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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The concept of consent

The Donald Trumps in all our lives simply don't get it

Like everyone else on the planet, I have an opinion on the US election. And yes, you're right, if I had a vote, it would go to Hillary Clinton. Because, you know, the other guy is a sexist, misogynist, self-confessed serial groper.

We all knew this stuff about Donald Trump anyway. So why did every woman across the globe have such a visceral response to his words on that infamous Access Hollywood tape? Why did they send a shiver up our collective spine? Why did First Lady Michelle Obama confess that it shook her 'to my core'?

Why did all women take the Donald Trump tape so personally?

Well, because all of us have had a Donald Trump rub up against us -- quite literally -- at one time or another.

The truth is that if you are a woman - no matter what shape, size or colour you may be, or where in the world you grew up - you will have come up against a Donald Trump at some point in your life. Or even several Donald Trumps at different points in your life.

The uncle whose 'cuddles' always made you feel uncomfortable as a child but you couldn't figure out why until you were all grown up. The neighbour who regularly brushed up against you on the common stairwell and didn't even bother to look apologetic. The faceless man who felt you up on a crowded bus, his marauding hands all over your body. The boys who stood at the street corner to shout out loud comments about parts of your body and what they would like to do with them. The work colleague always 'accidentally' touching parts of your anatomy that should remain inviolate. The boss whose eyes undressed you every time you walked into his office.

We have all known these men, these Donald Trumps, who feel entitled to grab a woman, kiss her, molest her, objectify her, treat her like a piece of meat rather than a human being. Because even in the 21st century, the medieval, feudal concept of 'droit du seigneur' -- the right of powerful men to make free with a woman's body without her consent -- is still kicking ass and grabbing female genitalia with complete insouciance.

What that Donald Trump tape did was to bring back to all women every buried memory of being violated, of having their bodily integrity breached, of being treated with disrespect, of being reduced to a sex object, of having sexual assault 'normalized' in social discourse. That was why it felt so personal.

Small wonder then that it inspired such Twitter hashtags as #NotOkay started by Canadian author Kelly Oxford, who shared four stories of her own experiences with sexual assault and encouraged other women to speak up. In less than a week, Oxford tweeted later, 30 million people had read or contributed to the #NotOkay stories while a million women had shared their stories over the course of one night alone.

But for every woman sharing her story, there were probably ten others who remained silent about past assaults on their bodies. And there was another Twitter hashtag that explained why: #WhyWomenDontReport.

Not that any woman needed that explained to her. We know all the myriad reasons women don't report sexual assault all too well: because we are embarrassed, ashamed, afraid of creating waves, terrified of being disbelieved, and mortified at the thought of being known ever after as 'that girl'.

It seems so much easier to just brush it off as just another drawback of being a woman in a man's world, to shrug it away as one of those things that women have to 'deal' with and carry on with our lives. Because if you started complaining about every such event, you probably wouldn't have the time or energy to do much else.

The more important question is why men commit sexual assault. Why do they feel entitled to feast on our body parts? And why do believe that they can get away with it?

Well the short answer is because they can. And they do. Time and time again. And one of the reasons they get away with it again and again is that women are too ashamed, too humiliated, too traumatised to call them out on it.

And because they know that even if we do, we will not be believed but blamed. What were you doing there? What were you wearing? Did you lead him on? How much had you drunk? Why were you alone with him? How come you were out so late at night? Why are you speaking up now? Why didn't you complain at the time? Why didn't you try to fight him off?

Why? Why? Why?

The questions pile up until the accuser ends up feeling like the accused. And she starts to believe that she would have been better off if she'd just shut up and put up.

Well, you know what. It is time to tell her that that's #ItsOkay to speak up. And to listen hard when she does.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Face off

Why the unmasking of Elena Ferrante makes us all so uncomfortable

It was in the February of this year that I last wrote about Elena Ferrante. The English translations of her books were being launched in India, and it seemed as good an opportunity as any to write about one of my favourite authors.

