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What’re your weekend plans?

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Keep your weekend free. This Sunday, I’m getting myself a copy of the New York Times’s special issue. Yup, after nearly four years of being increasingly distrustful, disappointed, disillusioned and disgusted with the NYT, I’m actually recommending to everyone that they buy and read this issue, because of the most heart-warming, well-researched articles they’ve put out in a long, long time.

The Women’s Crusade
Nicholas Kristoff talks about the ‘alchemy of gender’ in a deliciously long article, excerpted from his and Sheryl WuDunn’s book. I was alternately in tears and alternately giggling with excitement and nodding in vehement agreement through the story (but it could just be undiagnosed bipolar :-))

A New Gender Agenda
An interview with Hillary Clinton (swoon already), but I’m shocked at how much and how often she references India. It’s clear she’s actually one of the rare Westerners who can wrap their heads around the fact that one nation can be both more liberal and more conservative vs. another at the same time; that progressiveness is not a one-dimensional continuum. She gets that India is, in many ways, a model of development for the West and desh seems to be as top of mind for her as it is to me. And most effectively of all, she’s understood that advocating to the rest of the developing world (argh, I hate that term) that development = American values will not get them or her too far, that she needs to use someone else, someone closer to the developing world as an example – therefore the frequent references to Indian democracy in Nigeria, and to Liberian elections in Congo. Wish someone would smash some of her wisdom into Aaron Sorkin’s pathetic little brain sometime.

And hey, I’m suddenly more respectful of journalists again. Who knew.

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Maharani Gayatri Devi

July 29, 2009 Leave a comment

What is it with these iconic Indian women – that makes three of them about whose exciting lives and activities I last heard in college about 10 years ago in dusty books in the Miranda House library, about whom there were mysterious references thrown around in conversations between my mother and her parents, three women who were always for me, part of the hazy past, the paradoxical and confusing 60’s, all now gone.

She passed away yesterday, and was hardly in my mind a feminist icon, though definitely a strong female aspirational figure. The one thing I did always know about her was that she was once accepted by Vogue, that bastion of strict stereotypes of female anatomical acceptability, as being one of the ten most beautiful women in the world. Oh, and that she was the brand ambassador for a diamond jewelry brand, and that caused a big debate on whether celebrity endorsements have gone too far, too cheap.

But, like Princess Diana, or Grace Kelly, or Marilyn Monroe, or Aishwarya Rai, she has the irresistible appeal of someone who ‘s young, beautiful, intelligent, connected, royal and unattainable. These women all hew so close to What Constitutes GlamorTM, and do so well per the unfair standards imposed on them that they’re celebrated so much more than any ordinary achievers who didn’t have to confirm to such standards.

So I went and did some research, and discovered six kewl things about the late Maharani Gayatri Devi:

  1. She had a governess named Miss Oliphant (ha! beat that, Kipling, or Saki)
  2. She helped set up one of the oldest girls’ schools in Rajasthan. While I think that sex segregation in schools is actually not good for equality, sometimes that is the sweeter pill for orthodox cultures to swallow: the first step to getting girls an education. And I know from my experience in a girls-only institution that once you take the boys out of the picture, the excuses used to keep women away from physically intensive and stereotype-challenging activities (e.g. leadership of various student councils, sports, public speaking, mechanical/mathematical contests, even lifting heavy objects, like desks and tables) mysteriously melt away. So, thanks, Maharani.
  3. She drank (alcohol) and played sports, both openly and publicly, and was good at tennis and riding: “Apart from tennis, she was an expert rider herself and both husband and wife greatly encouraged young polo players”
  4. She and that other legendary post-Independence royalty, Gwalior Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia, had a lot in common, – both of them were members of non-Congress parties (like most Indian royals, really) and they held elected office. Their power was not necessarily derived from the powerful men they married or gave birth to or were fathered by – their power was derived from exactly the same source that all political power in India has been derived from – class, wealth, income, education, caste, royalty, and an existing powerful family structure or genes (could be maternal or paternal).
  5. Gayatri Devi’s mother, Maharani Indira Devi of Baroda, was a regular Princess Kickbutt herself. She was supposed to marry the Maharaja Madhavrao Scindia of Gwalior in 1910 (she was eighteen, he was forty). She didn’t want to marry him, but it was an arranaged marriage she couldn’t get out of. So she sent him a secret letter explaining her position – this by itself was really bold, but she stood her ground and Scindia graciously called the marriage off (why hasn’t this been made into a kickass Hindi movie again?). And then she had a roaring clandestine affair with the Prince from CoochBehar and married him a couple of years later. Now the sordid wedding-scandal could’ve affected relations between Baroda/CoochBehar and Gwalior, but the women held it together.
  6. She not just held elected office, she was a regular ultra-achiever there as well: she was “the woman with most staggering majority that anyone has ever earned in an election.” Contrast this with Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, who received barely 5% of the vote in a two-way contest in Haryana.

