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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Going by appearances

It might be tempting to sort women by stereotype but it’s far more rewarding to see them as three-dimensional beings

Last week, as I was wasting too much time on the Internet (as usual), I came across a small snippet about Zadie Smith. You know Zadie Smith, of course. She is the brilliant author who became something of a literary sensation with the publication of her first book, White Teeth, written while she was still at university (Cambridge; a considerable achievement for a mixed-race kid who grew up on a council estate).

Appearing on a radio show, Smith was quoted as condemning the media obsession with her ‘good looks’, and mentioning an Italian newspaper that had carried a letter saying that she “couldn’t possibly be a great writer” because she was too attractive. Said Smith, “It is a really misogynistic and fascinating thought. Because what it means is that if you are beautiful, then you have no need to be intelligent – it is a very sinister thought actually.”

And yet, it is an assumption that we make every day. And we make it mostly about women. If a woman is good looking then she couldn’t possibly be intelligent. If she is sexy then she can’t be clever. If she is beautiful then she must be dumb.

Such is the strength of this stereotype that an entire genre of jokes has been built up around the  ‘dumb blonde’ persona, because dumb, as we know, equals blonde, and vice versa. Sample: Two blondes are in a parking lot, trying to get their car door open with a coat hanger. One says to the other, “Hurry up! It’s beginning to rain and the top is down.”

In India, we don’t have blondes so we make do with making fun of women with blonde highlights instead. You know those glamour-obsessed bimbos who spend the entire day at the hairdressers to dress up their pretty little heads to disguise the fact that they don’t have a single thought in them? Yeah, those women!

But blonde-highlighted bimbos is the least of it. There is, in fact, a stereotype for every woman, an easy category to slot her in so that you don’t have to deal with the three-dimensional reality of her. And sadly, most of the time these value-judgements are made by other women (yes, I plead guilty on that count as well) who really should know better.

It starts from school when the swots are separated from the sporty sorts. In college, those who wear short dresses and have boyfriends are dismissed as ‘fast’ while those who wear salwar kameezes are sneered at as ‘behenjis’ (those who wear saris and have boyfriends are called ‘Slutty Savitris’).

Popular culture emphasizes these divisions even further. In Hindi movies, the woman who smokes and drinks is always the vamp, while the wholesome girl who does puja and touches the feet of her parents is the heroine. And no, you don’t have to go back to the 80s or the 90s for this stereotype. It is alive and well and making magic at the Bollywood box-office. Anyone who disagrees can just watch the DVD of a movie called Cocktail, in which Saif Ali Khan is happy to sleep with the ‘modern’ Deepika Padukone but falls in love with the ‘traditional’ Diana Penty and ends up marrying her, the ideal Bharatiya naari.

Ah yes, the traditional Indian woman. A woman only qualifies to this tag if she a) wears a sari b) has a bindi on and c) spends all her time worrying about her parents, husband, kids and extended family. Which perhaps explains why every woman who wears a sari and teams it with a bindi has to deal with the stereotype of being regarded as a ‘homely’ type (in the Indian sense of someone who is happy to play homemaker rather than the Western sense of being plain). This, even though women like Naina Lal Kidwai and Chanda Kochchar have proved that you don’t need to wear a business suit to kick ass in the financial world.

Over the years, I have come up against this stereotyping in my own life. Some years ago, I remember going out with some friends and saying that I wouldn’t eat because I fast on Mondays. The shock on their faces was palpable. “Fasting?” asked one finally, once he got his voice back. “I didn’t really see you as the religious type.”

The religious type? What is that exactly? Someone who wears saffron robes, puts on a big sandalwood tikka on her forehead, dons a rudraksh mala, and steers clear of make-up? Silly me, I really should have dressed the part!

But why blame my friends alone? We all make these snap judgements about women all the time. Acrylic nails with bright red polish? A bit common. Scruffy hair and no make-up? Well, it’s a toss-up between leftie and lesbian. Primly pinned-up sari with a cloth jhola? NGO type. Sparkling diamonds on both hands? Trophy wife. Tight dress and blonde highlights? Bimbo. Oh sorry, I think I said that already.

What accounts for this propensity to sort women by stereotype? Why this inability to see that a woman can take on more than one adjective? That she can be attractive as well as brainy; sexy as well as smart; have style as well as substance.

I have to confess that I am baffled. If you have any answers, do let me know.

1 comment:

abha said...

I sometimes feel that stereotypes are born from envy and insecurity. When we come across someone who has what we feel we lack, stereotyping and hence subtly insulting the other person becomes a coping mechanism and we reassure ourselves that we are better (whatever that is supposed to mean). If you are comfortable with who you are, you find little reason to judge others.