The 2016 US presidential elections took the world by surprise, as Donald Trump was elected to power in (what was once) one of the socially, culturally and economically progressed countries in the world. While this election was something the world would regret in the years to come, the instance of his election or even his audacity to believe he could be a part of it, shook the feminists around the world for one important reason – the Washington Post’s video on Trump’s “locker room talk” with the television host Billy Bush that forever changed how people would perceive Trump later.
There were posts flaring on social media addressing “locker room talks” and rape culture; the recording of the lewd conversation was made available on most internet sites with emphasis on the phrase “grab ‘em by the pussy”. But if Trump has never been caught uttering such pejoratives in public, why was a “private conversation” meant only for two people, recorded from over ten years ago, made a matter of public importance? A simple answer would be that it revealed the conversationalist’s extreme misogynistic attitude that reduced his encounters with women to their “phony tits” and their “pussies”.
One would expect that this would trigger a trend of feminist education in schools and colleges to highlight the importance of feminist thinking and behavior as an important step to cull subconscious sexist attitude that often manifests in forms that create hierarchies and threaten a section of the society. But thanks to the fleeting public memory, issues are often swept under the carpet, unaddressed and unresolved, left only for the victims to bear them and carry them to their graves.
Even the previous years’ “trends”, where rape victims’ bodies were left charred by the rapists, that shocked and stirred the nation left the public memory surprisingly quickly; for most were forced to “move on”, or the ones who insisted on keeping the conversation alive were silenced or insulted for dampening the mood of the day with negative talks.
And now, thanks to the leaked Instagram chats of a group of teenage boys from Delhi, the term “locker room” talk has been trending in India over the past 24 hours, leaving most feeling disturbed, threatened and insecure. While fortunately, the issue has been elevated rightly to involve the Delhi police, the problem is that we made room in the society for this to happen. This is not another article outlining what happened over the past 24 hours, rather this will address how such conversations are a reflection of cultural and political reality, written with a sincere intention to inform and educate.
Just Joking? Don’t.
As a feminist, one of the tougher challenges I face on an everyday basis is correcting language and pointing out the sexist, racist, casteist, homophobic slurs that are a casual part of our conversations, or our “jokes” that we don’t realise is damaging. To convince someone that our inter-personal communications are motivated by political realities, and in turn influence the socio-cultural politics, is tiresome. Some of the common responses I receive are, “It was just a joke, and meant no offence“, “I am a feminist too, but let a person joke!“, “You cannot micro-police other people’s thoughts and private conversations.”
While I’m not all for thought-policing, it is time that we understand this – our conversations and offensive statements cloaked in the form of “jokes”, even with the most private, intimate of connections we share with people, matter; they are as much a part of the bigger political discourse as public conversations are. We do not have to wait until someone expresses their desire to rape another woman to react, or wonder about the state of our gender education. They could be casual comments laced with sexist, homophobic remarks; that comment your colleague makes while discussing work? You don’t have to humour it. That comment your friend makes when you both spot an attractive woman, you don’t have to grit through it.
Spot those (not so) subtle signs and silent indications of sexism and call them out. Here is why – when problematic, offensive things said during conversations with our close circles are condoned, they ascend the ladder to more important conversations, creating an impact in the minds of several persons, and consequently in the society. This element of ‘condoning’ need not be active – they could simply occur through silence, or worse, laughter. The latter reaction by itself is an unmistakable sign of the existing prejudices and biases in the society.
“Private Conversations (with reference to locker room talks)“: A silent indication of the toxic culture
The 2016 Trump’s locker room talk that was dismissed by most as “just boy’s locker-room talk” opened a Pandora’s box of sexual harassment allegations against Trump that began with Jessica Leeds’s accusations. They were snubbed with the response, “She was so unattractive that she would never be his first choice” – and condoned. Clearly, the “just boys’ talk” had elements of truth, desire, pride – laced with misogyny, where the woman was harassed publicly for speaking up about harassment, with no repercussions – similarities much?
On 4th May, 2020 a group of teenage boys in Delhi were exposed for having participated in a conversation under the head “Bois locker room” where they had discussed women in the most degrading manner, shared images of underage girls and had planned to rape a woman. Girls who were courageous enough to expose them were further harassed, humiliated and threatened with rape.
See a pattern emerge?
In 2018, a dark-feminist genre TV-Show The Diet Land had the protagonist (an oppressed, harassed woman who had recently found comfort in her skin) support a terrorist activity led by a radical-feminist outfit inside men’s locker-rooms as one of their propaganda. The makers of the episode witnessed supporters over the internet expressing their approval, however the conversation died out soon with most critics turning the focus toward the fictional terrorist activity.
