Posted by Anandita Pan
Curiosity might have killed the cat, but for Paromita Vohra, certainly, curiosity helped her to delve deeper into an idea that emerged from the online chat-room allyouneedislove.com. Her documentary, Unlimited Girls (2002), begins with the narrator reading a Mills & Boons novel, Land of Illusion, early in the morning.
Loneliness, as she claims it, leads her to search the internet for love and she ends up finding a feminist site that propounds against our normative idea of romance and love. The confusion regarding whether to call herself a feminist or not, begins with Unlimited Girls‘ narrator’s discussion with Chamki Girl. Standing in the fish-market where women are selling fish, the narrator says, “life is a fish, and then you fry.”
Unlimited Girls traces the journey of the narrator to explore the meaning of feminism and leads to her self-exploration as a feminist. The lack of real names in the chatroom is significant because it challenges the external association of gender to names and seeks to delve into ‘feminism,’ a term that continues to baffle the mainstream populace. In fact, the collection of many narratives highlight the many perspectives on feminism, and they also lead to show that there is no single definition of it.
In Unlimited Girls, the narrator Fearless’s self-exploration of/as a feminist begins by gathering knowledge. Since knowledge is associated to wisdom and experience, Fearless starts off her journey by interviewing three groups of people: practitioners of feminism, proclaimers of ‘not-a-feminist-but-I-like-to-be-independent’, and skeptics.
The first category includes old and young activists and academicians proclaiming themselves to be feminists. The second group comprises of city-dweller women who do not believe in feminism because they hate activism but at the same time like to enjoy its benefits. And the third category includes Fearless herself. In her journey the question that loomed large is what is feminism.
Unlimited Girls follows a pastiche-like model wherein it incorporates many kinds of narratives—interviews, history, images, advertisements and songs—to emphasise the plurality of feminism in terms of definition and method and also to identify the stereotypes pertaining gender that prevail in many forms and platforms. In this way Unlimited Girls creates a new knowledge about feminism.
Why are we scared to be feminists?
In her interview in Unlimited Girls with a housewife, who is visibly shown to be enjoying class privilege, Fearless realises that she has come across someone from the second category who wants to experience independence, but does not categorise herself as a feminist as she finds slogan-shouting a disruption.
Thought it is ironical that we predominantly see her husband speaking for her, she understands feminism as a notorious label and requires activism.
Unlimited Girls shows how women are also scared to identify as feminists due to the social stigma surrounding it. Feminism is understood as a movement against gender discrimination, and the experience is often perceived as a benchmark to identify such discriminations and determine their degree.
This has led to the assumption that women who call themselves feminists, must have become so after facing gender discrimination or any form of sexual harassment. In India, where sexual assault is often deemed as the woman’s fault, this stigma surrounding the label, ‘feminism,’ functions as a crucial factor in deterring individuals in participating in feminist movements and asserting themselves as feminists.
This feeling is succinctly represented through the advertisements in Unlimited Girls. Filled with the mainstream Bollywood-ish trend of highly expressive, highly entertaining formula, the ads incorporate extensive story-line, make-up, flashy clothes and peppy music to enhance the stereotype.
Especially notable is the advertisement where a young girl proclaims her desire to be a feminist when she grows up. This declaration is followed by a visible gasp by two grown-up women who are then relieved by the appearance of a man dressed like a superman. This man ‘opens’ the girl’s eyes to the horrid future that lies ahead of her if she becomes a feminist.
This future includes some of the mandatory stereotypes associated with feminists such as ugliness, loneliness and so on. The advertisement ends with the superman successfully thwarting such unwelcome dreams (or rather, nightmares).
The advertisement in Unlimited Girls is a classic example of patriarchal suppression of feminists. The reference to superman—representing an ideal man who is proud to wear his underwear outside—indicates the victory of masculinity. It also shows that the agents of patriarchy, are not just men. They reside amongst us in the form of our mothers and aunts.
As Fearless continues her extensive research in Unlimited Girls, she realises that there is no umbrella term called ‘feminism.’ Some claim that women owe their freedom to those ancestors who began the feminist movements; some say that movements are merely ways to capture the focus and that actual awareness should come from the inside; while others question how far this concern about ‘being women’ has reached those fisherwomen who sell fish.
In her interview in Unlimited Girls with the female taxi-driver, Kanchan Gawre, at the Mumbai railway station, she discovers that women, whether claiming themselves to be feminists or not, have always been, and are continuing to be performers of a double-role, a dual identity of a girl/daughter, woman/wife, and woman/mother and so on. That is why Kanchan Gawre says with confidence that she can manage both the home and the outside world.
This need to juggle with two worlds, two different jobs and two different everything, brings the question to our minds that even after our awareness of our ‘femalehood’ or ‘womanhood’, is this not the new norm to which we are subjecting ourselves to?
The very absence of the narrator’s face on the screen in Unlimited Girls somehow makes us feel that women are still in the background, where, despite claiming themselves to be ‘feminists,’ some women leave the chat-room when the narrator questions why they cannot talk about eroticism.
“I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
Dr Anandita Pan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhopal. Her area of research and teaching is gender. Her forthcoming book is titled, Mapping Dalit Feminism (Sage-Stree, 2020). She can be found on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Upperstall.com