It’s an incredible disservice to women to continue to reduce them to blank canvasses waiting for male protagonists to paint them over.
In 2016, Chetan Bhagat announced that he was writing a book from a woman’s perspective. To underline the authenticity of the feminine experience he was about to portray, he claimed he knew exactly how bad women’s lives can get.
How did he know that?
Because he got himself waxed.
Keeping aside how terrible ‘One Indian Girl’ truly was, what struck me most was the audacity with which male creators engage with women characters. Bhagat wasn’t the first person to do so — and he definitely won’t be the last. Women in men’s depictions have always been the epitome of a struggle between the women that men are trying to imagine and those they’re trying to portray. The schism lends itself to rather hilarious descriptions and cringe-worthy situations.
A recent flood of women describing themselves as a male author would took over my Twitter feed and I couldn’t stop reading the replies to this. The hilarious overemphasis on the physicality of a woman, and her apparent preoccupation with the same, is a trope men insert in otherwise perfectly nuanced stories. For some reason, all women are obsessed with how their breasts ‘sway’, and all of them seem to be the sum of their own awareness of their attraction.
new twitter challenge: describe yourself like a male author would
— Dante Colorado (@whitneyarner) April 1, 2018
The way male authors perceive women is best summed up by American poet Charles Bukowski’s description from the ironically titled ‘Women’: ‘While men were watching professional football or drinking beer or bowling, they, the women, were thinking about us, concentrating, studying, deciding–whether to accept us, discard us, exchange us, kill us or whether simply to leave us.’
Or you could go the way Aniruddha Bahal did in ‘Bunker 13’:
“She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high. To wait any longer would be to lose prime time. She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing.”
(This was about a woman. Not a car.)
Male authors seem to truly believe that the women in their work only exist for a metaphor. Their bodies are reduced to extended allegories of the male protagonist’s internal conflicts, and the scope of their thoughts narrowed down to processes men are comfortable with women having. Women rarely, if ever, seem to be capable of being more than similes for the times that we live in. This isn’t just about fictionalised women, either. They seem to be, in general, incapable of talking to or of women.
Bhupendra Chaubey’s horrific interview with Sunny Leone comes to mind. Leone is an incredibly successful businesswoman, who took what began as a career in pornography into one that now includes her very own production house and a burgeoning Bollywood career. She’s never made any bones about her past, and nor has she ever tried to use it as a tragic backstory. But Chaubey, on the other hand, took his interview as a chance to shame and corner Leone with questions that weren’t just uncomfortable. They were downright offensive.
Sample this: “Do you believe that your body will ultimately take you everywhere?”
“Since you have come to Indian cinema, the number of people watching porn has increased proportionately to the extent that we are now the world’s largest consumer of porn. Can you respond to that?”
“Am I being morally corrupted because I’m interviewing you?”
Two tropes come to mind — the Madonna-Whore Complex, and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. In the former, a woman can either be a virginal ideal, or a sexualised caricature with no capacity but that of lust. In the latter, a woman is merely the fevered imagination of a man seeking redemption brought to life — often in a cutesy, A-line cotton dress. She will leave her career, friends, metabolic functions (when was the last time you read of a woman just going to the bathroom without it being sexualised?) to serve as a launching board for the process of a man finally self-actualising.
These tropes have served as a template for women in Bollywood too — and they’ve fought back. The last few years in Bollywood have been so good for real, fleshed-out women on screen. Three characters I loved that were fundamentally very different from each other, but so starkly unusual in their portrayal were Shashi (English Vinglish), Ayesha (Dil Dhadakne Do), and Usha (Lipstick Under My Burkha). These characters didn’t scream their emancipation off the roofs of their very real environments. They weren’t people reduced to linear ideologies. They all had their contexts, and maneuvered within them with grace and skill. These women weren’t cardboard cutouts, but real people.
And they were all created by women. Says something, doesn’t it?
This is not to say that men simply cannot write of real, complicated women — Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is personally one of my favourite women in recent literature. But this is to say that when men do write about women, it would do them good to take a step back and read of how women create women. It would do them good to just pause and observe the women around them. The kind of conflicting, honest human beings women are is literary gold waiting to be mined at the hands of skilled authors. Especially now, as women are finally shedding the burden of being just a literary device. It’s an incredible disservice to women to continue to reduce them to blank canvasses waiting for male protagonists to paint them over.
Harnidh Kaur is a poet and feminist.