Feminism v/s Fairytales- Part I


“We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”

— Gloria Steinem

This post has been far too long in the making — four months to be precise; and has changed titles three times, always a little shy of perfection—until about twelve minutes ago, when I was driving my son to school and the perfect title just glided into my mind, fitting in there with a pronounced click.

Feminism and fairytales. There has been far too much of a discourse about this, far too much of fairytale-bashing in the halls of feminist fame. And the die-hard romantic in me couldn’t reconcile herself to it.

And then I read this line by Gloria Steinem—the one I’ve quoted above.

Every time I read feminist authors—or even just quotes from feminist leaders, I feel a sense of solidarity. The power of the sisterhood, so to speak. But when Gloria Steinem says that we are becoming the men we wanted to marry, I get a stupendously severe sinking feeling.

Really? Is that what we want to achieve? To become MEN?

No, I do get it. I get what she means to say. I get the context of the time and place that these words were spoken in—times when the only ambition for women was to marry a ‘suitable’ (read ‘wealthy’) man and live a life of basked glory. So what Steinem really means is for women to possess ambitions over and above marriage, to actually earn their own glory and fame.  To rise and shine, to be all those things they want to be—instead of merely looking for those things in the men they wanted to marry. I get that those words have led us to where we are right now—where a woman leading an independent, successful life is not an aberration. I get it all.

But what I witness now, in the time and place that you and I live in, is that feminism is becoming more and more about women becoming men. ‘Femininity’ is becoming taboo. To be successful, you must be like a man—that’s the subconscious message being sent out. And that makes me sad, not to mention intensely furious.

I haven’t yet watched Aamir Khan’s acclaimed movie Dangal— where a wrestler dad turns his daughters into champion wrestlers. It is actually based on a real life story— of the Phogat sisters, three of whom have won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, while the others have won medals and accolades in other National and global championships. My sister went for the movie and came back gushing about it. But when she came to the part where the wrestler screen-dad Mr Phogat chops off his daughters’ locks because they were using their hair as an excuse to get out of wrestling, I felt hugely uncomfortable. There it was again—to be successful you must be like a man.

dangal

Part of my discomfort stems from personal reasons, I must admit. My long hair has been a very, very important, distinctive part of who I am. But then, there are lots of women who like to keep their hair short, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What felt entirely wrong was that it appeared like the dad forced the daughters to renounce their femininity—so that he could turn them into the sons he never had. (Apparently, in the beginning the movie shows that the family had an intense desire for sons so that they could take the wrestling tradition forward.) But ultimately it leads the women to success and glory—so all’s well that ends well. And everyone goes home clapping.

I would have actually bought that theory, too, if not for the little fact that this past year, Sakshi Malik, an actual female wrestler, brought home an Olympic Bronze for India—and she hasn’t chopped her hair off at all. What’s more, PV Sindhu, the Olympic Silver medal winner, hasn’t chopped off her hair either. In fact, there have been five women in all who have brought home Olympic medals for India: Karnam Malleswari, Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu—and none of them has close-cropped hair. Deepa Karmakar who came whizzingly close to a a Bronze medal in the gymnastics category last year doesn’t have cropped hair either. And our very own home-grown Tennis World Champion Sania Mirza is the pinnacle of femininity: long hair, nose-ring, uber-cool and always stylish.

The reason I have chosen long hair to illustrate my point is that long hair is perhaps the most marked of feminine attributes. And by choosing hair, I want to point this out: you don’t need to renounce your femininity to be a feminist.

All the above mentioned women would surely be defined as feminists—breaking the mould with their endeavours. Sania Mirza famously even wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Well-behaved women never make history.” The thing to be emphasised, though, is always this: feminism isn’t the opposite of femininity. You don’t have to be ‘like a man’ to be strong and successful.

In fact, when we make ‘manly’ attributes the standard of success, we are actually upending the years and years of protest and battle against the belittling of women. We are subliminally spreading the message that ‘womanly’ attributes are worthless and signs of weakness: that femininity cannot lead you to strength and success, only masculinity can. And that, ironically, is the reinforcement of patriarchy—presenting woman and womanliness as possessed of far less value than man and manliness.