The central theme of that column was how it helped that we didn’t know who Elena Ferrante actually was when we got lost in her fictional world. And how the author’s decision to hide behind pseudonymous anonymity was not just a writer’s caprice or a brilliant publicity stunt set up by her publishing house. Ferrante’s anonymity had a purpose: it allowed her the freedom to write about stuff that we struggle to acknowledge to ourselves, let alone say aloud to the world. And it was this liberty that allowed her voice to soar as high as it did; and to speak to the rest of us.

Well, today it is my unhappy duty to inform you that the veil of anonymity that Ferrante wrote behind has been rudely ripped apart by an ‘investigative journalist’ called Claudio Gatti, who discovered her true identity or, more accurately, invaded her fiercely-guarded privacy by rummaging through her financial and property records. And that he ‘outed’ the author in no less authoritative a journal than the New York Review of Books.

Well, be that as it may, I am not going to play Gatti’s game. I am not going to refer to the author of the Neopolitan Quartet of novels as anything other than her chosen nom de plume, Elena Ferrante. That is how she wishes to be known to the world. And it is not for us to decide otherwise.

Nor is it necessary to know the ‘real’ woman to appreciate what an enormously talented writer she is. That kind of autobiographical detail actually detracts rather than adds to an author’s mystique. The relationship between a writer and a reader is essentially one of imagination and a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Sordid reality plays no part in this social contract. If anything, it takes away from the reading experience rather than add to it.

So I, for one, am not going to enquire too closely into who Elena Ferrante ‘really’ is. I don’t want to know where she grew up. I don’t care about her romantic life. I am not interested in whether she is married, divorced or single. It doesn’t bother me if she identifies as straight, gay or bisexual. And I certainly don’t need to know whether her political beliefs verge to the hard right, the liberal centre, or the extreme left.

This is not a decision I make lightly. No, it is a decision born of bitter experience. Over the years, I have lost count of the number of authors whose books stopped speaking to me when I found out too much about their personal lives or even political beliefs.

It all began when I made the decision to study English literature in college. Once I had signed up, it was not enough to just read texts – poetry, prose or drama – and appreciate them for what they were. No, we also had to learn about the author’s, their lives, their beliefs, and all that had influenced them in the course of their literary careers.

Well, given that I was the bookish, nerdish type, I entered into the enterprise with all the enthusiasm at my command. I had no idea how badly this would go.

It began with T.S. Eliot, a poet I had always admired, some of whose passages constantly played in my mind like the lines of a much-loved song (“I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”). So you can imagine my despair when my research into the person led me, somewhat inevitably, to the discovery that he had been something of an anti-Semite.

I thought I would be okay with Philip Larkin, the writer of such immortal lines as “Sexual intercourse began in Nineteen Sixty-Three (which was rather late for me). Between the end of the “Chatterly” ban And the Beatles’ first LP”. And yes, it all seemed to be going rather well until the 1992 publication of The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin.

That’s when the essential banality of Larkin’s existence was laid bare, with its judicious mix of racism, classism, sexism and misogyny. Sample quote: “The lower-class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm.” Ah, quite.

Since then, I have steered clear of getting too up close and personal with writers I admire. But I thought I was on safe ground when I picked up a biography of one of my girlhood favourites, Georgette Heyer. This was a woman who had made her reputation with Regency Romances that I had read so often that I knew the punchlines and plotlines of each by heart. And what do you know? She turned out to be a fan of Enoch Powell (yes, he of the “rivers of blood” fame)!

So, thanks very much, but I am not taking any chances with Elena Ferrante. All I need to know about Ferrante, the author, lies within the covers of the many books she has written. Everything else belongs to the private person behind that name; and that person is entitled to her privacy, keeping it safe from the rapaciously prying eyes of the world.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Splitting image

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt provide us with the perfect example of how not to conduct a divorce

Remember the time when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin issued a joint statement on Paltrow's website, Goop, to say that they were 'consciously uncoupling'? Oh, how we laughed!

