For a Lady who is sick, there aren’t many options for entertainment around here. Sure there’s that whole ‘everyone who happens to come to my room becomes my servant’ thing (which does have its advantages had I been a passive-aggressive person) or I can pretend to be less sick than I actually am so I may be allowed out; but all these tactics fall flat very soon. As soon as mum gives me that Olde Glowering Eyelid Nod that is. So, T.V. watching is the one thing that is considered appropriate on this side of the world when the said Lady is sick. This week, I’ve managed to watch so many soaps and movies that I may never recover. Excuse the dramatics, it’s one of the long lasting effects the TV implants in your skull the moment your eyes glaze over.
These days bringing up the ‘woman problem’ on TV has become quite fashionable, sort of like that time talking about orphans was fashionable. Or maybe that was just Dickens. You’re probably wondering at this point, “What’s her problem now? Isn’t she happy Indian soaps are addressing the problem?” or maybe wondering just how high my dosage is that I’m not tickled pink at the prospect of having issues like child marriage, female feticide, domestic violence etc. Be patient people of Ye Olde Interwebes as I slip into a comfier position.First off, these soaps like Balika Vadhu (child bride), Na Anna Is Des Me Laado (Dear girl: don’t ever come here) etc are set in the rural setting. Plenty of peasant garb and language on the screen though the large scale narrative only takes place in the ‘rich’ of the poor. Also, very interestingly it’s the women who are the ruling matriarchs and yet torture the women of the village or household. It’s interesting because the TV people got some thing right after the longest time for in a patriarchy women are perpetrators of violence as well. And secondly, the reverence these soaps enjoy from it’s Indian households is astounding and noteworthy. A large part of the audience comes from either the urban rich and middle-class, working class audience in the cities. The people represented in the shows are curiously not as avid watchers as the city audience is.
So, whenever these soaps after months and months of showing helpless, powerless women being hurt, beaten and raped will show one strong voice, articulating the WOMAN, the audience will write letters requesting her silence. A few questions she raises on motherhood, wifehood or her status as a womb-service provider and channels switch. At one point, a woman walks out on her husband and child because she is made to feel her uterus is more important than her, hordes of fan write to the show, asking her to be brought back plus make her apologize on the show for abandoning her ‘womanly duties’ in so many words. What intrigues this LadyBrain isn’t the show but the polemics of its audience.
As an urban audience we generally tend to take two positions, conveniently shifting sides whenever we feel like it. Whenever there is any depiction of violence on screen — warranted or otherwise — as an urban audience we get a tad uncomfortable a tad too quick. A clear Othering takes place for, “Only tiny villages do this. We’re better than them” or “Those insipid villagers should do so and so”. This distance doesn’t make us critical of what we’re consuming — take that Brecht! — but rather gives us a way to keep on avoiding the fact that violence against women happens around us too. So no matter what is discussed on screen, it’s radical message — if ever — is co- opted to effecting only a small audience.
The second position the urban audience adopts is that of control. Or rather supposed control. There is a large majority of the fandom that sides with the matriarchs and will even provide rationalizations behind what are obviously manipulative actions. Instead of quick citing de Sade here, this identification with the victimiser helps us elevate ourselves from the potential of being sabotages, even in the reel world.
Combine this Othering and Identifying with the victimizer and you get a glowing sum of apathy. So these ‘women-friendly’ networks and shows do definitely voice the Woman Problem at the same time ensuring nothing more reasonable than apathy is aroused. The Woman on screen faces problems that are wildly different than your own, so you’re obviously more liberated than her right?
This is why when I say feminism has a long way to go, I get to hear, “You’re educated and unmarried by the age of 20. If you were from a village you’d have squeezed out two or more children by now” or at least “you’re not squatting in the mud”.
Call it internal stereotyping, if you will; I find it equally damaging. To assume and place any character in the rural setting as voiceless, devoid of agency and choice is just as horrendous as the English assumption we didn’t have a culture because we didn’t speak their language. Only difference is, our own people are yielding the whip now erm pen now.