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Posted By Sukanya Shaji

The lowest point in the life of Vikram (played by Pavail Gulati) whose wife leaves him after he slaps her in Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad is a scene where he tries to make his own tea. His tea is usually routinely made by his wife Amrita (played by Taapsee Pannu). It is a waking ritual for Amrita – grate some ginger into a teapot of boiling black tea, add blades of lemongrass to it from her kitchen garden and make the perfect cup of tea for her husband. The repeated portrayal of the same morning routine in the film confirms that Amrita has been doing this ever since their marriage.

Once she leaves the house, Vikram’s ailing mother takes up the role of his caregiver but one day, Vikram is forced to make his own tea. He hurts his finger trying to grate ginger into the pot and calls out to his mother because he cannot find the tea dust in the kitchen. By the time his mother comes in to help, he throws everything on the floor out of agony. This is perhaps, his most helpless self in the film. Though the intention of this scene is probably not to build sympathy for the man who is left by his wife, it stayed with me because I felt that this is the worst it gets for him, having to make his own tea!

The narrative of the “man who is lost in the domestic space without a woman” is deep rooted in patriarchy and its assignment of gender roles to housework and domestic responsibilities. This kind of nuanced, hidden sexism in our domestic spaces is now becoming more evident in the context of the Covid-19 lockdown. More people at home means more food to be cooked, more clothes to be washed and more similar chores to be done. Women are by default, expected to be in charge of household work even if they have schedules of work that are as hectic or sometimes busier than their male counterparts. They are expected to do it all, despite the presence of men who are equally responsible to participate.

The narrative of the “man who is lost in the domestic space without a woman” is deep rooted in patriarchy and its assignment of gender roles to domestic responsibilities. This kind of nuanced, hidden sexism in our domestic spaces is now becoming more evident in the context of the Covid-19 lockdown. More people at home means more food to be cooked, more clothes to be washed and more similar chores to be done. Women are by default, expected to be in charge of household work even if they have schedules of work that are as hectic or sometimes busier than their male counterparts.

What facilitates this further is the representation of domestic life in popular culture. Most of the time, men and their lack of participation in domestic responsibilities is trivialized and the society readily accepts it as harmless humour. Is this kind of humour really that harmless?

“The man who doesn’t know how to boil water”

A dominant theme in a vast majority of popular WhatsApp and TikTok lockdown jokes is the misadventures of the man who has no clue about domestic work. In these videos, the man – a full grown, adult man, is clueless about purchasing grocery, he is unable to tell the difference between the various kinds of daal, he uses detergent instead of salt in the kitchen because he has no idea where essentials are kept in his own kitchen…and so on. The comic factor in these portrayals is how the man lands into trouble because of his above-mentioned ignorance.

Also read: Remembering The Wages For Housework Movement During This Lockdown

It can perhaps be argued in defense that these men have probably spent their entire lives enjoying the benefits of a patriarchal system which allows them to have their lives perfectly intact, without having to know any of this. The lockdown time may have forced them to participate in activities they priorly did not have to and hence, they are allowed to mess up. Men, like everyone else, mess up and are welcome to learn from their mistakes, but this is not about that. This is about the normalization and popular acceptance of a full-grown adult man’s absolute lack of know-how about basic life skills like cooking, cleaning and organizing.

Let me recall Vikram from Thappad who I mentioned in the beginning of this article. Vikram is a well-paid, well educated, healthy man. Yet, he struggles to make tea for himself. He expects to be taken care of and nobody else in the house seems to have a problem with it; rather, it looks like he has been waiting to get married so that he can make his wife work for him. Neither the privilege of an upper middle-class upbringing nor the exposure of a well-founded education and job instill in Vikram a basic sense of obligation to look after himself without putting the burden on his wife or mother. While Thappad does not glorify Vikram unlike the trending WhatsApp and TikTok jokes, I recall the portrayal to emphasize how easy men have it when it comes to being non-participatory in housework irrespective of privilege and education. The entire familial system encourages it and the woman is the one who is eventually blamed.