Feminism evolved to give women their rightful place in society—so long denied to them. In effect, therefore, to be a feminist is to embrace your womanhood with pride, to wear your femininity like a badge of honour. In trying to be ‘like a man’ you’re merely succumbing to the kind of society whose greatest praise for a daughter is that “She is the SON of her parents.” That is to say, in transforming from daughter to son, she has reached a higher level of evolution.

That kind of mentality is precisely what feminists have vehemently opposed, but when we try to “become the men that we wanted to marry,” I am sorry but we’re playing right into the hands of the chauvinist brigade.

In the stages of evolution of a society, where misogyny is widespread with things like female foeticide being the norm, it is understandable why you would first need to prove yourself to men, just to show that not only are you equal, you can also be better. But as we move toward greater evolution, it is important for women themselves to value their womanhood, and not fall into the trap of woman-shaming.

In essence, what we need to become is the kind of woman we want. Let no one tell you what is womanly and what is the meaning of being a woman. YOU, yourself, are a woman—and YOU get to define what that means—not a man. So if your inner woman finds expression in short hair and wrestling, go for it, by all means. But if your inner woman loves both— long hair and wrestling— let nobody tell you that it can’t be done.

And if your inner woman loves all traditionally womanly things— long hair and cooking, for instance, that’s perfectly fine too—let no one tell you it’s something inferior.  The only thing is to be strong enough to decide for yourself and stand up for yourself—and for other, weaker people. That is the essence of a strong woman.

To be fair to Mr Phogat, though, I watched his interview on a TV show a few days ago, and perhaps by some cosmic coincidence, he was asked the ‘hair’ question. His reply was mighty impressive, I have to admit.

“Looks are fine,” he said. “I get that you want to look beautiful. But when you have done something substantial in life, when you have stacked up your achievements, only then you must focus on your looks.”

No arguments with that, Mr Phogat. No arguments at all.

{Stay tuned for Part II where we will actually discuss Fairytales.}

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3 thoughts on “Feminism v/s Fairytales- Part I

  1. First of all, I would like to congratulate you for the amazing blog. Loved the way you put together all the thoughts and given another angle to the definition of feminism and happy life. Love it!

    But just like you couldn’t agree with the quote given by famous feminist leader in your last part (Feminism vs Fairytale part 1), I also came across this clash of thoughts in the part where you have given the reference of the hair. I believe, though Mr. Phogat wanted sons but chopping off their hair not correlated with his desires. Here are my points to back this up:

    1. When he asked his 2 daughters to go for run, and they mentioned that they find it difficult to run in salwaar. He changed their dressing style for their comfort and to avoid any hurdles in this exercise

    2. When the girls claimed that hair is problem, then he chopped not because he wanted to convert them into boys but given the society we live in, the long hair would remind them of their being as Woman and like other girls of their school who got married, both of them will be seen that way, he didn’t want them to feel like men but not lesser than them either. Today, there are options of hairdo for girls whichever style they want, but the situation was different back then. Chopping hair was against society as well. That instance made them firm that if their dad is going against society, they should too. Later on, they did change their hairdo​. One of the sisters has long hair and other has shorter and their father is completely fine with that

    Apart from this instance, I completely agree with your thoughts. I am an independent woman and I have my own ways of enjoying life. I like trekking, running etc. And I am also very emotional, like fairy tales. I get to hear this a lot.. “unlike girls… ” Or “girls are usually this way but…. “. So I can totally relate with this read.

    All the best and keep writing!

    Your follower,
    Amrita

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Amrita, for pointing out these very significant details. Yes, I agree. Perhaps I have not really looked at the larger picture, and focused on just one instance. So thank you, for making me see the broader perspective. Being exposed to different views helps us grow, and you have been helpful to me in this regard ! Am glad you understand, though, what I mean about feminism and femininity not being in conflict with each other. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy future posts too. Best wishes!

      Like

      • Thanks Zehra for being so patient in reading my long comment (not kidding). It was really long and I forgot that I commented also.

        Really appreciate your comment and the way you put together your story and opinion in subtle way.

        Keep writing 🙂
        Amrita

        Liked by 1 person

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