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.
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 trivialised 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.
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 normalisation and popular acceptance of a full-grown adult man’s absolute lack of know-how about basic life skills like cooking, cleaning and organising.
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 emphasise 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.
Popular culture does not criticise this kind of dependency, save a few attempts here and there. On the contrary, a major chunk of popular humour rides on the normalisation 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 to pani tak 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.
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 normalising 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 organised 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.
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.
Featured Image Source: Gulf News