Several women (particularly celebrities) in positions of power and influence have refused to identify as feminists in the past few years of internet journalism, which makes our favourite stars’ personal, political and social lives as easily and widely accessible as cycle rickshaws in Chandni Chowk .
As the first season of the hit TV series Quantico began to gather steam, the star of the show Priyanka Chopra went on to say she didn’t think it was a feminist show, but it portrayed women in independent and powerful ways. In her defense, she did later change her stand on the matter and claimed to be a feminist herself. Parineeti Chopra, a Bollywood actor and Priyanka Chopra’s cousin too has gone on record saying she doesn’t think of herself as a feminist, like several others. While this cringe worthy understanding of feminism by women who now receive the many benefits of feminist struggles that went on before them has got some much needed critique, there are more nuanced reasons for which some celebrities like to stay away from the term.
For Maisie Williams, known for her brilliant performance as Arya in the Game of Thrones TV series, ‘’You are either a normal person or a sexist.’’ Kangana Ranaut, who I can watch over and over in the film Queen, told Barkha Dutt in an interview that she would like to be called a feminist, but she doesn’t think she has done enough to deserve the ‘title’.
Yet there are other celebrity women (see the entire cast of the film Suffragette, including the legendary Meryl Streep) who completely embrace the term, but their idea of feminism itself excludes women who are not white and perhaps even from a particular socio-economic background.
And then there are men. Strangely, in our era of internet journalism, bloggers and journalists (especially in India) don’t even ask male celebrities if they’re feminists like how they ask women celebrities, which makes it – subconsciously and by default – a ‘women’s issue’. Most of the men in my life are respectful, loving and treat me like a human being, and yet I’ve heard very few of them publicly state that they’re feminists. At the same time, I’ve seen men call themselves feminists or ‘allies’ without checking their privilege, much like the poster boy of male feminist allies Justin Trudeau, who has quickly and very intelligently realised that calling himself a feminist makes him very popular (and sexy) among liberal women; who probably will forgive him for his pro-Israel stance and not give a thought to what his politics is doing to the women of Palestine. There are countless men (probably worse than Trudeau) who truly believe themselves to be feminist allies without taking a second to reflect on their male privilege, but are aware of the fact that the term makes them popular among women who identify as feminists.
Chetan Bhagat is my favourite new addition to this club. Having written what he believes is a ‘feminist’ novel and having made feminism ‘accessible’ to masses of women in India by writing in first person as a woman, he believes his latest book ‘One Indian Girl’ makes him the ‘thinking woman’s sex symbol’. Bhagat’s belief that there is no sexism at Goldman Sachs (a multinational finance company), or his distinction between feminists (him) and ‘ultra-feminists’ (probably me) or his entire understanding of ‘one Indian girl’s’ psyche as under confident and in need for constant validation, makes me want to send him a few books on an introduction to feminist theory.
But it also makes me aware of the biases we hold as feminists, especially about who is and who is not ‘worthy’ of using the term. On one hand, we want more and more women who shy away from calling themselves feminists to understand that the reason they are powerful today is because of the feminist movement. On the other, people like Chetan Bhagat calling themselves feminists disturbs us tremendously. We tell Bhagat that he is not a feminist, and we tell Priyanka Chopra that she is a feminist. Much like the patriarchy we are trying to break, we dictate choices to people. We leave no space for shades of grey. Even our idea of intersectional feminism only intersects at the crossroads we deem fit.
Much as I want to send ‘Get Well Soon’ flowers to Chetan Bhagat and the likes of him, I have to find it in myself to stand by his decision to embrace the term ‘feminist’. I must find it in myself to welcome him to the movement I call my own, to share my perspective of feminism with him (even if he acts like how he did in that annoying interview with The Wire’s Nehmat Kaur). I must find it in myself to let people decide what feminism is to them, even if it isn’t my feminism. I must find it in myself to accept the men who call themselves feminists only to be ‘thinking women’s sex symbols’ and hope that dialogue and discussion within the feminist movement can show them how patriarchy affects them adversely as well.
At the same time (and probably with far greater difficulty), I must find it in myself to accept the sentence ‘I’m not a feminist’. Because it takes a feminist to respect choice. Even if it’s a choice dictated by patriarchy (because all choices are dictated by it in some way or the other). Even if it’s a choice I wouldn’t make myself.