Today, Caitlyn Jenner came out to the world, happy and finally free to live her life as herself, and be true to her own identity. She debuted some beautiful pictures on the cover of Vanity Fair, and they were deservedly lauded.
As a cis*-woman myself, I have never and will never know the struggles of being trans. However, the cover got me thinking about gender binaries. Is femininity, merely the idea of being a woman, so closely associated with an external, physical ideal of beauty? Why must being female necessarily mean fitting some external ideal of ‘beauty’, whatever it is?
It is one thing to applaud Jenner’s admittedly gargantuan courage in taking the step publicly – it will doubtless provide some inspiration and courage to those who could not, for whatever reason, come out as trans. However, it seems as though it is the ‘prettiness’ that is being publicly lauded, with plenty of online commenters comparing Caitlyn to her ex-wife, Kris, pitting the women against each other.
And that brings me to a more pertinent question – is the gender binary so pronounced that dressing in lingerie, hair styled, posing and makeup are construed as a true portrayal of femininity? Is that all there is to being or identifying as a woman?
Humanity begins the binary at youth. Dresses versus shorts. Pink versus blue. Barbie vs G.I Joe. (This brings to mind an old episode of Friends, where Ross was correctly called out by his ex-wife’s wife, after constantly trying to replace his son’s Barbie doll with an action figure.) Short hair versus long.
Left to their own devices, children have been seen to play with whatever toy is nearest them, or whatever catches their fancy. The gendering of those toys, if they are humanoid, does not matter. Unfortunately, people gender the most inanimate, genderless things – like Lego or Meccano toys, which contribute to children’s analytical and cognitive development – and they somehow take on the label of being ‘for boys’.
As adults who could know better, these same children, as all of us once were, are trapped in a cycle that we do not know how to get out of. The cycle of fitting, or being made to fit into boxes and compartments that as fluid beings, mentally, sexually or otherwise, we do not need to belong in. And thus femininity comes to be associated with dresses. With lingerie and red lipstick and roughly tousled hair that looks as if a woman is in the throes of amorous passion but still immaculately made up. That is our ideal of ‘sexy’, of ‘feminine’, when those words cannot either be defined or boxed in. As many women adhere to conventional standards of ‘fashion’ as do not. Does that make the latter group any less feminine?There are women who are fond of heels, high, low, anything in between. There are also as many women who would rather wear slippers or trainers. It does not make either group any more or less feminine either.
But Caitlyn’s cover, and so many Vanity Fair covers before hers, seem to ideate female beauty as being just that – a dressed up, made up, posing, pouting being on legs.
There is often an interview that accompanies the glossy, high-end pictures of a Vanity Fair spread, but the interview tends to be secondary to the photographs. Every bit of publicised coverage about Caitlyn mentions that Annie Leibovitz is the photographer, but there is no mention of the writer assigned to the job – his/her job is a secondary, cursory thing. The interview may focus on Caitlyn’s struggles, her transition and what came with it – but the piece at large focuses on her new physical attributes, which while I am sure are important to her, unfortunately seem to connote that that physicality is the essence of femininity. There are several other things popular media seems to label as decidedly feminine, in the absence of which women are ‘less woman’ somehow – however, those are not relevant to a discussion of Caitlyn and her journey and will be discussed separately.
Is Jenner an icon for inspiring many young transwomen to be able to come out? Yes. We must remember that transwomen and transmen are not all from the same circumstances – they may not have access to medical facilities, counselling, healthcare and the other things Caitlyn has had access to. Will Caitlyn’s courage still inspire them to be able to be able to publicly embrace their identities? One hopes so – but we should not denigrate, belittle and compartmentalise women and box ‘femininity’ whilst we try to publicize and bring attention to what it means to be trans, and help the public understand it.
One should not be at the cost of the other.
Either way, I wish Caitlyn every single happiness, and I am sure she will have more of it now that she is able to freely embrace her life in all its glorious entirety.
*cis implies that your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth
and you WON’T believe what happened next!
Apologies. If that clickbait headline didn’t suck you in, I hope what I have to say will. Recently, a well-known website ran a piece on a British blogger, Lucy Hemmings, who visited the country, but went through some horrific experiences and felt the awful effect of our completely patriarchal society first-hand. I would like to preface my piece by saying I do not wish to belittle her or her experiences. I’m certain they must have been extremely traumatic, I’m sorry that she went through them and I wish her luck in healing.
This is addressed to the Indian men ‘apologising’, and that being seen as a wonderful thing. It isn’t.