My point is, locker room talks weren’t born yesterday, and their existence have been ignored by the society as “inconsequential” or “just guys’ things” for long now. And any attempt to expose them have met with resistance, humiliation and further degradation – or have gotten lost with the focus on the conversation having steered elsewhere.
Without over-generalising things, locker rooms are a hub of celebration of dark-misogynistic ideas and sexist attitudes that are learned and passed on as “cool”. While this is understandably debatable, the term “locker room talks” has been defined by the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus as the type of sexual jokes and remarks that men are thought to enjoy when they are together. Inherently possessing an underlying ‘women aren’t listening, hence no harm is directly caused’ ring to it, a locker-room talk is a stark example of my proposition that ‘private conversations are equally a part of public-political discourse’. They brew attitudes of toxic masculinity that harm all genders.
It takes a whim followed by a couple of supporters to act upon their shared thoughts; sexual harassment and rapes see support from within the locker room participants who willingly conceal the identity of their “bros”, and in no way let their peers shun the offenders as a celebration of or respect to their “brotherhood”. This normalizes rape culture amongst the men who see no social backlash faced by their peer who they know to have committed a crime punishable by law, that mostly goes unreported, for the stigma and fear of harassment surrounding reporting one has reliably proven to be cruel. Oh, on the lighter end, they glorify objectification and reduce women to a bunch of sexual escapades.
“But not all locker room talks discuss raping women! Some are simply light-hearted conversations amongst boys – take a joke!“
Jokes have political implications, and to not realise them is a result of an absolute privilege; a manifestation of not having been slotted into the marginalized side of life, or not identifying oneself with any criteria that could simply reduce one to a potential victim, or a minority. Let’s verify this statement with a theory developed by Plato, Aristotle and Hobbes which posits that laughter is the result of feelings of superiority over others or over our own former position.
Its emphasis on power and privilege cannot be ignored, in that it is fairly predicated upon the idea, “no one would laugh at the sight of their own blood”. It also points towards the phenomenon of “identity formation”, in that it hints at how the target of the joke is so unlike the joker and the audience that “otherisation” implicitly occurs through the jokes. Here, humour is also seen as a tool to elicit social control.
A statement like, “Bro, we could easily rape her” or “Bro, that shit is gay” is a loud statement of one’s power-position in the society. The hard truth is that they provide an insight into the minds of the conversationalists, for they are involuntary confessional messages of their perceptions and attitudes towards others. The listeners condone this because most people presume this as “normal state of things”, some justify this with “boys will be boys’, some learn what is acceptable when they receive the joke from someone who is stamped with the label of “cool” amidst a group of audience that condone such jokes. The ones who spot them face harassment or humiliation, and learn to silence themselves forever.
Thus, a blaring symptom of toxic culture is permitted to prosper, further watering the growth of a toxic culture that ought to be frowned upon.
So what’s Feminism got to do here?
Here is where the importance of a feminist mindset plays a lead role; a feminist way of life starts from within our minds: Popular theories discussing the sub-conscious postulate that under normal circumstances, our brain is under the process of “filtering our thoughts” from our sub-conscious to our conscious, a mechanism that is relatively loosened when we joke or engage in private conversations with someone we trust.
If this theory conveys the idea that such conversations are a product of pausing the filter controlling our subconscious thoughts from surfacing, then the inference is that our sub-conscious is riddled with sexist, racist, regressive ideas that we still hold on to for we’re not completely convinced with the idea that culture is learned and is putative. It takes active conscious effort to unlearn and break free from years of institutionalization, and live in ways that do not harm or ridicule another’s existence. Private conversations and use of slang are therefore an important part of the “unlearning and learning” process.
This makes it important to be conscious of our jokes, slangs, comments that are made in private – essentially an exercise that retrains your thoughts that could mean harm to someone’s existence or trivialize serious issues that make the society regressive. An equally important step would be to initiate conversations and challenge regressive mind-sets. While we fear being taken for someone “who doesn’t appreciate humour”, or someone who’s “extremely sensitive”, or is a “buzz-kill”, someone’s lived experience and political reality trumps our fear of losing an unhealthy social group. Because remember – every time we ignore it, we help water a toxic culture, and that makes us a part of the problem.
Swetha is a graduate of law from Jindal Law School, Haryana, and currently practises at the Madras High Court. She likes to spend her free time studying the interface between Feminism and Religion. She believes that the notion of feminist equity starts from within every household, and from education that appeals to one’s opinion and thoughts. You can follow her on Instagram.
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