Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Gender equality and the way ahead
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How a 1980s Cinematic Classic Portrayed the Challenges Before Gender Equality in a Man’s World

The debate over racial and gender abuse in the wake of the free for all social media is today somewhat universal. The debate is especially relevant for the Northeast, for there is a general feeling amongst people here that they are victims of both in much of the rest of India. While there can be no argument that these abuses need to be not just condemned, but also befitting penalties reserved for offenders, the nature of social media being what it is, what is also called for is to specify and calibrate these offences. This is because, unlike physical abuses where the line demarcating aggression cannot be mistaken, what exactly can constitute similar abuses on the digital medium can be far less obvious. Can an insensitive remark or an indecent proposal amount to such an abuse per se or should these first form a persistent and insistent pattern before they can be termed thus? The key in coming to a decision on this must arguably be on the identification of aggression in them and the degree of it. However, certain inequalities are so entrenched and institutionalized the discrimination resulting out of them may appear as nothing extraordinary and this is where things can get a little tricky. The Hollywood comedy-drama classic, Tootsie, articulated this like few others have.

For those old enough and remember, this movie tells the story of a talented actor whose reputation of being difficult leaves him jobless. He is thus forced by difficult circumstance to adopt a new identity as a middle-aged woman to land an acting job. Soon enough, not only at his job environment but also in life after office, the expectations of friends and associates forces him to continue maintaining his female identity and role. As the drama unfolds, expectedly many hilarious situations arise when male associates begin to show romantic interest in him and he too gets attracted to a female friend.

The film’s significance however goes far beyond its ability to provoke slapstick humour depending largely on farcical, incongruent and even outright stupid everyday situations. Its achievement is, without even being sinister or clever at the expense of anybody or any institution, as most satirical dramas strive for, Tootsie exposes successfully and endearingly how most societies, resting as they do on a patriarchal foundation, view and respond to the male and female.

One scene is particularly remarkable. It was evening and Tootsie late for an appointment rushes out of her apartment with great unease because of the high heeled shoes he/she was wearing when he spots a taxi passing by from a distance, he waves at the taxi to stop, daintily calling out ‘taxi’ in the best and female voice he could manage. The taxi ignores the voice and drives on. Then out of instinct and frustration, Tootsie assumes his real male self momentarily and in a typically aggressive male voice of extreme annoyance, roars ‘TAXI’. The taxi screeches to a halt.

The grim message beyond the laughter is the modern truism of how most societies see and respond very differently to the male and female, even when it is only a voice. Because of ages of almost universal conditioning and internalising, nobody, not even the discriminated woman, sees these discriminatory responses as anything wrong, therefore these wrongs get perpetuated without the hope of anything changing. Replace gender by race and the logic works very much the same way. Overt discriminations are easy to discern, and there would also be automatic resistance against them, but ones which have been reduced to the status of common sensical intuition in the Gramscian way through continued value reinforcement by society through generations, are the ones hard to notice, much less remove.

Unseen gender discriminations are everywhere in any patriarchal society even those which have been praised for female empowerment. Look at Manipur. In its 60-member State Legislative Assembly, currently there are only two women. In the Parliament, it is even worse. Of its three allotted seats, two Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha, there is not even one woman representative. Currently of course there is one nominated to the Rajya Sabha, boxing star Mary Kom, but that is by Presidential appointment not election by a constituency. Term after term, the scenario has been very much the same. Yet nobody sees anything abnormal in this. In neighbouring Nagaland and Mizoram, the situation is no better, if not worse.

There is also another fallacy in the response by many in the victim situation. In any effort to comprehend the full implications of these bad circumstances, and then come up with remedial measures, this section is of the opinion that only those who have had lived experiences of these abuses will be able to get to the depth of the problem. While lived experiences are extremely important, if those outside these experiences have not understood the extent of the hurts, it is because they have taken the matter too much for granted and not because they are incapable of comprehending. As Jeremy Rifkin explains in “The Empathic Civilisation”, humans are soft wired for empathy, and those gifted with empathy can get into the shoes of any other. Empathy is different from sympathy, which is about feeling sorry for another’s plight, or compassion, which is about feeling sorry for another and wanting to help. Empathy goes beyond and is determined by mirror neurons which makes a person actually feel what another feels, so he or she can cry or laugh or panic with the person’s plight he witnesses. If empathy did not exist, movies like Tootsie would have appealed to only the feminine gender. The rest would have remained cold to the movie’s message of what a woman in a man’s world feels like.

(This article was first published in The New Indian Express under a different heading)

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