The motive of these ‘apologies’ is suspect, as is the language used in them. One reads: “thank you for showing that India is not Slumdog Millionaire! Thank you for showing people we have a beautiful culture.”
‘Culture’ is not just one thing. It isn’t the backwaters or the marshes, or the palms swaying in the background. ‘Indian culture’, that oft-repeated term, is also a fictional angel or demon, depending on who is playing that card and how. It is as much ingrained in the Indian psyche to stoop to patriarchy as it is to boat in the backwaters. Or likely far, far more. Going by the state of roads in every single city in this nation, open defecation is also part of this ‘culture’. So is marital rape, which somehow still has no legislation against it.
Comments on various websites show men saying “its all a feminazi [do NOT fucking use this word] activist for dowry (sic)” or somehow implying that a) feminism and feminists are evil incarnate, or b) working for women’s rights is somehow unnecessary in ‘Indian culture’. These comments, many of which declare allegiance with an idiotic concept known as ‘men’s rights activism’, are ironic in their very existence, displaying exactly why India needs feminism so badly.
Another comment read, and patronisingly so: “So I just thought to say sorry (on behalf of everyone in India). I know you have moved on, learned the rules to live with more security. But I thought a sorry would make a difference.”
A ‘sorry’ for what, exactly? For reaffirming the patriarchy? For ‘ensuring’ she ‘learned the rules to live with more security’, security that is a basic human right and should not be tied to what I wear, how I look, how long or short my clothes are, my size, and so on and so forth?
What about all of the INDIAN women who face this garbage on a daily basis? Are we supposed to have internalised the ‘rules’ this wonderful man reminds us so we can ‘live with more security’, and a failure to adhere to these ‘rules’ is an instant ‘rape me/molest me/sexually harass me’ license?
Another man wrote about how he felt bad because he “had a little sister at home” that he “could not imagine all these things happening to”. Maa-behen feminism is the bane of Indian feminist existence. Is the only way for a man to know how to respect a woman as a human being to imagine her as his mother or sister if he has one? Must one need some sort of personal visualisation to be able to understand the issues women face? Or does human empathy not exist anymore? I have never needed to imagine myself as a dog to feel the pain of a dog (my own) that injured his leg. I felt sympathy and understanding for what he was feeling.
Pain does not have to be somehow astrally projected onto a loved one for one to fully comprehend its effects, something the people who espouse maa-behen feminism do not seem to understand, or even want to. Signs plastered all over the Bengaluru metro say “she is your daughter or your sister – do not steal her innocence.” Can one not feel sympathy and understanding for a victim of molestation unless she is related, or we somehow mentally pretend she is?
The men apologise furiously for a ‘foreigner’ having had a man masturbate at her. Except that there are millions of women every single day who are masturbated at, or have been masturbated at in the street. I am one of them, and I was too mortified to inform the police. I continued on my morning run, but the incident is quite unfortunately burned into my memory. I have had men ‘accidentally’ push me aside, their hands too close to my chest for comfort. I am a hundred percent certain I am far from the only person this has happened to, and I’m sorry to say it is likely happening to somebody as I type this.
Where are the Indian men apologising for the people who do this to Indian women? Plenty of them are guilty at staring 6 inches south of a woman’s face whilst talking to her. Where are the men apologising for the fact that our ‘culture’ promotes products like Fair and Lovely, which by its very name implies that fairness is lovely?
This entire incident proves how rampant racism is in India – and it’s entirely reflexive. In the Indian obsession with white skin and white people, these poor, apologetic men seem to have entirely overlooked the biggest demographic that suffers the repercussions of our wonderful ‘Indian Culture’ – Indian women.
The article ends with a letter from a man who writes: “P.P.S thank you for wearing kurta and kameez and respecting our culture and traditions”, which seems from the letter to have been something she did after being masturbated at, to prevent it from recurring.
Which would be fine… if that ‘kurta and kameez’ wasn’t what more than half the population of women wear in this country, every single day, and get masturbated at, catcalled, sexually harassed, molested or raped in spite of wearing. And that, dear man who wrote the letter, is because sexual harassment has nothing to do with what’s on my body, and everything to do with what is in your mind and those of men all over the country. That a woman exercising her own right to wear what she pleases, do whatever or whomever she wishes to, is a license to judge her character, and an open invite from her to sleep with you. It is not.
This somehow seems to all tie in with an attitude I have observed to be a very Indian phenomenon: the obsession with how others perceive us, our nation, our everything. These letters seem less to do with actual concern for Lucy or the awful incident that happened, and more with how people perceive India – as a ‘land of rapes’, a place where women are not respected, treated as equal beings, a country so steeped in patriarchy it’s emanating from the street, from the urine of all those men who piss on the street with impunity, with neither civic sense nor the risk of getting raped as so many women and young girls do when they are forced to void themselves in the middle of nowhere because there are no toilets for their use.
Instead of sweeping, insincere, misappropriated apologies that reek of desperation, the best ‘apology’ would be changing attitudes. This means not questioning what a woman was wearing, or her character, when she was sexually harassed. This means not condoning marital rape, not excusing its legality. This means treating women with respect, as equal human beings, which is what they are, and respecting their choices. This also entails not poking fun at an actor for starring in a video that may have been an ad campaign, but held a pertinent message all the same, a message the large demographic of Indian men want to deny – that sex is not something a woman is ‘expected to give a man’ – it’s an activity that is supposed to be pleasurable for both sexes. Marriage does not give a man the right to demand sex as he pleases. But our sex-starved nation, which is depraved enough that our ministers think sex education will somehow lead to promiscuity, will not acknowledge this.
This means not posting ‘behen ki ****’ on an online forum, or leering at a woman’s legs or breasts. No disparaging Sunny Leone for her choice of career. She chose to be in adult films – that was her prerogative. She now chooses to be in Bollywood cinema, which I argue is possibly more covertly sexual than adult films, and in the dirtiest way possible. That, again, is her prerogative, and it is not any more or less ‘respectable’ than anything she chooses to do – because she has chosen to do it.
Is anyone going to apologise to the women in the Sports Authority of India hostel, for the authorities who harassed female athletes for consuming alcohol and drove them to suicide?
A final rejoinder to the man who wrote in thanking Lucy for ‘respecting traditions’ by ‘wearing kurta and kameez’. Hey, the skirt I wore the other day was longer than the veshtis most men wear to go about their daily business – is that an open licence to molest them,too? [Hint: It’s not. What I’m wearing, or not, gives you NO license to touch me, or even look my way.]
I thank Messrs Rodgers and Hammerstein for providing me the inspiration for my conclusion, which is what I truly see as the reason for the ‘viral’ nature of those insipid, sickening letters.
White skin and ‘Indian culture’ tied up with string, two of the populace’s favourite things.
My beef is not with Airtel, but with the recent advertisement they have out, promoting their mobile internet facilities.
For an introduction, watch here:
The new advert has people divided, apparently, over whether it is anti-feminist or not. While I think it is, several Twitter users have messaged me with names like ‘sad feminist bitch’ and some sexually suggestive comments. Itself an interesting insight into the perception of feminism in this country.
Advertisements need not necessarily be realistic, and so the obvious markers in this specific ad: the fact that spouses don’t generally report to each other in any sort of management structure, and *most* employees in India do not address bosses by their first names.
Cut to diligent employee at his desk, still complaining.
That cuts to a yummy set of dishes filled with steaming, delicious looking food, being prepared by a disembodied phantom hand. (You won’t believe what happens next!)
The husband receives a video call, happening (presumably) in HD thanks to the superfast internet connection on dearest husband’s mobile phone, disembodied hand and yummy food in frame.
And it’s at this point you realise nobody but M. Night Shyamalan could have directed this ad…
“Wifey boss people.” (to be said in a Haley Joel Osment-like fashion)
Frazzled husband is still at work, working on the work bosslady has left him. Plaintively, like every dutiful desi biwi should, she begs him to come home to eat. He capitulates, they grin, and the ad ends.
Realism issue: What management structure allows spouses to be in direct managerial hierarchy? If there are some that do, this is the first I’m hearing of it.
I’ve read several arguments saying the wife ‘wanted’ to cook for her husband, so sweet, and that I was just a ‘rabid, unhappy, sexually dissatisfied feminist.’
Tackling the first of those statements first: I enjoy cooking, funnily enough. Mostly for myself, occasionally for family and friends. I do it of my own volition and own free will, entirely unencumbered by the expectation of having to have a hot meal ready for somebody. I was brought up independently by parents who cooked for themselves, me and each other (incidentally, my father is quite a magician with chicken) and if any of us was hungry, we cooked.
It would be utter folly to deny the expectations of an extremely patriarchal Indian society with regard to these bahus, however. Hindi films and Bollywood portray wives and daughters-in-law as such as well. Tea and food aren’t things you make. They’re things you are supposed to not only make, but have ready, and keep hot as you wait for your hubby dearest to finish whatever he’s doing/wants to do/following which he can sit and fart around.
And it is to these expectations that I take the utmost exception. I’m sure the agency that handled the ad thought they were being extremely ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’ by showing a female boss.
When it’s ‘progressive’ and ‘feminist’ to show a female boss, and not just a normal thing, your society is VERY patriarchal.
As the daughter of an incredibly accomplished woman who has been on the boards of several multinationals, and a very accomplished businessman who also changed my diapers and does a mean grilled veg casserole, I was never brought up to believe that women belonged to certain roles, and men to certain others. I have unfortunately, while interacting with certain people, seen just how ingrained these retrograde expectations are. Other women have come up to my mother and asked her why she worked, ‘does your husband not earn enough money?’ ‘Do you have financial issues?’ as opposed to that wondrous, all too impossible possibility that my mum is very intelligent and good at what she does and wants to work. Fuck that, right?
To those who deny flat out that these expectations do not exist, have some empirical proof. Crunchy and nutritious.
Examine the press coverage of any intellectual, accomplished woman in the public eye in this day and age. 2014.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook.
Indra Nooyi, CEO, PepsiCo.
Hilary Rodham Clinton, Senator, former U.S. Secretary of State. Potential candidate for 2016 Presidential elections.
All of them repeatedly asked how they ‘balanced home and work.’ How they managed motherhood and their high-profile jobs.
Has anybody asked Bill Clinton how he managed home and work whilst he brought up Chelsea? Has anybody asked Sheryl Sandberg’s husband if and how he managed to be a good father while still going to work?
Has any man ever felt guilty, as Indra Nooyi recently said she did, because of societal expectations to be a good parent and successful at work?
Why, in India, is ‘housewife’ an extremely normal term and part of the daily parlance of the majority of the population, but nobody has ever heard of a househusband? And men who even live with their wives’ families are called derogatory slurs like ‘Joru ka Ghulam’ (the slave of the wife)? Are the women who are forced to be glorified cooks and cleaners then not slaves of their husbands?
Trick question – yes they are. They’re cooking, cleaning, sexual-pleasure-providing, childbearing slaves.
The day women are free of the expectation that they have to have ‘chai’ ready, or lunch, or dinner, or any damn meal whatsoever, is when people can point fingers and say the ad ‘portrays sweet relationships where people cook of their own free will.’
Now to address some Twitter trolls:
Exhibit 1 – “Its a way of women balancing home and work”
I’d like to see a man balance home and work and THAT be portrayed on an ad. I’ll even write the ad if any agency wants to take me up.
Exhibit 2 – “Take it in a good way the woman does the cooking work which requires more finesse”
Sanjeev Kapoor. Marco Pierre White. Heston Blumenthal. If they’re not men, that’s news to me.
Exhibit 3 “You dirty feminist you must be sexually unsatisfied no man wants u and so u hate men”
And that is why we need feminism. When idiots measure a woman’s idea of self-worth by how desirable she is (or perceives herself to be) to the opposite sex. That is, of course, all that should matter in her life, right?
[P.S – Dear person who DM-ed me that on twitter, please explain why my sexual satisfaction is any of your business.]
Until the expectations go away, until feminism stops being a dirty word, until women stop feeling guilty for pursuing their dreams, we need feminism. Until we can break out of gender roles and stop following or believing in established gender tropes, we need feminism. Until the day the media and the public either stop asking women about the work-home balance, or ask it of men too, we need feminism. And for every day after that.
To the anti-feminists I had the absolute pleasure of interacting with, with their ‘men’s rights’ persecution complexes, I leave you with Trent Reznor’s lines:
“I wear this crown of thorns,
Upon my liar’s chair”
I’ve written very recently about genitalia (my article on labiaplasties here), and here’s another little article for you, one about a product that claims to be about the ‘feel’ and not the ‘look’.
What now seems like many, many years ago, Madonna sang that she felt ‘like a virgin, touched for the very first time’. Couple years later, the genius Weird Al Yankovic parodied this and made ‘Like a Surgeon’. Both of these are relevant to this issue. First, watch this lovely, lovely ad, which is a masterpiece, even more romantic than the Raymond’s ads with random hot twirly dancing couples.
Once you’ve gotten over that (which may take a while), let’s talk virginity. By ’18’, these people are implying ‘young’, ‘fresh’, ‘tight’, ‘virginal’. First off – for some reason, in India, virginity is an ‘asset’, something to be prized, a ‘gift’ to be given to the future husband – I must remind you, of course, that for these people, the guy’s virginity doesn’t matter at all – virginity =tight hymen. So many people write into ‘ask the Sexpert’ columns (yes, I shall refer to them continually because they need to be referred to) asking Mr. Sexpert WHY their ‘wife didn’t bleed on their wedding night’. I remember reading one that said he ‘felt cheated becausemy wife is not a virgin’. Cheated of what, exactly?
