Bollywood and India Inc. are both awful at feminism

Just one of the boys.
Just one of the boys.
Image: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.
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It’s become a familiar story.

A Bollywood celebrity is asked if she identifies as feminist; she demurs, but adds that she’s all for equality between the sexes. And then her denial of feminism becomes the news, inspiring headlines and prompting much eye-rolling among urban Indians who do identify as feminist (myself included).

Last month it was the actress Tabu who said she liked the work of poet and women’s rights activist Maya Angelou but added that this “doesn’t make me a feminist though.”

“I don’t want to be called a feminist, but I don’t disown feminism,” she told the Hindustan Times newspaper.

In saying so, Tabu joined the ranks of some of the most popular female celebrities in India who have eschewed the feminist label, including Katrina Kaif, Parineeti Chopra, and Lisa Haydon (male celebrities are rarely, if ever, asked to comment on the topic, interestingly enough).

But what’s odd is that they’re doing so at a time when feminism has become the hottest buzzword in advertising across the country. With growing incomes and increasing exposure to progressive ideas, the rest of urban India is all too keen to proclaim its feminist credentials and big corporates have cottoned on to this. The result is a proliferation of well-made ads that sell soaps or jewellery with a side of empowerment, going viral in the process. And it’s because feminism and empowerment have become so popular that Bollywood stars are questioned about them in the first place.

So what’s going on? Why are some of the most influential Indian women rejecting feminism even as the word is becoming increasingly mainstream?

The deal with Bollywood

When female celebrities deny the feminist label, they’re immediately criticised for misunderstanding what the term stands for. But actually, their responses reveal some interesting truths about the complexities of being a woman in India, notably one with a very public platform, which suggest that they understand all too well the real implications of feminism.

“…Women actors walk the knife’s edge. They must be careful that their male colleagues do not see them as too judgemental, or unavailable to act out certain images and roles. They don’t want to alienate their ‘fans’ either,” feminist writer Annie Zaidi said in an email.

That’s because the popular presentation of feminism, in India and around the world, often excludes men from the equation, making it seem like the concept is inherently anti-male. Unsurprisingly then, it’s in these celebrities’ best interests to play it safe, avoiding a term that is misinterpreted and misunderstood by an important segment of movie-goers.

Perhaps that’s why the actress Parineeti Chopra, for instance, was prompted to disavow feminism last year, saying “I want girls to be treated the way men are…So, I do want to be a role model but not a feminist.”

“When you want to go out of your way to say you are not a feminist, even though your actions seem to be feminist, you’re also saying that you do not wish to upset the status quo,” Paromita Vohra, a feminist filmmaker and founder of the online sex education project Agents of Ishq, said. “That means you recognize that power really is patriarchal and you don’t want to be in opposition to that power.”

So when Bollywood celebrities avoid being called feminist they can maintain a vague pro-women stance without scaring away fans or committing too seriously to the cause. They’re strong, independent women, for the fans who like that sort of thing, and completely nonthreatening for those who don’t.

But the impact of their wishy-washy approach to women’s rights has serious consequences in an era of empowerment being sold to the masses.

Feminism for sale

In an advertising industry that has for long propagated antiquated stereotypes about women, the past few years have produced a surprising u-turn. From watches to washing machines, almost every product one could dream of has been given the “empowerment” treatment in India with ads that feature strong, independent women who make their own decisions.

Take the latest ad making the rounds online, produced for Tanishq’s Mia brand of workwear jewellery. The video shows a diverse selection of Indian women, from a young intern to a working mother, all thriving at the workplace despite the odds. These women occupy their rightful space at the office, working late, arguing with the boss, and getting drinks with the guys at night, all while wearing the brand’s range of earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

This ad and others like it are an attempt to reach out to the growing market of urban Indian women with cash to spend. These women are important because they make up a large part of India’s segment of young, relatively affluent consumers who, according to a recent report by Goldman Sachs (pdf), are the linchpin of the country’s growing consumer market.

And big corporates have figured this out. The global consumer giant Unilever, which sells Axe deodorants and Dove soaps, said in June that it would avoid sexist stereotypes in all its ads around the world. That paves the way for more targeted marketing, and avoids any backlash on social media.

Enter the beautifully-made, heart-warming and, most importantly, shareable ad with its easy-to-digest message that checks all the ostensibly feminist boxes. Before Tanishq Mia there was Dove’s #ChooseBeautiful approach and Vogue India’s Empower video starring Deepika Padukone.

According to Agents of Ishq’s Vohra, feminism has now become a “branding idea.”

Diluting the message

That’s a problem because many of these ads confuse the personal advancement of women, via their ability to buy themselves nice things, for their social advancement across castes and classes. And that’s a big deviation from the original, and more relevant, goal of feminism in India, which was to uplift women across the board, fighting the socio-economic framework that keeps them down.

Indeed, a lot of women’s rights activists argue that the term feminist has been diluted in recent years, evolving into a simplistic pop culture fetish that leaves behind all the important and complex history associated with the women’s rights movement.

“I think ‘feminist’ is starting to be used in a more relaxed (and more careless) way. There is more acceptance for the word among women and men. But there is also a gap between avowed principles and practices,” Zaidi said.

That’s the thing: with all these conflicting messages of what feminism is and what it’s for, with Bollywood stars denying it and corporates co-opting it, it’s easy to believe that calling yourself a feminist is enough. But living a truly feminist life requires so much more.

Some of India’s urban women may have made great strides (at least in economic terms) but that’s not the case for all Indian women, notably those from lower castes and tribal women who struggle with deadly violence on a regular basis.

These issues, along with India’s low female labour force participation and alarming rate of female foeticide, won’t go away so easily; they require a lot of work. As Vohra puts it, what’s needed is a radical re-imagination of the world, with spaces created for Indian women from all walks of life to thrive.

“Just because you call yourself a feminist doesn’t mean that everything you do is automatically feminist,” Vohra said.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.