'Conscious uncoupling'? Seriously? Which asinine psychiatrist came up with this particular bit of psychobabble? And what on earth did it mean?

Well, in the 'uncouple's' own words it meant that though "in many ways we are closer than we have ever been" they had come to the conclusion that "while we love each other very much we will remain separate". And so while they would still co-parent their two children and remain a family, they had decided to end their romantic (and sexual) relationship. 

At the time  Paltrow did not know the originator of the phrase, American psychotherapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas, who would go on write a book with the same topic (Conscious Uncoupling; 5 Steps To Living Happily Even After), telling the world about her "proven process for lovingly completing a relationship that will leave you feeling whole and healed and at peace". According to Thomas, a divorce doesn't need to be a painful, bitter experience. Instead, we should treat it as an opportunity to turn our pain into "a catalyst for making a breakthrough in the way you show up in your life … and in your next relationship".

Nevertheless, Paltrow and Martin incorporated these lessons into their pre and post-divorce dealings. And as a result, they -- and their children -- have come through on the other side relatively unscathed. They still holiday as a family, they introduce each other to their new partners, hell, they even go together to award nights (Paltrow used one such occasion to praise Martin as the best dad ever). 

So, guess who's laughing now?

I was reminded of this as the car crash that is the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt breakup unfolded in front of a fascinated world. It was as if the two of them had taken cognizance of the principles of 'conscious uncoupling' and decided to behave in the exact opposite way.

First off, there was no joint statement. In fact, it wasn't even a joint decision. Jolie blindsided Pitt by filing an hour before the court was about to close (and after the glossies had closed their pages). Pitt had known that his marriage was in trouble, but was completely unaware that he was in for the chop so soon.

Jolie said in her statement that she had taken this painful decision for "the health of the family". Pitt countered by asking for privacy because this was a tough time for their kids, who were his first priority.

So far, so intriguing. 

Then came the leaks. Camp Jolie maintained that Pitt had a problem with alcohol, marijuana and anger issues. He had been abusive to his eldest son, Maddox, on a flight from France to America. He could not be trusted with the kids so Jolie was asking for sole physical custody. 

Camp Pitt insisted that Brad had just 'yelled' at his son. And he was cooperating with the authorities on the charges of child abuse, confident that he would be cleared. Once that happened, he would fight for joint custody. 

Meanwhile Jolie moved out of the marital home with all six kids into rented digs (which, it turned out, she had arranged long before the plane incident) and cut off all contact with Brad, blocking all his phone numbers and denying him access to their children. Amidst all this, there were suggestions tossed into the media that Pitt had cheated on Jolie with co-star Marion Cotillard (denied by all parties) and that Angeline herself was being 'consoled' by Johnny Depp. 

And before you could say 'pre-nup', the Jolie-Pitt divorce had turned into the stuff of tabloid dreams, a public spectacle that left the whole world gawping and gasping.

Needless to say, break-ups of lesser beings like us would not unduly trouble the world like this one did. But nonetheless, we can learn some lessons from the Jolie-Pitt divorce from hell:

* Keep private stuff private: When you are angry and hurt, you want to lash out at your partner. You want to tell the whole world how terrible he/she was and how miserable you were in the marriage. Well, take a deep breath and don't. If you can't do that, then keep your moaning within a circle of trust. The entire universe doesn't need to know your business.

* Don't use the children as pawns: No matter how much you loathe your spouse, don't let that hate percolate down to the kids. They need both parents in their life; they need to be able to love both their mother and father. Be sensitive to their needs. And never ever allow them to believe (as Maddox probably does) that the divorce is somehow their fault. They are probably blaming themselves anyway. Don't make it worse.

* Don't cut off all lines of communication: If you can't bear to talk directly, then communicate via a go-between whom both of you trust. Because just as you got into this marriage together, you have to negotiate the choppy waters of divorce together as well. And a modicum of civility will ensure that you come out whole on the other side.

* Take a leaf out of Paltrow and Martin's book and give 'conscious uncoupling' a chance. It's really not as daft as it sounds.