To begin with, I think the concept of ‘arranged marriage’ is disgusting. It makes me want to throw up, hit someone, murder somebody else, and all of those simultaneously. Get married IF YOU HAVE FEELINGS FOR SOMEONE AND WANT TO GET MARRIED, not because you’re ‘of a certain age’ and need to prove something to the world (and in the process, to yourself). It is NOT important to find someone to saddle yourself with – if you crave companionship so much, find a friend. Date. If you don’t want to, find a friend with whom you are mutually agreeable to having sex. Have protected sex with a prostitute if you must. But for a lot (and I mean a LOT) of Indian men, getting married merely implies access to regular sex. That is NOT what a marriage is for, (except to these people).
Before I rant any more, let us discuss the actual advert. A woman, who looks to be only 30, is hanging out with her husband, in their fancy, open Indian style home. Like a ‘dutiful bahu’, she brings hubby dearest his dabba for the day. The in-laws are there too, doing in-law stuff. What I’m assuming are husband’s little brother and sister are on deck, too.
Suddenly, the woman begins to dance (inexplicably, the flamenco, which has naff all to do with India anyway). A soundtrack begins to play in the background – what is supposed to sound like flamenco guitar, while a woman makes oohs and aahs and other (what the makers of the ad think are) sex sounds while singing “I feel like a virgin”.
No, it is not in tune.
They begin to dance as she ‘tickles’ him and sings, and the creepy little brother begins to record this courtesy the camera on his cell phone. They then dance whatever their dance is around their compound and he lifts her romantically and dips her.
“Feels like the very first ti-i-ime”, the singer croons, lustily.
The dancing finally comes to an end, as does the ad, with mother- and –father in-law at a computer, MIL going clickety-clack at the keyboard – “18 again dot com?”. They grin at each other, and then an announcer comes on and in the same lusty, whispery voice tells you what the product is, which is (or at least claims to be) a ‘vaginal rejuvenating gel’.
I’m not sure what the scientific credibility of that statement is, but in all likelihood, it is marketed, useless spiel, like all the other ‘rejuvenating’ rubbish in the market that promises to ‘erase laugh lines’ and ‘make wrinkles disappear’. Our society (all over the world, not just in any one country) seems to think ageing is the worst possible thing that could happen. It’s not natural to age, is it? Must. Fight. Urge. To. Inject. All. Sorts. Of. Crap. Into. Face. Lest. I. Look.My.Age. What is wrong, exactly, with looking however old you are? I look at it as an extension of some constant, innate desire to feel attractive to everyone else, when what really matters is being attractive to YOURSELF. But of course, that is never enough.
The company claims the product is to help women experience better sex. Obviously, the only way for her to do that is to ‘tighten’ her lady parts, not by any extra effort on the part of the man. No, the way to remedy sexual issues is not by going to a sexologist/andrologist/gynaecologist, but by buying something they advertise (and rather badly so) on television. What this brought to mind was the fact that we so badly need sex education in India, but our lovely higher-ups in the government seem to think that this will make us imbibe ‘western culture’ (a term that angers me immensely, what is Indian culture anyway??An article on this soon) and ‘make young children sexually promiscuous’. That’s like saying if you were to send a teenager to a driving school, they’d crash the car. If anything, sex ed classes would help them understand sex better, and then have it only when they are mentally and physically ready, as opposed to becoming sexually active to be ‘cool’, or trying to fit in because being a virgin is not what ‘popular’ people do. I have seen children as young as 12 and 13 bragging on Facebook about their sexual prowess and conquests. Incredibly weird.
At an age where their bodies are only just beginning to mature, I wonder how physically ready they really are. The really sad thing is that they grow up this way, learning their ‘moves’ from porn, which we ALL know is of course completely realistic, right?
So instead of having 30-plus-year-old men write in with puerile, borderline insane queries about their wives’ virginity (or lack thereof), maybe we could educate young kids so they don’t grow up into the sort of idiot that would buy into the ideal of an ’18 Again’ cream.
The product makers claim they’re ‘breaking new ground’ by being willing to talk about ‘women’s intimate health’. No sir or madam, you are not. Just like the morons who marketed the ‘intimate wash’ by saying it was a ‘fairness treatment’ for your nether regions (more on my views on fairness here).
If we go by today’s average Indian 18-year-old, being ’18 Again’ simply means being completely unaware of sex, intercourse, foreplay, or even what real genitals *look* like, but doing it because you think you’re cool.
But hey, the shoe fits.