Beyond The Trope Of The Open Letter

Recently released film Pink is being hailed by critics and audiences alike as a brave, powerful and compelling ordeal of three single girls seeking justice, aided by lawyer Amitabh Bachchan. Barnamala Roy revisits the ‘emotional and empowering’ open letter Bachchan wrote to his granddaughters just a week before the film’s release.

Amitabh Bachchan’s open letter to his granddaughters Navya and Aradhya on Teachers’ Day, penned in the context of his recently released film, Pink has received the limelight of the nation’s attention. As usual, the nation is divided into the politically and socially naives going gaga over the presumed social message that the letter espouses and the more seasoned ones who are quickly locating the ironies in its content. Looking at the text of the letter, I cannot call it a social artefact that merits the debates it has inspired because it barely goes beyond expressing a sudden grandfatherly concern. It is not remarkable enough to pass the test of outraging a sensible audience with its wrong implications of feminism as promoted by Vogue’s My Choice video starring Deepika Padukone.

Except for one sentence where he thinks he is radically dismissing the length of the skirt as a parameter of judging women’s (in this case his granddaughters) character, the rest of the letter could well have been addressed to his grandsons in a hypothetical situation.

The multiple pieces of advice of turning a blind eye to ‘log kya kahenge’ or to get married exactly when the granddaughters wish to are barely gender-specific. What then is making the letter sentimentally palatable for that section of readers who are ready to interpret his concern as feministic, looking past obvious blunders like valorising the male lineage with reference to their family surnames – Nanda and Bachchan? Is it his romanticised position of the erstwhile ‘Angry Young Man’ of Indian cinema who is now sagely advising a younger generation of women to brave the world that is making the gesture so attractive?

It is quite common knowledge that an angry young woman, already stereotyped into the trope or ‘conceit’ of the angry feminist, as Barbara Tomlinson terms it in Beyond the Trope of the Angry Feminist, would already be outside the ambit of credibility required to voice similar sentiments in old age. Tomlinson refers to an instance when University of California’s decision to offer a graduate and doctoral program in Feminist Studies was disapproved by a radio talk show host (Dr. Laura) on the grounds that it would send “graduates off into their lives as angry, bitter, paranoid harridans who cannot imagine being in any way dependent on or respectful of men and masculinity.” Ironically, Dr. Laura is inciting anger against the angry feminists she is warning against.

Tomlinson traces the interpellation of antifeminism and mysoginy that repeating the clichéd trope of ‘angry feminists’ affect rhetorically by making feminists respond to the logic of the trope (in order to negate it) rather than challenging it.

Psychologists have talked about how men and women are conditioned to express and suppress anger respectively which goes quite far in gendering the emotion and determining its gender-specific validity.

Chimamanda Adichie’s TEDx speech on why we should all be feminists is noteworthy in this context in that it mentions two instances from her teenage and childhood. In the first, while arguing with someone Adichie considered her big (protective) brother in the locality, he suddenly labelled her as ‘feminist’ and he expressed it in a tone that is deployed to call someone a ‘terrorist’. Not only does the term ‘FemiNazi’ remain implicit here but the next instance she mentions fully elaborates the unease that has been continuing regarding the appointment of women to authoritative  positions because that might entail a show of rage to keep things ticking- an emotion which is supposedly uncharacteristic of  women and looks ungainly on them. Adichie never forgot the time when she was not considered eligible for the role of the class monitor she had aspired for as a child in spite of scoring the highest marks in the class test (the qualifier for the role). The position went to a docile boy (who had scored the second highest in the test) least interested in patrolling the class with a cane because it would heteronormatively suit him better.   Hence, we see that not a ‘Feminist Studies’ department but rather the curious logic of depriving a female student of a position which was legitimately hers irks the emergence of future femisists. Adichie, now,  calls herself a ‘happy’ and ‘African’ feminist because unhappy and un-African are the designated criterias that have been identified with feminism.

In tandem with the trope of rage and its gender-specific legitimacy, I am reminded of a instance in West Bengal from August 2015 when women passengers rallied to revoke a decision of the Chief Minister that involved allowing male passengers to travel in three compartments of the ‘Matribhoomi Express’ which previously ran exclusively for females. The repercussions of the women’s protests that led the Chief Minister to take into account their relative ease of travelling in a space free from male incursions and making it an only-women train again were brutal. As an article in The Caravan reports, the women were bewildered to see how their fellow male passengers who passed themselves off as ‘gentlemen’ needed just a trigger in the form of a (successful) women’s protests towards the State’s decision to turn into “a violent rabble of attackers… raring to assault them”. Not delving into the problematic of requiring separate spaces of movement for men and women in the 21st century for the time being, what I was appalled by is how women became the targets of gentlemen’s ire just because the State conceded to their demands.

