Stereotypes and the second sex
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Stereotypes and the second sex

The public shaming of Kristen Stewart post her infamous breakup highlights once more how female stars are stereotyped. In ways ranging from blatant to subtle, women in public life in India too continue to be viewed through a sexist lens, Zofeen Maqsood writes. Stereotypes and the second sex

sex and relationships Updated: Sep 16, 2012 01:26 IST
Zofeen Maqsood
Zofeen Maqsood
Hindustan Times

Anybody who is even remotely in touch with the news is aware of the split between Hollywood actress Kristen Stewart and her boyfriend, Robert Pattinson, but it took a while for the feminists to cry foul. Some time after the blogosphere erupted with reactions to the news - with some even calling the 22-year -old "a slut" on some social media platforms - the feminist viewpoint began to be heard that there was something wrong here.

The reactions, various articles noted, showed a classic trap of slut-shaming a young girl who was caught doing what many youngsters may do while letting the much married man (Rupert Sanders) emerge unscathed.

This, they suggested, pointed towards a culture of skewed emancipation of women. Stewart, wrote Nico Lang in Huffington Post, is only the latest victim.

"The media beatings that Sarah Jessica Parker and Hilary Swank take for not fitting the norm of Hollywood glamour highlight the restrictive expectations we have for women today."

The article further says: "We are shocked when women don't fit into that narrative, and the scrutiny is especially harsh when every blogger in the world is ready to tear you apart."

Look closely, and it's a similar story in how Indians view female public icons. While rich and glamorous public female figures may look like they exist outside the realities of a culture, often, they are as much victims as representations of it.

Firdous Azmat, Centre for Women's Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia says, "Popular culture is a good indicator of whether the change is for real or not. We expect positive changes to reflect here first and also seek inspiration."

Celebrity as yardstick

So while the country claims to herald a new area by acclaiming woman boxer Mary Kom, some see the constant mention of her role as a mother and a wife as diluting her core strength - aggression - and suggest we are comfortable with reconciling this with our idea of Indian femininity.

"Mary's dichotomy of roles holds intrigue but yes, perhaps a male boxer wouldn't have been photographed so vividly with his kids, or been asked about his cooking and cleaning routine," says Anita Roy, senior editor, feminist publishing house, Zubaan.

Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Studies says, "It is almost as if people are saying Mary fits into an ideal prototype only because she also fulfills her domestic duties."

On the other hand, consider our love for young superstar Saina Nehwal. While the player is inarguably the best thing to happen to Indian women's badminton, our approval of her seems to extend to other factors outside of her professional field.

"Saina Nehwal fits beautifully into the image of an Indian girl bringing home the laurels as she has never challenged the norms of society," says Kumari.

The most recent of her golden child moments was when, post her Olympic win, Saina proudly announced: "Papa is relieved of pressure; he takes care of everything in my life."

Saina as a female icon meets our approval because she fits into society's mould. "Nehwal is accepted because she is the proverbial good girl of Indian sports, as you seldom see her partying or living a role outside her expected territory," adds Azmat.

Her behaviour is unlike that of Sania Mirza, who with her choice of clothes on court, her controversial marriage and her allegations of sexism in the letter she wrote to the tennis authorities before the Olympics, has always taken her own firm stand on issues. Saina has remained strictly non-controversial.

The sexist undertones exist in Bollywood too, if you look under the gloss. And it's not just in the fact that women stars are paid less than their male counterparts, but also in more subtle gender biases.

Though the current 'it' girl Katrina Kaif is a big star, she still has to answer uncomfortable questions about how she secured the top slot, thanks to Salman Khan's generous backing.

"Newbie Imran Khan, though an out an out Aamir Khan protégé has somehow being able to dodge the question," points out writer and social commentator Santosh Desai.

He adds: "The asymmetry in viewing the success of male and female stars reflects a sad sexist approach. It's as if while a man has a right to have a push, for a woman it's counted almost as a favour."

Similarly, we may project the image of a nation that has changed enough to accept the overt sexuality of a Vidya Balan in her steamy screen appearances, but psychologists believe there's a certain double standard at play.

Balan's acceptance, they aver, has much to do with her subconsciously appealing to Indian mindsets with off-screen appearances in saris.

"I am not sure Vidya would have been so readily accepted if she was always seen in minis," says, psychologist Pulkit Sharma, VIMHANS.

Urvashi Butalia, director, Kali for Women gives another side of the opinion by saying, "People also tend to evaluate and accept others depending on how closely they associate themselves with the person. Vidya, with her saris and her curvy frame, appeals to a comfortable stereotype of thousands of women too."

Sushmita Sen, who blatantly announced, back in 1997, at the peak of her career: "I have all the time for love but not for commitment", was quickly labelled as a man-eater by the media.

Sharma says, " Kareena, who has a firm rooting in the film fraternity, thanks to her family background, has never been called any such names."

False notions

A lot of women who proclaim that they are emancipated or are marketed as such may actually be quite the opposite.

Take Sonam Kapoor, for example, who has been labelled as "outspoken". Azmat points out that those with a voice today continue to be those with a voice in the past - women with family backing.

"Sonam Kapoor is accepted for her outspokenness and is seen as a harbinger of emancipation as she comes with this aura of being somebody's daughter. The day we accept a self-made-woman shooting from her hip as an idol, the change will really reflect," she adds.

Across the board - from films to sports and business - women are subtly being put into boxes.

This is because "women's assertions are threatening not only to patriarchy, but to capitalism, militarism and to chauvinistic nationalism - all of these try to push women back into subordinate identities," says Kalyani Menon Sen, feminist-activist and adult educator".

Conflicts of modernity

Some also reason that the bias against strongly individualistic women has much to do with the skewed way in which even women in power are viewed.

"Despite her failings, Jayalalitha has done some remarkable work in Tamil Nadu, but the pointed reference has always been towards her eccentricities. Male politicians are seldom called madmen and are mostly viewed in terms of their developmental works," says Butalia.

"The roots for this bias lie in our social structure. We may be creating a new ideology, but it's only in the narrative and not in practice," she adds.

Desai observes: " While you may think that, in the contemporary world, the idea of gender bias may be thinning, it is often the opposite. One can find numerous subtle indications of sexism in popular culture."

As an example, Desai talks about an amusing change he noticed: "Our ex-President was known as Pratibha Patil all through her political tenure but as soon as she became President, she came to be known as Pratibha D Patil. As if suggesting that since she was in power, there was a greater need to use her husband's name. If the President of the country can feel that pressure, one can understand it for lesser mortals."

First Published: Sep 15, 2012 22:42 IST