This is exactly the paradoxical nature of things in desh, especially of social change movements, that P and I were talking about the other day. For instance, Rakhi Ka Swayamvar and our (my) obsessive interest in it: it could and does stand for the cheesy, cheerful oppressive triteness of reality shows everywhere – for gender stereotypes, for bad fashion choices, for drastic invasion of privacy, for utter Lowest Common Denominator dialogues – which it does, but it’s such a breath of feminism still! (Rakhi deserves a whole ‘nother post – she’s getting to be a fascinating, intriguing character after all). For another instance, see this: “In Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, 40 former rulers decided to fight with modern methods: they formed what was, in effect, a trade union to battle for their rights”. I fear sometimes that I’m totally forgetting how to grasp complex ideas by staying out here in the Wild West.

Anyway, I’m revising my opinions of the Maharani as just a pretty & privileged lady – I’m so off to read this woman’s autobiography.

Why the furore?

April 15, 2009 Leave a comment

So, yes, along with the rest of the entire planet, I’ve seen Susan Boyle’s performance in BGT 09 here. Go look already if you’ve been living under a rock.

I saw the video myself, and I have to be the only one human being who wasn’t shocked or totally shaken by the performance (there! I said it!). I liked her voice and loved how she sang that particular song, no doubt the performance was great. But nothing before she started singing had led me to believe that she would or would not be good. Unlike the audience there, and the judges (especially Piers), who seemed to expect her to fail – doing what, exactly? screeching? fubbing her lines? falling on her face? what??!!!?

Of all the various critiques and analyses I’ve read and seen, this one at Kate Harding’s by fillyjonk is what I recommend to crystallize half the world’s thoughts (the other half can’t articulate why they like the video). (S)he says in the above link:

In a culture that values youth, wealth, and carefully-maintained femininity, this woman is like a cheat sheet for “don’t take me seriously” signifiers. She’s over 40, she’s ungroomed, she’s on the fat side, and her accent denotes low class. As it turns out, she also has learning disabilities and has never been on a date. She flies in the face of what we expect out of a performer and what we, as a culture, esteem in a woman. The judges respond accordingly: they snigger and mock, and her confident posturing just makes her (in their eyes) more ridiculous, more dissonant. Dissonant because confidence and sass don’t compute from a woman who falls so short of the ideal.

So that was it – unlike everyone there in the video and outside who’d been writing about the performance, for me her doing well was no surprise, no big shock, no re-thinking of mental frames. I should give myself credit for this – not wonder what’s wrong – for not taking those external ‘signifiers’ so seriously. It should – and does – bring me pride in my judgment all over again (e.g. in not thinking Hillary was cold-hearted and conventional and even evil and would eat live puppies because she was old or short or ugly).

This incident reminds me of the time in our college physics lab when I had a surreal – and unintendedly honest – discussion with a friend about how I had no idea how to evaluate beauty: I didn’t understand what I was supposed to find pretty and what not. And she asked me, a bit disingeniously, “you don’t see any difference in me and Gauri ?”(Gauri was a not-conventionally good-looking classmate of ours, dark and scrawny and buck-toothed). I said – I know you’re pretty because you’re popular, because of the way the canteen guy looks at you when you walk by, by how strangers smile at you, and with Gauri, all of that is different. And that was true, I knew Gauri was smarter than her but badly lacking in self-confidence. I knew enough about beauty by then to know that the low self-confidence was probably a result of her not being pretty – and it also exacerbated the problem, because low confidence helps a beautiful girl be more accessible, but makes the ugly ones looks even less like they’re ‘worth it’. And I was beginning to personally discover how being full of gumption and charm and being well-spoken and bold and being groomed but also blasé about your looks can make up for not having any (and so’ve Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant, evidently in very different ways from me).