The lockdown time may have forced them to participate in activities they priorly did not have to and hence, they are allowed to mess up. Men, like everyone else, mess up and are welcome to learn from their mistakes, but this is not about that. This is about the normalization and popular acceptance of a full-grown adult man’s absolute lack of know-how about basic life skills like cooking, cleaning and organizing.

Popular culture does not criticize this kind of dependency, save a few attempts here and there. On the contrary, a major chunk of popular humour rides on the normalization of the cluelessness of the man, more so now, when more men are at home and are asked to dispense household duties due to the lockdown.

Another very disturbing tangent of these jokes is the representation of the women characters in them. Women either eventually do the work themselves because they accept that the man can be of no help, or laugh along with the man and sometimes pride in his complete dependence on her. Some mother characters are also seen to take pride in saying, “Oh mera beta tho pani thak nahi ubaalta” (My son won’t even boil a cup of water by himself). The ultimate burden, be it getting the work done or teaching how to get the work done, falls on the woman while we all laugh at their expense.

The Sisyphian Torture of Housework

In effect, presenting men as individuals who need to be taught everything is not material for comic relief. If anything, it is a serious indicator of the glaring incapacity of a gender to take care of itself. It is also a testimony of the lopsidedness of a systemic cycle of discrimination that we have been facilitating without adequate interventions. This incapacity needs to be addressed through the subversion of assigned gender roles. Simone de Beauvoir, the century’s most iconic feminist scholar calls the burden of housework on women a ‘Sisyphian torture’. In her book the Second Sex, she says:

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present … Eating, sleeping, cleaning – the years no longer rise up towards heaven, they lie spread out ahead, grey and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won.

When the cluelessness of the man with respect to housework is normalised, the actual burden is thrust on the woman. As it is, women in our society grow up being fed stories of how their most important task is to succeed at marriage, that being good at anything else causes them to not be liked as much as they should be. When a woman steps up and tries to break out of this, she is told that she has to manage everything by herself – house, relationships and employment.

When the cluelessness of the man with respect to housework is normalised, the actual burden is thrust on the woman. As it is, women in our society grow up being fed stories of how their most important task is to succeed at marriage, that being good at anything else causes them to not be liked as much as they should be. When a woman steps up and tries to break out of this, she is told that she has to manage everything by herself – house, relationships and employment.

If not, she is labelled vile and undeserving of love. The ‘you are a superwoman because you can do it all’ narrative is nothing but a corollary to the ‘man who is lost in the domestic space without a woman’ narrative that makes sure that women continue to take on domestic responsibilities to fit in even when they have other ambitions, opportunities, tastes, established career paths and are constantly exhausted. A jugglery for survival that men are never required to endure. 

It is high time that we see through these anti-female narratives and stop accepting and normalizing male privilege. Art imitates life, and therefore it is necessary that we reject content that finds humour in discrimination. The domestic space is shared by all the stakeholders who inhabit it. Food, clean laundry and organized rooms are everybody’s responsibility. It is not the magnanimity of a man to offer to “help” with housework. There is no pride in saying that the man does not know how to be a participating member of his domestic life. There are various avenues to learn, once you stop transferring the onus of it all onto women.

Also read: COVID-19: Can A Health Crisis Become A Breeding Site For Gender Inequality?

There is also absolutely no pride in gloating about how women can do it all, because women who do it all, often have no other go, and we as a society must hold ourselves culpable for the perpetually tired bodies and minds of such women.


Sukanya is a freelance writer, poet and lawyer. She can be found on Instagram.

Featured Image Source: Gulf News

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Practice is there in matriarchal societes too.
    Infact mothers bring upchildre in such a manner.
    At a very young age itself the female child in the family is made to believe that they should grow up to accommodate the make child in the driver’s seat irrespective of the fact whether the boy is elderor younger.There it begins….

  2. The tensions and pressures a man has, to perform at office/ job to sustain a good standard of living for his family is comprehendable… and for a ” house wife” to be expected to take care of household chores is also agreeable… it was fine up until a previous generation, where a majority of women had no schooling or formal education… as a norm, women stayed indoors and they did not know or hear or were aware of any other way of being… but now that many of them are educated… and there are many women who are employed the so called “house wives” who are educated , but largely unaware of the practical world outside and unable to get anything done on their own, only because of complicated system, and because they weren’t trained at any such thing from a younger age due to the patriarchal nature of the society are left insecure… they are financially completely dependent on a more often than not, abusive husband( blame it on their tensions related to work) / many a times the marriage itself may have been a comprise one in which there is no question of love… purely to pacify the compulsive parents… and here is born an unpaid house maid obliged to endure all the tantrums thrown at her at her in law’s house… completely at their mercy… no question of going back to their own home in most of the cases… added to that the pressures of giving birth to a baby… the troubles just go on getting manifold… constantly insecure constantly being compared to the successful beautiful made up women and colleagues at work( when they did not even have a chance at an opportunity to pursue a job par their qualification ) completely insecure of their lives having to compete( don’t know if they even have a chance) with the so called successful working women on the look out for successful established men, so what if he is married ( it is an unhappy marriage for sure, for how could a “parasite ” of a house wife keep a man happy)…

    Her emotions have no value… she simply seems to have no need for recreation or any creative pursuit no matter how talented she may be forget any appreciation even if she ventures on any… just a little outing to unwind… no she has not earned any right to any such luxury has she…. i could just go on and on … but let me just stop….

  3. It is the same society that mocks a women if she doesn’t know how to cook or know the difference between different Dals and expects women to know how to be a perfect women and do all womenly chores. This is the society that we live in which is rooted in patriarchal conditioning.

  4. One shouldn’t be generalizing. Numerous men are adept at cooking or for that matter, random household chores. It’s pathetic to degrade men on every front.

  5. As an Indian man with a western partner, I have been confronted with my embedded patriarchal expectations, as much as I would like to refute them. The article hits the spot with the portrayal of their ‘clueless’, ‘helpless’ innocence and the ‘superwoman’ flattery which men have conveniently resorted to, even in the wake of the modern household. I have become much more conscious of, and involved with the household over the past few years and am embarrassed of the upbringing of male friends and family members; but no shaming until I redo the remainder of my glass house.

    @Aryan – those ‘numerous’ men account for probably <5% of households. It's pathetic to feel attacked and disregard the extent of the phenomenon.

  6. Interesting article and rightly so. But the issue is why gender roles are officialized and women choose marriage as source of livelihood. Those women who are earning of course will and should raise these points said in the article. But what about those who are not earning. I suggest fix remuneration for household work and make it legally enforceable. Since it becomes a legal contract also ensure that consideration is received by both parties and also give them option to QUIT/FIRE no questions answered. Make all marriage laws gender neutral.

  7. I read De Beauvoir extensively when I was young so when my husband told me that he didn’t like housework and cleaning and that “he had better things to do” I told him that we all have better things to do. In the 80s, housework was referred to as ‘invisible’ because when it’s done everything looks as it should. Before women entered the workforce outside the home, a man would go to work and then return to a clean home not witnessing all the daily work that a wife would do. I can only guess at how they could ignore what took place in their homes on the weekends. Or they didn’t ignore it at all-they felt themselves exempt from it because it was women’s work. Women’s magazines at the time reinforced this arrangement. As did television programming. Some big changes need to be made regarding gender roles.

  8. Good read! If only the article could be translated in Hindi for wider reader base, it would be great!!!
    Can someone help?

  9. Great read, but we as women need to look at how we have raised our boys. If men don’t know how to cook and clean, it is because we did not require it of them as they grew up in our homes. If our husbands don’t help, it’s because we don’t expect and require it of them. It has taken my entire marriage to truly insist on a household partnership with daily, kind requests of my man. It is even harder because I stay at home with my children and he works full time plus at a very physical job and is exhausted. Out of love for him, I do sometimes serve him and give him a break as I would expect from him. We also need to look at the unspoken contracts too. Because I like things done a certain way, it’s easier for me to do them than to relinquish control. Since I do not currently earn a living, it is reasonable that I should run the household and contribute in a different way. Calling the villain patriarchy is an easy way to get out of our responsibility, but true change will only come when we as women lead the way by training our boys and communicating better in our marriages.

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