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Parodying gender cliches

Bad Girl Poster playfully confronts sexist and gendered perceptions of a bad girl in Indian society.

Bad Girl Poster playfully confronts sexist and gendered perceptions of a bad girl in Indian society.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

What can you do with two fingers? The question emerged on YouTube sometime ago and drew a variety of response from people: pick my nose, make a peace sign or a gun. The video series was a response to the ludicrous sexist practice of some doctors around using the two-finger test to tell if a woman had been raped or not. Begun by sassy webzine The Ladies Finger, the campaign asked people to do their bit to spread awareness about the test’s insensitivity by uploading a video on any social networking site with the hashtag #2fingerfraud. “The videos were our tiny attempt to make fun of the seriousness with which medical colleges take this stupid procedure,” says Nisha Susan, one of the founders of The Ladies Finger. “We encouraged people to think of other things you could do with two fingers and film them: like pick your nose for example.” The site has an accompanying graphic that says, “You can do many things with two fingers but you cannot determine rape.”

The Two Finger videos by The Ladies Finger — an e-zine that talks about pop, culture, health, sex, music, books, and cinema with a feminist angle — is one of several recent campaigns that are using digital media and art peppered with humour to drive attention to sexist attitudes in Indian society, to re-examine old prejudices. They parody sexist behaviours, poke fun and promote feminism through attention-grabbing campaigns that reflect the essential seriousness of issues. “The little campaign around the two-finger test is part of a series of things we are doing to address specific aspects of sexual violence instead of treating it like a insurmountable monolith,” says Susan.

LF had worked on an article on the regressive two-finger test (“The Two-Finger Test Doesn’t Work? No One Told The Medical Colleges”) for some months to find out about attitudes prevalent among medical students about the test. “Post-December 16, everyone has been talking about the police. But the medical establishment in India has just continued with its old-fashioned unexamined pedagogy around assault, including using textbooks that say things like working- class women are too strong to be raped.”

What makes LF’s campaigns effective is the thread of irreverent wit running through them. Satire done well can make people take an issue more seriously and open up to it. Susan believes humour is an effective tool to question gender clichés that defeat and destroy women and deliver a message: “I’m a little baffled when people say feminists have no sense of humour,” she says. “I’d be less surprised if someone told me feminists laugh too much. To me feminism is not the reasoned explanation that follows after I’ve stopped laughing. It is the reason I’m laughing. That’s why we can’t help it at Finger when campaigns have humour. How else do you cope with a ridiculous world?”

In a similar campaign in Bengaluru, students are challenging sexism in society by creating a feminist parody of a popular and well-known educational poster. Bad Girl, a design school project, playfully confronts sexist and gendered perceptions of who constitutes a bad girl in Indian society. The poster stands out due to its use of the familiar educational posters of Indian Book Depot that were a common entity in the lives of many Indian kids. (Remember the ones that highlighted good and bad habits of children - brushing teeth, respecting elders etc). The Bad Girl poster takes off from this and depicts her as someone who goes to Goa, pouts, eats too much, eats too less, has breasts, walks around with open hair, rides a bike and, yes, cannot make round rotis... Made by a group of students at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bad Girl went viral on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

In North India, another group of students grabbed eyeballs when they used sanitary napkins to write messages against sexism. Pads Against Sexism began in Delhi’s Jamia Millia University with napkins stuck to college walls, boards and trees inscribed with slogans on gender sensitisation. “Period blood is not impure, your thoughts are”; “Menstruation is natural, rape is not”; “Kanya Kumari, Gandi soch tumhari.”

The campaign — inspired by and part of an international campaign with the hashtag #padsagainstsexism — received praise and criticism on Facebook, and also led to students being showcaused at Jamia. But not before it had spread to Kolkata’s Jadavpur University where students used it to fight against victim-blaming and shaming, referring to politicians laying the blame for rape and assault on women (as in the Park Street rape case that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had labelled ‘made-up story’).

Design student Aditi Gupta dealt with the taboo and shame surrounding menstruation in comic book form. In Menstrupedia, Gupta drew from her experience of growing up in a conservative family in Garhwa, a town in Jharkhand. She got her first period at 12 and went through the usual humiliation and guilt that most girls in the country go through. She wasn’t allowed to sit on other peoples’ beds, or enter a place of worship or touch anything holy in the house and had to wash her clothes separately. She channelled her experiences, coupled with stories from others, into Menstrupedia.

At NID, while in a relationship with her husband Tuhin, Gupta realised that this might be a situation not just in India but in many other countries as well and thought of a book to help girls deal with their periods. “We saw a lot of design scope to take up this gap of information as communication designers.” She did a year-long project to study the level of awareness about menstruation in young girls. What started out as a thesis project became a crowd-funded comic book that has sold 4,000 copies so far and been shipped to Uruguay, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Sweden, Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

These new campaigns and projects are attention grabbers, and once they’ve got people to look, they promote social change — one art work, one video, one comic book at a time.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2020 10:13:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/parodying-gender-cliches/article7209411.ece

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