So, back to my friend – she was shocked, and repeated, “so you can’t tell the difference between Aishwarya Rai and KSG” (KSG was a professor of ours, who wasn’t supposed to be very pretty – and that’s putting it mildly). This time I said “I know KSG is a bad teacher and not smart or really competent, but that’s my quibble with her as a person, not because of the way she looks”. My frank admission then became a big discussion point for a long, long time and led to many, many sessions of ‘leg-pulling’ over warm winter chai discussions in the Hostel too. I believe it even found its way into my scrapbook at the end of college days. But no one really believed me then, and some parts of me didn’t believe myself either: I was smart enough to subconsciously pick up on who was conventionally good-looking and who wasn’t, because the non-beauty metrics (e.g. popularity, confidence, preening, clothes, etc.) are such good indicators of beauty and self-image of beauty in our world. I’d trained myself by then in life to quickly read everyone’s signals and analyses, and even if I didn’t have any bias I sure acted like I did. In other words – at the same time that I was learning what clothes to wear and how to behave so I could fake being pretty, I was also learning how to behave I could fake my knowledge of what “pretty” was.

Susan Boyle’s video brought me back these memories, and my pride in my own judgment. Even thirty-odd years on, evidently, my knowledge is still fake, I’m still pretending :-). I’ve not internalized expectations and stereotypes, and so, like everyone else is saying, I can say “Susan Boyle has given me pride in myself” – for entirely different reasons, and mean it.

Thanks, Susan!

Wonder Woman! Woot!

April 13, 2009 Leave a comment

So, on a lark, P pointed me to the Wonder Woman DVD at Blockbuster last week, and we watchd the movie today, simply because we wanted the next one in quickly. I speak for both of us when I say we LOVED, LOVED the movie.

And P is impressed by Keri Russell too – but I found her interviewing (here, go to ‘NEWS’) kind of hesitant. It’s the same irritating “oh, I know I did something that could be construed as feminist/strong, but – hahaha – hey dont hold it against me! I didn’t really *giggle* mean it, y’know!“. What’s with all these women?

On the contrary, the interview with Virginia Madsen (same location: here, go to ‘NEWS’) reads like a yummy bowl of the most wholesome wholemilk chocolate ice-cream ever. See what she has to say:

QUESTION: Did you prepare for voicing the Queen of the Amazons in any special way?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: Well, I prepared this morning by writing several edicts for my son (laughs). Honestly, I love when I get to play these characters that are bigger than life. There are roles in animation that I never get to do in real life and it appeals to my ego as an actor to play the Queen of Everything (laughs) Hey, I’m honest. I admit it.

VIRGINIA MADSEN: This is a blockbuster voice cast – any thoughts on your co-stars?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: Actually, Marg Helgenberger and I were waitresses in the same restaurant in Evanston, Illinois. I’m happy to say that that restaurant has since been torn down. But Marg made it out first. We both had an audition for ABC soaps different soaps, but we auditioned at the same time, and she got the part and went off to New York. Three years later, I went to L.A. So she was kind of an inspiration to me. And it makes sense that we will both be in Wonder Woman together, because we ARE Wonder Women (laughs).

QUESTION: Is there a comic book role that your inner geek covets?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: Sadly, I really want to be Batman … and I just never will be (laughs). That’s the cross I bear. When I was growing up, the really, really cool super heroes were all male so I wanted to be them. I really didn’t like Batgirl. I was like, ‘No, if I’m not gonna be Batman, I’m not gonna play.’ Maybe they could write an evil female super villain who takes over Batman, and nobody knows. Then I could live my dream (laughs). I think that’s a good idea.

[all bolding mine, all symbols and punctuation mine]

I think that’s a great idea too, Madsen! And kudos for not settling for a side girl role. May “they” write greater and better women roles for women like you to play and for people like us to watch and fall in love with.

This movie may not yet pass the Ultimate Heroine Test, but we at least have one (B) of three qualifications met:

A movie with a strong leading woman character:

A) Whose sex life the audience is not made aware of, either its details or the fact of its existence.
B) Who is not, or has not, and will not be sexually assaulted during the narrative.
C) Who does not have a makeover.

