By Prerna Grewal
Remember the Airtel advertisement that came out a while ago and faced criticism on the grounds of encouraging male and female stereotypes? The ad begins in an office where the wife is also the boss of the husband (no pun intended). As the boss, she leaves no stone unturned in overburdening her employee/husband with work. At the end of the day, however, her role as the wife takes over and all she wants is to spend some quality time with him. She goes home, cooks a lavish dinner and makes a video call, urging him to return home early.
One’s first reaction on seeing the advertisement would probably be a smile.Surprisingly, however, the advertisement has often been criticized as not being in sync with the spirit of feminism. Did feminists who found the advertisement problematic have issues with the depiction of a woman trying to strike a balance between professional/work and personal/domestic life?
Feminist or anti-Feminist?
A woman trying to strike a balance between professional and personal life isn’t necessarily doing it out of compulsion. Sometimes she might be doing something simply because she wants to. She cooks and waits for her husband to return so that they can enjoy the dinner together. She does not do it out of a sense of it being the “duty of the wife”. In the ad she perhaps isn’t even conscious of the fact that she’s striking a balance.
Earlier in this article, when the word role was used along with wife, it didn’t imply adherence to a specific set of rules that comprise being “the wife”. The word “role” could have been avoided altogether. But its usage is deliberate with the intention of justify its appropriation. At times, it becomes essential to drive home the point that not everything involves adherence to stereotypes
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” – Simone De Beauvoir
What Beauvoir in her work referred to was the passive, receptive attitude that women are forced to internalize since childhood. She highlighted how their compliance was as responsible for thrusting “femininity” upon them as the patriarchal society.
According to Beauvoir, “To be feminine is to show oneself as weak, futile, passive, and docile”.
This definition of “being feminine” has been consciously molded by patriarchy through history. Beauvoir’s definition, therefore, comes both in acknowledgement of and in resistance to this fact. Today, women, by exercising their freedom and striving towards new heights are constantly enhancing upon this definition of feminism and adding to Beauvoir’s resistance.
In the advertisement, the woman is not just restricted to the role of a nurturer that Simone De Beauvoir traces in her book. The paradigms of becoming a woman today are changing and these changes also find manifestations in this ad.
Simone De Beauvoir is often referred to as one of the pillars of feminism who inspired generations. Contemporary feminists must continue the tradition but must also know where to draw a line. They must criticize but those subjects and situations which demand criticism. It will only validate the necessity and authenticity of the school of feminism.
Contradictions within feminism
At the Jaipur literary festival this year, a panel comprising of various eminent female authors highlighted how when women write about politics intertwined with romance, the work is usually deemed as a romance novel but the same isn’t true of a man writing in a similar way. This is a valid situation for feminists to analyze and comment upon.
Though the paradigms of becoming a woman are changing, these changes are gradual and far from being universal across all sections of society. It is therefore worth considering if the school of feminism is driven by the educated elite. While feminists take no time in creating a hype regarding issues concerned with the urban educated elite, how often do they discuss issues related to people not belonging to this class? Why don’t feminists generate a similar hype regarding the woman who comes to cook in the house of the educated elite? Isn’t she striving to strike a balance between her domestic and work life?
As opposed to the woman in the advertisement, do women belonging to sections other than the urban educated elite enjoy a similar privilege of not adhering to patriarchal dictates? For most, the question of performing out of compulsion or desire doesn’t exist at all. They aren’t conscious of an alternate choice. Shouldn’t one at least strive to make them conscious of this choice rather than generating unnecessary hype?
Even on a global level, Feminism has faced accusation of ignoring the plight of colored and non- Western women. Feminism therefore definitely began as an elitist school of thought. It’s only now that the scenario might be changing. But this change is still under progress.
The employee/ husband in the ad doesn’t display any discomfort or ego clash with the fact that his wife is his boss who gets to go home while he has to work overtime. Do all women, even those other than the urban educated elite witness a similar attitude and understanding by their husbands? For most cases, the answer lies in the negative.
Balancing the scales
Further, What if there was an ad that showed a man striking a similar balance? Again, not out of compulsion but because he wants to. Would feminists have indulged in over interpretation in that case?
If feminism is about equal rights and opportunities for both men and women then how many times does it address cases where men are being dominated over by women, by society, by patriarchal notions of masculinity and forced to adhere to ways of living that they don’t prefer? And in this case, is the name feminism in itself problematic? Or is it just about equal rights for women in context of men?
It is perhaps because of this and the tendency of certain feminists often going overboard that some people refrain from referring to themselves as feminists. This is probably what the Fault in Our Stars actress Shailene Woodley meant when she denied being a feminist. “I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance”. At the same time, it is important to remember that hesitation to use the term ‘feminist’ does not always mean a rejection of everything that the term signifies. Sarojini Naidu refrained from the tag of a feminist but contributed significantly to women’s progression.