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Updated: July 31, 2010 17:10 IST

In search of new identities

RAJ GANDHI
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Triumphant foray into male terrain? Bigelow at the Oscars this year. Photo: AP
AP Triumphant foray into male terrain? Bigelow at the Oscars this year. Photo: AP

In our passage to a more gender-equitable society, we need to re-examine the roles that we often slip into unwittingly…

Shattering an 82-year-old glass ceiling at this year's Oscar ceremony, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the award for Best Director. In addition to breaking into what had so far been an exclusively male club, it is perhaps worth noting that the cinematic terrain explored by her film was such that it would have been very hard for a viewer to guess that the director was a woman. “The Hurt Locker” is a testosterone-propelled war story set in Iraq, about an American bomb disposal expert whose primary character trait seems to be a visceral inclination for danger. For most critics and audiences, it represents a triumphant foray by Bigelow into androcentric thematic territory, the depiction of the danger of war as an addictive drug. In this particular case, the drug seems to be administered by a succession of bomb explosions that come perilously close to ending the protagonist's life and that of those around him. From a somewhat cynical viewpoint, it would appear that the Academy, in its choice for the first film by a woman to win the award, picked a feature that, seemingly, had all the hallmarks of having been directed by a man.

Prevalent tendency

It is certainly not the intention here to belittle Bigelow's achievement, although personally I did not find the film moving, or in possession of that “get-under-your-skin” quality that great films have. Nor is the purpose to trivialise the involved process that leads to a major cinematic award, and render it simplistic by assigning a single reason for it that would serve to make a particular point. Whatever may be the complex braid of reasons that led to this particular award, perhaps it is not inconceivable that one strand in it reflects our tendency, as a society, to reward women in the name of gender equity when they break away from their traditional roles and slip into those usually assumed by men, and when their achievements mirror those of their male counterparts. Which would be fine, except that we do not, for the most part, seem to place an equal value on men breaking away from their normally assumed gender-based identities and taking on roles, tasks or career choices traditionally considered feminine.

Biased transition?

As we tentatively and hesitatingly continue our long-overdue passage to a more gender-equitable society, it helps to be aware that sometimes we seem to conduct this transition in a manner that itself is gender-biased. But perhaps more important to the goal of equity is a re-examination of certain gender roles that we unthinkingly slip into, inflate the importance of, or assign to ourselves and others for reasons based sometimes on history or tradition, but most often on the patriarchal reluctance to share power. It is important for both men and women to walk this path of re-examination together, aiding each other in the gradual unshackling of the fetters of such gender roles as have become at worst oppressive, suppressive and destructive or, at best, inane and senseless.

An example of a gender role that is both destructive and senseless would be the one assayed by Sgt. William James, the protagonist in “The Hurt Locker”. Nearer home, one sees it played out by young males on their motorbikes or in BMWs, speeding on our crowded streets seeking an adrenaline rush, knocking over children or older people unfortunate enough to cross their path. On the other hand, many more women than men in our society are forced into roles which are oppressive in the curbs they place on their personal freedom, and suppressive in the way they stymie their creativity and imaginative expression.

As we seek change, it is helpful to face up to the fact that the gender-role monolith has very thick walls. The origin of at least some roles is truly primeval, and hence deeply ingrained and hard-wired into our collective psyche. Sexual differentiation of roles appears to have originated about two million years ago, among hominids, precursors of humans. Among the random evolutionary changes which occurred then, one had far-reaching consequences. It was a mutation that caused a shortening of the ends of their upper limbs, making it difficult for their young to cling to an adult for long foraging and hunting expeditions, unlike earlier primates. It led to the origin of the human institution of the home base, where very small children and mothers stayed while males hunted in groups. The need for hunting and foraging, of course, no longer exists. Other than the newly born who need to be breast-fed, there is thus no need today for a biased sexual differentiation of parenting roles which places the bulk of the task of caring for children on the female. In spite of this, a modern version of this segregation persists and refuses to go away.

It must be acknowledged that much of the task today of achieving gender equity lies with men. There is no denying our reluctance, both individual and collective, to share power at any or all levels with women, the latest manifestation of which is the stiff opposition to the Women's Reservation Bill currently stalled in our Parliament. On the other hand, it is necessary for women involved in the movement for equity to be cognizant of the fact that men themselves are victims of aeons of conditioning, albeit of the wrong type. While the infusion of a certain aggression into the feminist movement was initially necessary to jolt men out of their patriarchal complacency, and to successfully create an awareness of the deep injustices prevalent in our society towards women, the need for this is increasingly less. A successful movement cannot be fuelled primarily by anger and a desire for the retribution of past injustices, however gross, since it invites resistance and intransigence instead of co-operation.

Balanced approach

Finally, it helps to take a holistic and balanced approach, not losing sight of the fact that our most important roles are as not just human, but as humane beings. On a planet beset with terrorism, corporate greed, over-consumption, environmental abuse and an increasing divide among the very rich and very poor, gender equity is but one goal of several that we must successfully achieve if history is to classify us as a civilised society. This further underscores the need for a renewed effort by both men and women to overcome these formidable obstacles together, and not by pulling in different directions.

Two of Raj Gandhi's roles are as a parent to his two teenage daughters, and as Professor of Physics at the Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad. He may be reached at nubarnu@gmail.com.

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