And this is my live blog of the movie [Spoilers possibly ahead – but you’ll first need to make sense out of my notes, har har har]:
_____________
W.O.W. the origin story is simply F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C. I’m drooling at the richness of all this. It’ll take me DAYS of reading Bullfinch to unpack all of this.

why did the GUY pilot have to go onto the island? I was hoping for the black woman ‘rook’. But yay for pilots! (After doing my first stall and my first landing and my first take off today, I feel like I’m already Amelia Earhart! :-))

ummm.. with all this discussion of what to do about the stupid pilot and the outside world – even THIS movie would fail the Bedchel test!!!

wolf whistles, ‘hot chick’ – why do the Amazons allow that? And is it really something to be brushed off?

ok, I get the silly stars and stripes – but why did Diana have to wear a bikini? Thats not even remotely like what the Amazonians were/are all wearing.

And why’s PErsephone the betrayer? Because women cannot be trusted, as always? Not good.

I liked how Diana’s mom said, because men are untrustworthy….

Great move on the Etta scene, where this colleague of Steves pretends to not be able to find her pen. But it’s WONDER WOMAN being independant – so its eas to externalize.

Aha. WW actually explains the patriarchy. 🙂 Awesome stuff.

Again, is ‘hot chick’ really something to be brushed off?

WW is a great role model too – she teaches small girls to defend themselves. Poor little girl, she doesnt know that even if she’s a zillion times better at the sword fight than the boys they wont let her play or win. Ask Hillary Clinton.

WW does NOT GET DRUNK!! WOOT!

This stupid pilot just sexualizes everything – every fight she wins. Is he trying to do a James Bond? And it’s a-okay – is he giving the audience permission to do so as well?

The street fight – wow. Simply awesome. Ten thousand leagues above the morass of the Watchmen street fight.

She pokes Deimos in the eye with a red stiletto. Umm, cute, but cliched. Anyway.

if only it was TWO girls fighting in the greek underworld, not Steve and Diana!

Is Ares is going to kill persephone? The sacrifice is like Voldemort’s attempt in the Goblet of Fire?
and Ares brought the statues to life – like in the Mummy. Which one thought of it first? Oh, maybe it was the Chinese a thousand years ago, with their Terra-cotta army….

So a simple stupid PILOT saves Wonder Woman from the talons of the eagle? AAARRGGGHHHH.This is Wybie all over again. I CANT WATCH!!!

she gives it back in the Ospedal. His first duty was not to save her, bt do her bidding. Men…………

At the footsteps of the Whitehouse, the battle begins.

Again Steve rescues her? Oh no, that was an arrow shot by *drumroll* THE AAAMAZOOONS!!!! YAY!

Oh, Ares can make Inferi…and like the Pirates in the Caribeean, they cant be killed. Every loss is doubled on the Amazonian side! Sister kills sister. Oh no. Oh no!

Ah, the inferi shake off their control with quick thinking by Artemis and Alexa. Oh good, so book knowledge is sometimes important too. Who were all those people criticizing WW for being yet another comic that glorifies violence – there’s a bone for ya!

Steve saves Atlantis….I kinda don’t mind at this point really. Wonder why :-).

Persephone ruins it for me by saying ‘we may be warriors, but we are women too – we need families and children’. What, and men don’t? It’s a false dichotomy, lady.

PERFECT – WW beat Ares with SCIENCE!! Though the fact that electricity is conducted in water should be basic…it’s surprising how less often media and fiction shows even this basic level of science. So TRIPLE YAY!

P: And she beats him fair and square. No black magic or sudden ‘out’s….

“I can lift cars, Steve – I can lift car door handles!” 🙂 oh, but she needs to apologize and keep his ego – and societal norms – in place? w.t.f.

Call if you’re going to be late, he says. Har har har .

Hey, when’s the next WW movie coming out?

Which feminist icon are you?

March 9, 2009 Leave a comment

You are Judith Butler! Your postmodern queer theory has shaken up people’s ideas of gender, sexuality, and sex. Your work has blurred lines between what it means to be a womyn and what it means to be a man. Queens and transbois all over the world worship your Birkenstocks!

Go here to take the test. Happy Women’s Day!

Anita Brookner

February 27, 2009 Leave a comment

I find myself falling in love with Anita Brookner after reading this interview of her. It’s unnerving to see how perfectly unhappy women can be, how perfectly unconventional, if they only let themselves be. It’s rare to see a woman so outside the pale of ‘normal human lifestage’, but her life and lifestyle are just a Disney cartoon version of every 80-year old woman’s.

I’m going to go buy myself one of her books now. On my new Kindle 2!!

