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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sexism rules, OK?

Misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has passed into its very vocabulary  

It didn’t take very long for the media coverage of the General David Petraeus affair to veer off into the well-trodden realm of misogyny, did it? There was the initial dismay about how another idol turned out to have feet of clay. There was some tut-tutting about how men will be men. There was much shock and horror expressed about how a former three-star General and Director of the CIA could be stupid enough to be caught with his pants down.

And then, with a certain inevitability, the attention turned to the women caught up in this sorry mess. There was Holly Petraeus, the wronged wife, said to be incandescent with fury but still standing by her man. There was Paula Broadwell, biographer-turned-mistress, the temptress who had brought the Great Man down from the heights of heroism with her feminine wiles. And then there was Jill Kelley, the other Other Woman, who had unwittingly set off the controversy by complaining to the FBI about some threatening mails that Broadwell – who believed Kelley was getting too close to Petraeus – had sent her. (Phew! You really couldn’t make this stuff up.)

To illustrate this little morality play we were provided helpful colour pictures of all the protagonists in this sordid drama. Holly Petraeus, the weary, unglamorous spouse, looking every one of her near-60 years. Paula Broadwell, all toned arms and perfect figure, showcased in clothes so tight that they could well have cut off her circulation if she wasn’t such a champion athlete. And Jill Kelley, smoky-eyed and sultry in designer togs that showed off her enviable legs and tiny waist.

The sub-text was clear. What chance did poor old Petraeus have against the combined charms of Broadwell and Kelley? How could he possibly resist their blandishments – especially given what his poor, old, greying wife looked like? And just get a load of how these sirens are dressed, drawing all eyes to their pert derrieres and perky breasts! Which man could possibly stay chaste and faithful to his marital vows in the face of such an assault on his defences?

It’s familiar territory, really. It’s the same song whenever a powerful man is caught doing someone who isn’t his wife. He gets off as someone who gave in to temptation; the Other Woman is stigmatised as the one who lured him away from the straight and narrow. Clearly, the narrative hasn’t changed very much since the Original Sin. The apple never falls far from Adam and Eve, and that age-old tale of women luring men to their downfall.  

And in keeping with these misogynistic double standards, while the men are rehabilitated in public life after a decent interval, the Scarlet Women who ‘tempted’ them are consigned to the shadows to live out the rest of their lives in disgrace. Just compare how Bill Clinton came off after the White House scandal to how Monica Lewinsky fared. Her life was ruined with her name becoming a byword for sexual incontinence while Clinton has re-emerged as a President-maker, milking the applause at Democratic election rallies for Barack Obama.

Back home in India, while our leaders manage to keep their sexual shenanigans out of the media, their deep-rooted misogyny is played out in full public view. When Congress leader Digvijay Singh wants to poke fun at Arvind Kejriwal for his daily ‘exposes’ he doesn’t compare him to, say, Salman Khan, who has a propensity to rip his shirt off at the slightest provocation. No, he says Kejriwal is like Rakhi Sawant, who also ‘exposes’ but has no ‘substance’. 

Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav patronisingly explains to rural women that they will not benefit from the Women’s Reservation Bill because they are not attractive enough (unlike women from affluent families). BJP chief minister of Chhatisgarh Raman Singh holds forth on how good-looking women are contributory factors in causing road accidents (“If there is a good motor-cycle, a good mobile and a good girlfriend, then accidents are bound to happen.”). Congress minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal tells us that as a wife gets old with time, she loses her charm.

Women in public life are routinely subject to misogynistic attacks and jibes. While Mamata Banerjee is derided for her crumpled saris and Hawai chappals, Mayawati has to face down jibes about her penchant for pink and designer handbags (damned if you don’t; and damned if you do). But then, what can you expect from a world in which even Indira Gandhi was dubbed the “the only man in her Cabinet”, as if it were a compliment of the highest order when it was anything but.

The sad truth is that misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has even passed into the language. Sexist remarks have become such a part of our daily vocabulary that we trot them out without even registering how offensive they are. When we want our sons to toughen up, we say, “Don’t be such a girl.” When we think someone isn’t facing up to a situation with sufficient grit, we ask him or her to ‘man up’.

And then there’s that old chestnut: “Oh for God’s sake, grow a pair!” Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to aim a well-directed kick at them instead.


pardeep k. gupta said...

Seema, are you worried or victim of such insinuations! You have quoted few men from India for scoring your point, but why these men. Are they important enough to talk about? Misogyny is a personal opinion of a man, it is a trait. Maybe of those who are not remained men. Fairer sex is always loved, adored and craved by men since the creation of universe. Married men can not do with other woman but unmarried having affairs can do is drawn by your one of the examples. Your comments indicates to opposite of Misogyny (whatever is called for hatred toward men by women). Individuals are different from one and another. You have given example of Monica Lewinsky to establish that women are not taken in good spirit. What about Sunny Leone in Indian context? In my opinion one pair above stomach is better than one pair below.

Karishma said...

Not just the writer has been a victim of the said insinuations, a lot of women have, like the masses of the rural women Yadav was addressing. At the end of the article, it is quite obvious that gender stereotypes are also an issue. Women as a whole haven't asked to be loved, adored and craved by men, that is an observation and at the same there are just as many, if not more, common behaviours that are actually very harmful and oppressive to women. At no point has said she hates men (misandry) but I think the point of the article was to draw on the sexist and patriarchal society we live in.