Trigger Warning: Transphobia, Trans Negativity
I have a feminist fantasy to replace anger with laughter and laugh every time Bollywood comes up with problematic content that reduces queer-trans people into a sheer mockery. Our life would have been so unruffled that way. But as much as I am periodically repulsed by Bollywood, it also taught me legit real-life lessons. Like, Boman Irani in Munna Bhai MBBS taught me that replacing anger with laughter doesn’t actually work!
So I decided to turn my anger on the recent trailer of ‘Pati Patni aur Panga’ into an opportunity to discuss gender, transness, and media representations. This time it isn’t exactly Bollywood though but the Times Group-owned OTT platform MX Player that unlike many of its contemporaries, decided to go backward with their problematic ‘woke’ misrepresentation of a trans character.
The MX Original Series, Pati Patni Aur Panga, starring Naveen Kasturia and Adah Sharma in the lead, is written and directed by Abir Sengupta. The 6-episode series revolves around Romanchak (Kasturia) whose world comes crashing down when he discovers a secret about his wife, Shivani (Sharma). The trailer reveals Shivani as a trans woman whose past clouds Romanchak’s judgment and eventually begins initiating divorce proceedings against her.
Aren’t Trans Women, Women?
With birth, bodies are assigned with sex—male or female—which might or might not align with their gender of being a man or a woman. If someone who is born in a body that is assigned to sex which doesn’t align to their realised perception of their gender and body, they might want to go through gender affirmative procedures. Remind you, not all trans people go through surgeries or they need to or want to. Also, even after gender affirmation surgeries, trans people’s gender identity can be binary (man or woman) or also non-binary.
The trailer of ‘Pati, Patni aur Panga’ suggests that Shivani is a binary trans woman who has gone through gender affirmation surgery. The ‘disclosure’ of her identity is followed by rejection, disbelief, and disgust from her husband and the people around her. Her womanhood is not only in question but she is also established as a fraud. Fraud because she apparently lied about being a woman, whereas she is actually a ‘man’. This is further reinforced with rampant misgendering, referring to Shivani as a ‘Ladka’ throughout, and continuing this irresponsible treatment of the character’s transness and womanhood in the promotions of the series by its makers and actors.
Adah Sharma repeatedly posted on her social media handles how she is playing a ‘man’ in the series. To further capitalise and sensationalise the identity of a trans person, she posed with mustaches with ill-informed captions.
MX Player kept referring to the lead Shivani as a ‘Ladka’ in the promotions.
This plain erasure of womanhood of the binary trans woman, instills the idea among the audience that trans women are actually men. And they should inspect the bodies of trans people, scrutinise a women’s cishood by sleeping with them before marriage, and reject, be disgusted if they find out they have had intimacy with a trans woman.
Shivani, while coming out as a trans woman says, ‘I have had a sex change surgery 6 months ago, before that I was a man.’ This perpetuates the idea that trans women are men until they get gender affirmative procedures. Secondly, the ill-researched use of offensive phrases such as ‘sex-change’ implies the idea that something needs to be changed in the person to make them who they are and that’s not who they have always been.
A person’s gender doesn’t depend on their body or what surgeries they had. Only the individual has the agency to inform others about their gender and is not subjected to scrutinisation of people residing outside of the mind and body of that individual. In the real world, where trans people are still struggling to dissolve these existent stereotypes when such a series reinforces them, that directly impacts the reality of trans people. They still have to ‘prove’ their womanhood to access gender affirmative washrooms, reservation policies, marriage rights, etc.
The Humor Isn’t ‘Dark’, It’s Sexist/Trans-Negative!
Bollywood and the Indian entertainment industry have a long-lived history of misrepresenting trans-queer people through caricaturing them, humiliating their appearances and expressions, establishing them as something that should be laughed at. Disparagement humor, which is humor that belittles, stereotypes, or maligns an individual or social group. Jokes that employ sexist, homonegative, transnegative or racist humor rely on the implicit assumptions that the people consuming the joke will recognise the stereotypes that form the premise for the joke, and that discriminatory stereotyping is not to be taken seriously. It also assumes that the audience of the humor is only people who don’t belong to that minority, so their feelings need not be counted.
While jokes are made on the bodies of trans people and their genitalia, it only reflects on the poor understanding of the dysphoria some trans people might have about their bodies and genitals. As shown in the trailer of Pati, Patni Aur Panga, asking ‘chati me baal ate hai uske?’(Does she have hair on her chest?), ‘Didn’t you sleep before marriage’ (To inspect the cisness of her body), showing the character urinating while standing, aren’t comic relief but a fetishisation of the bodies of trans people.
The language of the joke itself — as a language has the power to do — creates a context that justifies the expression of prejudice against trans people and facilitates the tolerance of trans-negativity. It informs other people that they can do the same as that is to generate humor and humor and violence can’t coexist.
When such series try to generate humor, do they think about who the humor is for? What are they normalising and reinforcing with that humor?
Do Trans People Owe Their Past to Other People?
Why do we feel that trans people owe their past to us?
In the trailer the lead actor, Romanchak is constantly asked by his friends why he doesn’t know enough about the past of her girlfriend Shivani. Being curious is human, but making the ‘coming out’ sensational and rejecting the identity of the trans person is the very much reason many trans people wouldn’t want to talk about their past. The series vilifies trans women by depicting them as cheaters or people who trap innocent cis men. It victim blames trans people for not coming out.
Where ideally the decision should only lie with the trans person of what and how much do they want to share about their past to their partners, often the responses by the partner of being betrayed or cheated stems from the idea that transness is something that needs their consideration.
Actress and writer Jen Rechards, in her appearance in the Netflix documentary ‘Disclosure’, says, ‘All the people around the trans character feel betrayed or lied to, I kinda hate the idea of disclosure, in a sense that it presupposes that there is something to disclose. It reinforces their assumption that there is a secret that is hidden. And I have a responsibility to tell others and that presupposes that the other person might have some kind of issue or problem with what is to be disclosed. And their feelings matter more than mine.’
The concentration on the past of trans people, what was their birth name, asking when did you come out, how did your family react, where did you get your surgery from, how much did it cost, not only shifts the attention from the violence and abuse they go through but also trivialises their privacy of self and body.
Can Trans-Negative Contents Score Points With a ‘Woke’ Climax?
It seems to be a new trend that the entertainment industry capitalises the identities of marginalised people, builds a pseudo ‘woke’ content that feeds to every living stereotype, violence, and abuse of those marginalised people, and then concludes it with a ‘social message’. That way everybody that is associated with the project washes their hands off the damage they have done to the community.
It also establishes that accepting the trans-queer person at the end resolves everything and our lives revolve around the acceptance of the cishet world. Beyond that our struggles and realities aren’t important.
Though the ‘social message’ does very little to dissolve the misrepresentation, not everyone who has seen the trailer or the social media promotions watches the movie. That way they only stay with the problematic promotions of the content.
Sitting through these trailers, promotional content for queer-trans people is triggering, painful, and a constant reminder of how they are treated in the world. We keep on writing, inform the world, sit in the panels, sign petitions to stop such content, but they go ahead and earn enough money out of our struggles and identities without even a glitch. We scream, we protest, but all our anger falls in the ‘tone-deaf’ ears. And that’s why I have the feminist fantasy to replace anger with laughter because we are tired of being angry. If that ever happens, there wouldn’t be a single day when we wouldn’t laugh till our hearts are full.