Categories: literature, pride, sisterhood

Luck by Chance

February 2, 2009 Leave a comment

Can I say I totally {heart} Zoya and Farhan and the whole Akhtar khandaan? I’m not usually in favor of family dynasties, though I’m not against them on principle either – but these guys simply rock. Zoya, it seems, has the same self-awareness and humor and ‘light touch’ that her brother has, combined with the potential for tapping into the zeitgeist that they share with their parents, but she’s also so much more down-to-earth and edgy than Farhan seems to be – to add to all of that, she’s a girlllll!! Awwww. Zoya, just don’t be an Obambi-fan, please?

Luck by Chance is another one in the whole new genre of ‘meta’ Hindi movies: movies about the Industry, replete with in jokes, references, actors playing themselves, snippets of gossip thrown in for a Bollywood-crazy audience and a guessing game of which real-life actor/producer/director each character is based on. These movies are smart about succeeding – the economics of the industry require that a big budget movie be seen by a vast number of people (since the margins are so thin most places). Which means both the multiplex/urban/young/educated/upper income class/white collar audience on the one side, as well as the single theatre/rural/less educated/lower income class/blue collar audience on the other side, have to both watch a big-budget movie. One way to do that is with big stars. Another way is to make sure the story has something for each group. The meta movies poke fun at the typical masala elements, and for doing so they need to depict typical masala elements – so they satisfy both their audiences [Much like rape scenes used to in the 70s and the 80s – those scenes helped titillate the pathetic losers who wanted to watch them, while also showing the villain doing the rape and then being punished eventually, hence satisfying the very same audience’s need for moral propriety and ‘order’ in the universe].

The difference is, unlike, say, Om Shanti Om, Luck by Chance has an actual story as well, and one that’s not too filmi or predictable or boring. Zoya manages to make the movie so chock-full of amazing moments that often you need to stop mid-reaction so you don’t miss watching the next moment. She assumes her audience is intelligent and can get subtle reactions without being spoon-fed (watch how Farhan’s character Vikram quietly adjusts his glares when Nikki walia (Isha Sharvani) is being chewed out by her mother (Dimple Kapadia) for her puffy eyes after a night-long surreptitious tryst in Vikram’s room). In a quirky twist, the character introduction of Sona (Konkana Sen Sharma) actually occurs in a monologue right at the end – not sure if this was forced by convenience/time, but this twist suddenly wenches the protagonist’s hat from Vikram and puts it firmly on Sona’s head. That’s when you realize that Zoya’s moved you and your emotions so far away from where they were three hours ago, and you’re rooting for Sona Misra, the naive, likable and ambitious small-town girl – not necessarily for the charming Vikram.

I wonder why, in a story that’s such an ode to the ‘outsider’ in an incestuous Bollywood that often ignores the millions of wannabes knocking on its doors, every character and every key actor Zoya chose, is ironically part of a ‘big Bollywood family’. The movie is written & directed by Zoya, the hero is Farhan, both children of Javed Akhtar, Konkana is Aparna Sen’s daughter, Rishi Kapoor is part of the Kapoor khandaan, Hrithik’s dad was an actor/director/producer and his uncle is a music director. The heartbreaking competition and the desperation she knows to be true, she shows in the song Sapnon se Bhare Naina – when hundreds of young men enthusiastically and desperately audition for a role they know nothing about, for work that hasn’t been negotiated, for a character they haven’t been told anything about, for pay they’re not even sure they’re going to receive. One man says he’s done one commercial in two years, his voice breaking. Another wants to do-over his audition so he can do better. A third haltingly asks Farhan to help him fill his forms in English, his voice low with embarrassment. It’s impressive that the film has such deep sensitivity and is so rooted to the ‘real world’ – it’s doubly impressive that every character has more depth than the usual single-note cartoons we usually get to see, but the best part is, the movie’s such a riot. As Ranjit Rolly (Sanjeev Kapoor) says, the movie moves from highlight to highlight – and makes it good.

Update:

Oh, and other things I noticed only on the third or so viewing:

  • It’s awesome that there’s a girl behind the camera in the picture-within-a-picture. Not for the actual movie, but for the second-round audition that Farhan does with Isha.
  • The songs are really, really terribly choreographed/picturized. Really. The romantic song, that I can’t stop listening to, is unbearably boring. And the other song, with Konkana waking up heroine-style, is not as bad as I thought it was when I’d first seen it.