Sexism under scanner, Filmon mein naachnewali and other such slurs

This is an ad by a very successful car manufacturer of German origin, which shall remain unnamed, because outrage and controversy just offer more — and free — publicity. (Like the clothing manufacturer that routinely used offensive photos in their ads, for this very reason). The ad is not new but has surfaced on social media, and hence, watched again.

A slim, well-endowed woman walks into a library goes up to the librarian, and orders French fries, a burger and a milkshake. The librarian who is an overweight, scruffy and surly (not wearing thick glasses to complete the stereotype, but they are dangling on a string on her drab-looking t-shirt) woman looks up in annoyance and says. “This is a library.” The blonde looks around, repeats the food order in a whisper and smiles. Then come the words, “Beauty is nothing without brains.”

In an age when sexism is under the scanner, the ad is insulting to women in so many ways. To begin with, the few people seated in the library are all men. The dumb blonde (unfairly the subject of so many crude jokes) is seen as desirable by conventional standards of beauty, the librarian is the ‘brain’, but not attractive. Which perpetuates the myth that beautiful women cannot be brainy and intelligent women cannot be beautiful. Even if this ridiculous theory has been disproved many times over, it still keeps popping up, and if you don’t find this kind of humour funny, you are an old fuddy-duddy. And because you want to be seen as having a sense of humour, you continue to laugh at the most awful misogynistic wife, mother-in-law, dumb female jokes and forward them on Whatsapp.

This ad is in the same league as a sign at the back of an auto-rickshaw that states (in poor English) that “Girls are more poisonous than snakes.” This is the sentiment behind one of the successful films of this year, Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety, in which the titular Sonu tries to break up the wedding of Titu and Sweety, for no reason but that he believes that girls are toxic, bromance-wrecking, controlling reptiles, who, once they get their fangs into a man, will see to it that he can’t even use a toothpaste of his choice. For sex, he explains to his buddy, there is any number of girls looking for a no-strings-attached relationship, so why get married? The director of this film, a certain Luv Ranjan, has made two films earlier — Pyar Ka Punchnaama and its sequel — in which this same ‘girls are manipulative, mercenary and all-round horrid’ plot and dialogue are used. And girls presumably have to enjoy these films or be condemned for their lack of a sense of humour.

Because these minor instances of female-bashing go through, they result in appalling abuse of women, particularly those in power. Irish MP Mhairi Black spoke in parliament about the terrible abuse and threats that she and other women MPs routinely face. After listing the profanity aimed at her, she said, “I’ve been assured multiple times that I don’t have to worry because I am so ugly that no-one would want to rape me. All of these insults have been tailored to me because I am a woman.” She made a valid point that when such language is unchallenged and is normalised, it creates an environment that allows women to be abused.

As reported in the British press, she added that there needs to be a reflection on what happens in Parliament, with the “full extent of abuse and danger” women face on a daily basis only beginning to be realised. “Only a few weeks ago I was physically pressed up against a Member [of Parliament] in the voting lobby who is accused of sexual misconduct because there’s so little room. Now, I don’t think that’s normal and I think it’s fair to say that’s something maybe that we should be looking at — something we should be talking about — because I’m blessed as in I have the same right and influence as any other elected man in this place, but what about all the female staff in here who don’t?” Women in low-end jobs would simply have to put up with constant harassment.

In India, we don’t need to look far, when a male politician calls Jaya Bachchan “filmon mein naachnewali,” meaning it as a slur, but actually showing himself up as the kind of man whose time should be up, if it isn’t already.

And finally, this year’s Academy Awards host Jimmy Kimmel, commenting on the #Metoo and #Time’sup campaigns against sexual harassment, referred to Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape Of Water, said, “We will always remember this year as the year men screwed up so badly, women started dating fish.”

The writer is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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