Ranjona Banerji: The fiction of gender equality
No matter how I look at it — and I have been pondering on it for days — Salman Khan’s remark that his training regimen for his new film left him feeling like a raped woman emphasises and encapsulates the underlying misogyny in society. Or, if misogyny is a strong word, then is the dehumanisation or trivialisation of women a more appropriate term that makes you feel happier? I am unable to see this swaggering display of male braggadocio in anything but a feminist light.
Dragon Queen Daenerys heads out to Westeros to conquer the Iron Throne in TV show Game of Thrones. Pic/HBO
I am unable also to accept the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse or the accusations that people like me are being too sensitive. In its essence, the casually used ‘raped woman’ as an analogy speaks specifically to sexual assault. The reference is not to rape in general but to how raped women feel. Men can also be raped and I can only hope that I do not decide to treat that as a joke to prove my femininity or my sense of humour.
I do not really care any whether Khan or his father apologise or not. His statement is representative of a constituency that he speaks to. He is unlikely to be the last person to treat the violation of someone’s inner self and sense of identity as a cause for humour or the last man who claims to understand how women feel. All women are subject to ‘mansplaining’ at some or several points in their lives.
But suppose you argue that women need to grow thicker skins. That comments like this are meaningless and should not be taken so seriously. And certainly, any woman who has worked in an office or atmosphere where men set the standard know that some sexual innuendo and, yes, ‘mansplaining’ is par for the course. Sometimes, you do it yourself, either to fit in or because you do genuinely believe in what you say and find it funny. And it is important to point out that there is no evidence that being female automatically makes you more sensitive to the feelings of others or more empathetic.
Twitter is a remarkable breeding ground for all that is questionable about humanity. And as so many have pointed out, women bear the brunt of it. They are attacked, abused, threatened, mocked and sexual taunts are the least of it. Most abusers are men but let us not pretend that women do not partake in this display of the worst of patriarchy.
But then, I have also been culpable in this nod to patriarchy. Through my childhood I watched films — no doubt Mr Khan watched the same films — where sexual molestation was seen as flirting and at least one gratuitous rape scene was somehow seen as necessary in most films. Squirming in your seat as a young teenager while men around cheered and whistled is one of those ghastly rites of passage that was mandatory in the India of the 1970s and 1980s.
I stopped watching Hindi films after one of these experiences when I was as old as 21. The film starred some of the biggest names in Indian cinema — still around — and it purported to be a ‘revenge’ film. But on that pretext, it just excited and titillated its captive audience with rape and violence.
And yet, I find myself fascinated by the TV series Game of Thrones, based on the books by George RR Martin, which is famous for its blood, gore, violence, torture and rape. Though, I did not watch one of its most infamous rape scenes because I just did not have the stomach for it. But I have been fascinated by what I see as a feminist phase in this compelling morality tale of human iniquity.
All around the seven kingdoms of Game of Thrones, the women — some seemingly sweet and some frankly horrific — have gained the upper hand and are set to try and rule their world. The fact that the tone is medieval makes this progress by these women even more remarkable. And after you see what Sansa Stark did to Ramsay Bolton in the just-concluded season, you get full of delicious, wicked schadenfreude. At least in the fictional world, there is some terrible justice for excessive patriarchy.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona