Writing for The New York Times in 1972, Joan Didion lambasted the feminists of the time thus:
“They totted up the pans scoured, the towels picked off the bathroom floor, the loads of laundry done in a lifetime. Cooking a meal could only be ‘dogwork,’ and to claim any pleasure from it was evidence of craven acquiescence in one’s own forced labor. Small children could only be odious mechanisms for the spilling and digesting of food, for robbing women of their ‘freedom.’ It was a long way from Simone de Beauvoir’s grave and awesome recognition of woman’s role as ‘the Other to the notion that the first step in changing that role was Alix Kates Shulman’s marriage contract (‘wife strips beds, husband remakes them’) reproduced in Ms; but it was toward just such trivialization that the women’s movement seemed to be heading.”
Now, Didion is a deeply perceptive writer. Her works have spoken directly to millions and her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, which detailed her grief following the death of her husband, won several awards. But in terming feminism as a movement that cocked a snook at being adult itself, did she go too far?
How do we address an issue like this? In bed the other day with a man, I felt a visceral disgust when he said to me: “Now we are husband and wife.” He and I were replicating the roles of a top (the penetrator) and bottom (the other), respectively. Indeed, if this had been straight sex, I would naturally assume the position of the “wife” (not necessarily, of course, but let’s for a moment ignore the many permutations of out-of-marriage sex).
Why did I feel the disgust? It was certainly not on account of him putting me in the feminine bracket. I have analysed myself long and hard to know that I enjoy being the submissive partner in sex and that it is perfectly fine to accept this fact and whatever feminine associations come with it (even as, it’s important to add, I don’t choose to change my sex). The only reason I felt disgusted, I decided, was because the correlation of being submissive with being a “wife” went against my feminist instincts.
This was certainly something that needed explication. I wanted to bottom, I relished the pleasure that being submissive provided, yet I was uncomfortable with this pleasure being deemed feminine. I asked myself if this stemmed from an unease with frankly effeminate gay men, a fate that had not been bestowed on me for reasons unknown.
But I love effeminate men. I love effeminacy, period.
To me, it is not a sign of weakness. I have often wondered about the disjointed reaction to boys and girls assuming the roles of the other sex. Girls are lauded if they act manly: “yeh to raja beta hai“; while effeminate boys are the butt of jokes and worse.
But why ask the question in the first place? Why even think of effeminacy as weakness? It makes one wonder if feminism, apart from its more hallowed goals, was also a cry against effeminacy. (I must mention that I am no expert on feminism and my small point pertains to how my experience forced me to raise some questions.)
Didion may have a point when she presciently says that the feminist movement has crossed its remit. What was supposed to be about equality of women may have dressed itself in disparaging anything that was feminine. But Didion also seems to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. She writes later in the same essay, “The Women’s Movement”:
“But of course something other than an objection to being ‘discriminated against’ was at work here, something other than an aversion to being ‘stereotyped’ in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children. One is constantly struck, in the accounts of lesbian relationships which appear from time to time in the movement literature, by the emphasis on the superior ‘tenderness’ of the relationship, the ‘gentleness’ of the sexual connection, as if the participants were wounded birds. The derogation of assertiveness as ‘machismo’ has achieved such currency that one imagines several million women to delicate to deal with a man more overtly sexual than, say, David Cassidy.”
Leave aside for a moment the lazy generalisation about lesbians. The broader issue is whether there is something inherently wrong in retaining the child within. Not only that, Didion displays a marked hostility to the idea that we might turn to the child inside us to seek inspiration.
She desists from using one of the two adjectives for a quality reminiscent of children: “childish” or “childlike”. She intends the former, of course, while I can show why I prefer the latter.
As the sexual encounter finished, I was in a state of disorientation. Questions about why I had chosen to behave as I had, like a streetwalker trying with wanton abandon to satisfy her client, spun in my head. I seemed to have been thoroughly satisfied with the experience, yet I also felt the loss of something intimate and special.
I missed the, and here comes that word, childlike way of going about things. I hate to admit this but I felt like I had been tarnished. Soon, of course, in the midst of people and crowds, honking buses and hawkers, I would be back to my normal self. But yes, via sexual pleasure from the vantage position of the submissive, I had opened myself comprehensively to another person, an outcome that made me chary.
All of us retain a certain sense of the world within us. Sex, since it is a deeply intimate and intimidating experience, can bend the needle somewhat. But the wellspring of our dearest emotions, our most cherished goals, emanate from decidedly innocent parts of our selves. Conservatives may, rightly, disparage feminists for going too far in the fight for abortion, but the fight itself started with roundly noble aims.
A friend, who identifies as a Republican, spoke darkly of “women who think nothing of terminating pregnancies, like abortion is a birth right”. My own view on the matter hews to the middle position. A woman’s reproductive choice is her own business but I profess an immense admiration for conservatives who campaign for the right to life of even babies with Down’s Syndrome. Yes, I know the arguments. How difficult it is for the family and baby, the dashed hopes of a productive future, and so on. But to keep an eye steady on the sanctity of human life and not reduce the argument to transactional questions of good and bad is a deeply ennobling education.
The sum total of my argument, then, comes to this: I would stand for feminism, not least because I have been mighty impressed by those posts on Facebook where young men and women carry placards saying stuff like: “I need feminism because even today when a girl is raped, people ask what she was wearing.” In India, where the battle-hardened feminism of the West is only just about making an entry, let us try and retain a balance between the fight for women’s rights and an unabashed love for the effeminate, the girly, the feminine.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @VohariJikram