The word ‘aunty’ serves many purposes. It is wielded against women of a certain age and appearance – defining them in a way in which they do not participate. Nobody wants to be called aunty, but everyone insists on calling certain women just that. The word itself carries ageist, derisive, and exclusionary connotations and for those reasons is incompatible with a feminist politics that is against categorisation and marginalisation.
‘Aunty’ is an insidious way of forcing an individual to participate in a category they have been assigned, which then strips them of agency in defining their identity on their own terms. Indeed, the word conjures up an image of a woman past her prime; bumbling, docile, prone to idle gossip, uninformed, conservative, judgemental, or an assortment of any of these characteristics.
Even when used seemingly innocently to refer to an older woman, it connotes identity on ageist terms and lends itself to being included among an array of other words which are derogatory or hurtful because of how they reduce an individual to a single characteristic deemed unfavourable – such as ‘slut’. Aunty shaming is real, and is an act of linguistic violence. And we need to talk about how our feminism in practice must recognise the hegemony of the younger generation in shaping discourses, where feminism is set up as oppositional and unavailable to ‘aunties’. Often, this manifests itself in the form of mocking certain women who seem to contradict our feminism and putting all of them under the ‘aunty’ umbrella.
An aunty, in this lexicon, is someone who subtly tries to comment on the length of our clothing and our as yet unmarried status. Aunties snoop from their balconies into ours and snitch on us for engaging in scandalous behaviour. Aunties like to make snide remarks on our liberal values. And then there are the ‘cool’ aunties who are more palatable for our feminism: they’re older, but they’re less ignorant. Aunties in particular are the subject of laments about obstacles to feminist emancipation; for want of blaming a tangible entity, ‘aunties’ become the agents of patriarchy that nobody needs or deserves.
Conceiving of certain women in such a way actively excludes them from the project of feminism, and an uncomfortably large proportion of feminists are complicit in this exclusion.
Conceiving of certain women in such a way actively excludes them from the project of feminism, and an uncomfortably large proportion of feminists are complicit in this exclusion. Aunty is a word used to make dart boards out of women for venting gender related frustrations; these women are then unfairly and overwhelmingly attacked for their sensibilities and the wide use of the word to describe them has turned ‘aunty’ into a bad word.
It is constructed as antithetical to modern values, and being called one evokes a deep sense of humiliation and outrage. It is where essentialism and ageism meet such that women over a certain age are automatically assumed to have internalised misogyny, and are labelled indelibly as such. They are made into the enemy, the patriarchal Other which must be resisted and fought, and the word completes the process of shutting them out. Once you are an aunty, you stopped getting taken seriously.
Derisively calling someone ‘aunty’ is making a caricature of certain women. It is an act of othering by which some women are alienated from positive discourses on feminism. The word must also be recognised for its misogynistic implications: that women can only be visible, heard, and are worthy of defining their own identity as long as they appear visibly young; that the shelf life for relevance is lower for women than it is for men.
There exists a tacit understanding even among feminists that aunties are not worth engaging with unless they prove themselves worthy of engagement. ‘Auntied’ women are thus dismissed at the first instance, and everyone is complicit in the erasure of identity that soon ensues. This leads to the appropriation of feminism exclusively by the young; ignoring the role of older women who have fought to built an atmosphere of relative freedom and reclamation of space and discourses in their time.
Also read: Ageing Women And Societal Concerns
When age is conflated with conservativeness, therefore,, feminist energy is directed away from a whole section of women. The act of ‘aunty-ing’ widens the distance between generations instead of closing it and achieving a healthy level of dialogue. ‘Aunty’ has evolved to conflate age with internalised misogyny; where this is indeed the case, however, feminist attention should be directed towards addressing it as an effect of the patriarchy, rather than shunning it.
Indeed, the very stereotype that most women from the previous generation, from certain kinds of upbringing and backgrounds, all have the same orthodox conservative world-views is an unfair, sweeping judgement that is not only not feminist, it is also elitist and comes from a place of privilege from having greater exposure and feminist literature, networks, and discourses.
Derisively calling someone ‘aunty’ is making a caricature of certain women. It is an act of othering by which some women are alienated from positive discourses on feminism.
We take a certain prototype, slap exaggerated characteristics onto it, and turn it into a joke: this makes it furtive misogyny directed at an entire section of women. The privilege which allows for the differentiation among women into an ‘us’ versus ‘aunties’ is a condition that is the result of efforts by women who facilitated it through their activism, resistance, or sometimes, compliance in order to make things better for future generations.
The tendency to villainise internalised misogyny by converging all the distaste for it into a single word is to also ignore the conditions which created what is apparently internalised misogyny, but may in fact be survival strategies. ‘Aunty-ing’ not only keeps these structural conditions intact, but reinforces them to a degree that is counterproductive to feminist efforts to dismantle the patriarchy entirely.
Admittedly, it can be infuriating to be moral policed, to have one’s character assessed and evaluated with a once over, to be politely reminded and nudged about one’s complexion, weight, marital status, exposed bra strap, among several other things. But to paint all, or any woman approximately over the age of third five with the same brush and make a caricature out of them is to ignore the aforementioned privilege and to assess other women on the same playing field as ourselves. Not only does this attitude render feminism into a futile venture, it also distorts it into a sinister form of exclusion.
In such a situation, an aunty is someone who needs to be enlightened about how she should think and act and behave in order to fall in line with what feminism demands of women in this day and age. This is a variant of the saviour complex which allows for the labelling of certain women as needing saving, as unaware of their subordination, as ignorant enablers of patriarchy.
In doing so, the lived experiences of women are invalidated and erased, with there being no nuanced interrogation into the structural conditions which intersect to shape everyone’s subjectivities. ‘Aunty,’ therefore, is condescension under the guise of respect for age, and participating in the invisibilisation of so many women from feminist discourses is taking several steps back from a feminist praxis which recognises patriarchal conditioning and structures in all its forms and guises.
Better feminism means taking on the often taxing labour of engaging with the forces that deny us our emancipation. Perhaps recognising the structural problem as acting through people rather than focusing blame on the people themselves would serve to diagnose patriarchy correctly; as a disease that affects everyone in some way, rather than inherent to some and expelled from some others.
Featured Image Credits: Sashwati Bora