular wave of feminism is the sense of a sisterhood in urban, professional communities – the very arena where a male-dominated narrative has caricaturised women as cattily sparring at the workplace. Their KRA has always included an unwritten bullet point: from male bosses to peons, it pays to keep the men happy.
What women want
Yesterday, a middle-aged writer with a booming voice asked us – two divorced thirty-something women – what was it that women wanted from men, sexually. I answered immediately: “There are as many wants as there are women.” The writer wanted to know what the women of #MeToo were alleging. My friend and I were recounting specific incidents as narrated by the women. “So is there something about the male libido that is uncontrollable?” the writer further enquired. “It’s not about biology; it’s about power,” my friend and I said almost in unison. The young pahadi girl smiled sweetly from behind the counter to signal that she had made the chai.
So much of #MeToo centres around the misconception that men are desiring beings while women are born to be desired, happy to be flattered, looking to be harassed. This social delusion makes the workplace a minefield for women. In a highly sexualized work environment, women with professional ambition seem to be the most reviled and abused. To protest, so far, has been to make career compromises. So far.
From mad men to marvellous women
All this is no secret. For decades now, the systemic misogyny of the workplace has been the subject of whisper networks, journalism and fiction. Mad Men, for instance, captures the casual sexism of the Manhattan ad world of the ‘60s. Seen through the eyes of the ingénue Peggy, the eager new secretary to the copywriting boss, it’s a world of predators and detractors. A world where Peggy has to invest in her typing skills, lipstick and birth control if she is to keep her job, while the men play pranks on one another and treat female colleagues like interactive toys. And then you read the narratives coming out of #MeToo and wonder if anything’s changed at all.
Last year, a new show premiered with a quite different slant to the mid-century creative workplace theme. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is set in a similar age and location as Mad Men, but explored through the eyes – and wit – of an exuberant 20-something Jewish protagonist Miriam “Midge” Maisel. She’s an unclassifiable riot of energy, now dolling up to satisfy her husband, now taking over a standup club, making lewd references to sex with the same husband. Here’s a woman who’s an outsider in so many ways: Jewish, discarded by her husband, looking to make a career in comedy. And it looks like she’s winning. The go-to wish fulfillment show for these dark times. Season 2 premieres soon.
The rising voices of women this autumn fills me with hope. The lives of those who have spoken out have already changed; they don’t live in quiet shame and fear any more. Men I know tell me how #MeToo has made them introspect about their behaviour. No more drunken hugs to junior employees, however well meaning. Women I know are drawing boundaries with the men they are seeing. “I’ve told my boyfriend all that innuendo that he used to pass off as old-fashioned manliness won’t do any more.” It’s not just the big, painful revelations and catharses but also the smaller victories and transformations that make the movement worthwhile. Its scope is bigger than just workplace sexism and harassment; what it is doing is making us reassess the patriarchy in an urgent and powerful way.
The greatest strength of the movement is in the fact that women are backing the stories of other women, most notably in the MJ Akbar case. It’s not easy, especially when one’s personal loyalties are called into question. The debate around what constitutes complicity is difficult yet important. But in an environment where the bro code preserves the status quo, the world’s most powerful nation is run by a proven misogynist, and, closer home, naagin intrigues and Big Boss abominations pollute TV networks, #MeToo shows us what women standing up for each other can really do. It’s time for all the oversensitive, hysterical, angry, scary troublemakers to make a louder noise. Let no one accuse the voice of the sisterhood of being polite.
From HT Brunch, October 21, 2018
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First Published: Oct 21, 2018 00:15 IST