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From Blissful Ignorance to Unlearning Inequality

Shallow focus photography of black tree trunk that shows unexpected pops of colour.

With all the commotion going on about raging masculinity and its depiction in the media, I keep pondering as to why certain stereotypes, norms and gender-specific beliefs are still so normalised and supported that despite our belief in gender equality, we gradually acquiesce to prevailing circumstances. My interest in gender studies and gender-based violence began during my post-graduation, and it still blows my mind that there is so much to explore in this field. Aided by my interest, my learnings on unequal power relations, vulnerability of genders in different sectors, institutional and structural violence, and much more, grew.

During my teenage years, when I followed the maxim “Ignorance is Bliss”, I used to watch movies, read books, and listen to songs, and then not think about their content at all. However, as I grew older and started to explore myself and my surroundings – a naive young adult who had been protected and sheltered her whole life – and moved to a different city (at last, alone!), I realised I knew nothing and it scared me. I was afraid of being termed a “rebellious child” which is why I conformed to what my parents thought was right for me, but it is now that I realise that as a girl, I was conditioned to conform to the rules of the house whereas my male counterparts were not. The unequal power relations, the subordination of women, and the lack of decision-making by women is what I have seen in not just my family but in other families too, and mind you, I still call my family “progressive”.

The media, often, depicts on screen what is actually present in society. However, the responsibility of challenging harmful stereotypes like those against certain genders cannot solely lie with institutions driven by profit, but with the audience – people like us who go to the theatres and watch those movies, make a joke, write a tweet and forget about it. Isn’t that being supportive of bad media? I am now reminded of a line in a recent movie, Animal (2023), “Shaadi mein darr hona chahiye, pakad honi chahiye. Pakad ke rakho.” (There should be fear in a marriage, there should be control. Maintain control.) What control are we talking about? What fear is being mentioned here? What are the unequal power relations that this message recommends? Isn’t that violence against women?

According to the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. There are certain forms of violence which are quite prevalent and have become embedded in the roots of society, thus becoming normalised in our mind. As individuals who are now privileged enough to address issues concerning mental and emotional health as compared to our parents and the generations before them, it is still quite disturbing to observe emotional/ psychological violence happening to women at different levels. The conditioning of women to suppress their thoughts, ‘accept their fate’ and to ‘put up with it’, suggests that gender norms mostly exist to maintain the status of men in a patriarchal society. A line from the movie Thappad (2020) sums up this way of thinking, “Thoda bardasht karna seekhna chahiye auraton ko.” (Women should learn a bit of endurance). More often than not, the subordination role comes down to women and other people of marginalised gender identities causing them harm.

Being someone’s first in an intimate romantic relationship is a magical feeling and one feels quite special to think about being their partner’s first romantic experience, however, one tends to ignore the significant ingredients that need to be present in a relationship, i.e., care, commitment, trust and respect, among others. The lack of such mutual feelings can pave the way for an abusive form of relationship and more or less becomes a form of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). This form of violence can be clearly summed up in another line in Animal, “I’ll slap you so hard. First kiss hua hai, first sex hua, first slap nahi hua, na?” (First kiss has happened, first sex has happened, first slap hasn’t happened yet, right?) Is this a conversation between two partners in a loving relationship? Or is it a threatening statement constituting intimate partner violence?

In media portrayals of toxic masculinity, where threats, coercion, wife-battering, demeaning statements and physical violence are normalised, one expects that there will be some compensation for that and we will be able to see at least one power-holding woman, but reality is even worse. The vulnerabilities of women are shown, they are used as pawns, expected to love and accept their partners with all their imperfections and go about with their lives. These are the demeaning portrayals that we have observed, as well as, unfortunately for some, lived and accepted in our reality.

Boundaries, Consent, Portrayal

Indian families with their own notions of protecting their children from the ills of the outside world lose sight of the fact that children also need preparation to understand the world. Sex and intimacy have always been taboo topics in most Indian households leading to lack of conversations happening around consent, more specifically informed consent, sexual well-being, protection, pleasure and female sexuality. One might find it shocking that it was only at the age of 23 that I understood what saying “no” meant, how to set and maintain boundaries, and what constitutes disrespect. I was quite fortunate that I learnt all this through not-so-bad experiences. Indian families do not take the concept of consent seriously and do not impart it to their children while they are growing up.

Media plays a crucial role in shaping the minds of young children, and even adults. The portrayal of gender influences how we perceive it. There is an organisational bias against women in almost all work spheres and society’s beliefs about different gender identities are endorsed in the media we consume. If not ignored, one can sense the hostility in sexism and the enjoyment in sexualising and objectifying certain gender identities. While defining clear- cut rights and wrongs can be complex, there’s a growing expectation to respect and understand diverse genders and different relationship dynamics. This includes recognising the potential for equitable relationships, free from unnecessary conflict, and embracing feminist values. Rare but not impossible, we can find media portrayals of different genders and associated intersectionalities such as in the film Margarita with a Straw (2014) that portrays the story of a young woman with cerebral palsy exploring her sexuality. Thinking about the theme of a woman’s aspirations, dreams and passions that she tries to fulfil secretly, defying societal challenges, I am reminded of the movie Lipstick Under my Burkha (2016). Personally, for me, a woman who understood the true meaning of consent and of the two-letter word No, albeit quite late, is the protagonist of Pink (2016), a film that made a huge difference in my life. The reason I mention these Bollywood movies is because I can relate to them, and find myself brave enough to challenge my vulnerabilities through characters who reflect my fears and insecurities, and, more often than not, help me to understand and explore my emotions. These movies have helped me in defining what self-acceptance means and have provided me with cathartic moments to vent my unexpressed emotions. And, yes, I enjoy them as they bring some sense to my life.

Cover Image: Photo by Hannah Porter on Unsplash