Mr. Bachchan’s assumption of there being a big bad world out there from which the granddaughters need to be saved forms a kind of affectionately premonition that often does more harm than good and only consolidates the binarised notion of gender.


Firstly, it preconditions the girl child of her unescapable identity of the damsel-in-distress- awaring her of a powerlessness that is always already there and a world that needs to be negotiated rather than combated. This extends to the males calling themselves feminists who justify their necessity in a woman’s life by asserting themselves as safeguards against potential rapists since, they are powerless among rapists roaming loose. Their well-intention is informed by an awareness of physical superiority that immediately qualifies them better for protection and, if I may dare say, contains a tinge of condescension. Off the top of my head, I recall a song from a popular Bollywood hit, Salaam Namaste where the pregnant woman’s nightly food cravings necessitating a hunt for a food joint open at unholy hours demand she take her live-in-partner along. The film while attempting a portrayal of a sexually liberated society in terms of life choices, introduces the live-in partner (the male protagonist) as being averse to having the child and insisting on abortion, who is still bound by masculine ethics to accompany her on such nightime adventures lest she encounters a rapist faster than an icecream parlour. While it is undeniable that women are dispreviledged enough to require defence against potential dangers, I have never understood the lackadaisical attitude still prevalent in not training women (or women training themselves) adequately in tactics to defend themselves first.

This is not to suggest a denial of the support crucial for men to provide if we are to attempt the construction of a more equal society, but to deny surfeit physical strength as the crux of that support.

On more than one occasion, I have found male feminists quoting William Golding on Facebook: “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been.”  While I suspect this endowing of superiority to women by men with respect to the logic that even women often find it difficult to acknowledge any superior trait in other women (and men in men),the radical hatred or suspicion that certain women feminists internalise towards men and that male feminists replicate is also dicey.  If you refuse to participate in the brand of feminism that trains women in mistrust towards every male causing the reluctance in sharing a ride with men passengers as in the case of the Matribhoomi Express, your commitment to the feminist cause is more often than not deemed compromised, even by male feminists. I wonder about the origins of this normative rage against the male population ironically practiced by males themselves- is it a closet propensity to be as lowly as they seem to be but having the civility to not stoop that low out of internalising a better social upbringing that informs the rage? While this may sound vindictive in the sense that it slurs the motivations of certain male feminists,women sharing photos like a slice of pastry with a caption reading that women often find it (the cake) more attractive then men  is also deeply problematic. A recent tussel arose on social media when a male re-shared the aforementioned photo claiming that had the photo been shared by a man reversing the genders in the caption, women feminists would have cried foul at the patriarchal objectification of women implied in the act. The woman who shared the original photo under the impression that the sentiment it espouses is a radical independence from men through food that facilitates it, forms one among instances that is incriminating feminism. Subsumation of one’s (hetero)sexual desire being equated with the denial of men through food is another way of furthering the age-old patriarchal trope that expression of female sexuality is immodest. Men, quick to make a generalised attack on feminism on encountering faulty representations of it in public stunts like this, are not wary against what they are identifying or interpreting as feminist agenda and using as excuses to dissociate themselves from the cause of gender equality at large. Through these exemplary instances of feminism gone awry, the necessity of responsible statements regarding feminism on a public platform becomes undeniable and that is where Mr. Bachchan’s letter falls short of performing at par with expectations.

That his celebrity reputation of the erstwhile ‘Angry Young Man’ who fights social evils goes far in establishing the credibility of his statements in a letter that under-performs, is what  I have already tried to propose. In view of feminist activisms that remain publicity stunts that underperform, I am also reminded of the recent sanitary napkin protests undertaken by students across university campuses in India. While the messages on social napkins are gender-sensitising in that they try to normalise menstruation, the ambit of their activism which is restricted to educational institutions fails to solve practical purposes like the one I faced while growing up. Due to a negligence of sex education in school curricula, one of my cousins (and his gang of teenage friends) of my age believed that women used sanitary napkins to prevent rape. My self-appointed task of explaining the menstruation process to him as a teenager had been met with dissatisfaction from elders in the family once they came to know about it. His parents had been off-putting his questions regarding sanitary napkins (sparked by recurring advertisements of the same on television) on the grounds  that the demystification could happen (naturally) later.

At an age when girls start menstruating but boys are not considered mature enough to learn about the process is when the breeding ground of inequality is often formed.

While ad-s like ‘Touch the Pickle’ are celebrating women’s progress from debilitating superstitions, adequate means to route out the inequality are not being performed by social media campaigns or open letters or on-campus activism, keeping intact the gender-binary.

Barnamala Roy has recently completed her post graduation in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. Dismissed in turns as discursive, despondent and dreamy, her varied interests include films, philosophy, writing, translating, cooking and bird-watching.

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