The more you study gender stereotypes, the more sharply you start picking up on these references in your daily conversations. You find yourself staring down an infinite rabbit hole trying to fathom just how ubiquitous this underhanded sexism is. Very often though, you are on the receiving end of certain compliments and comments that are flattering at first, but on reflection, leave you feeling short-changed, as if you were judged by a different set of standards which were either slightly watered down, or perhaps too harsh – but never fair.
Here are a few examples that you might think are compliments, but are actually underhanded references demeaning your gender, and you:
- “This time I’m serious. This girl, I can take home and introduce to my parents.”
I am amazed by how often we hail as a romantic hero the quintessential playboy Casanova who lives a life of debauchery with women “who only like to have fun,” until he finally finds “the one” and decides to fall in love, alter his ways and settle down. For starters, this narrative puts the blame on the women he had been with for being “inadequate” and “immoral”, somehow making it their fault that they couldn’t sway our hero. But, surprise surprise – the thinking and actions of those ‘immoral’ women are identical to the “poor-old Casanova who just isn’t finding the love of his life.” The same ideals that are celebrated in men as inherent, become excuses to slut-shame women.
Hidden implication: What everybody sees as their idea of a fairy-tale with a happy-ending, is it indeed a story of change of heart? When he says he has found someone whom he wants to “take home”, he does not mean that he has now learnt to respect and value women, he is saying that the other girls he was with deserved to be treated as disposable. While it is perfectly all right for a woman to want a casual arrangement, what is unacceptable is a man stating that she is good only for fleeting relationships. And this is often because the woman in question does not measure up to the ideal standards that she is expected to adhere to, enforced by society. By admitting that he wouldn’t take any of the other women home, he exposes his double-standards of complying with society’s (read: his parents’) draconian and outdated guidelines laid out for the perfect bahu and wife.
- “You’re way too funny for a girl”
There is a notion that woman can’t be funny. Upon inspection, I found that this stereotype stems from other stereotypes around women, all externally imposed. One stereotype goes that women take themselves too seriously. Another insists that women mustn’t swear and instead be “proper” at all times. A whole bunch of other notions reinforce that comic situations arise at their expense and are their causing, rather than them being mere spectators or beneficiaries of the follies.
Hidden Implication: The not-so-hidden implication here is that you are not expected to be funny as a woman. I mean, would you ever say, “you’re funny for a man”? Furthermore, they are stating that maybe you aren’t so funny after all, or that you only seem funny in comparison with your supposedly stuck-up peers with their noses in the air. This isn’t really a compliment. But Andy Samberg had the perfect response for the haters. “It’s crazy. Since there have been men and women, there have been funny women… f**king idiot-ass men keep saying that women aren’t funny. It makes me crazy. I find it disgusting and offensive every time,” he says. ‘Nuff said. This is our cue to drop the mic and exit.
- “Yeh ladki-wadki nahi hai”:
This one is a classic faux-pas – likening the very word “girl” to a slur, to a thing to be ashamed of. You see this coming your way when you do anything that does not fit neatly into the box society has created, labelled “girl traits.” My friends often called me this when I beat a boy at arm wrestling, got punished for talking in class, served up some thunderballs while playing throwball, sat more freely with my legs in 2:45 rather than 00:00, outran my guy friends in mini-races up to ‘that yellow car’, carried out outrageous dares entailing messing with strangers, won debates and nailed group discussions, had strong opinions… Sometimes, even when I talked louder than normal.
Hidden implication: When someone says “Arre yeh ladki nahi hai. Isko ladki mat bolo,” he gives you credit, first by discrediting your gender and then, by denying you membership in the community that forms part of your very identity. It denotes that any remotely distinctive/extraordinary quality you exhibit must mean that you belong to the “more superior species”.
- “Please, she’s cool. She’s one of the bros.”
The old-boys club was supposed to be a fictitious entity, but (sh)it just got real. You might revel in being called a‘tomboy.’ It’s like a medal for choosing pants over skirts and dresses, as if it’s the 16th century and we’re all still trapped in corsets. Or like getting a cookie for being athletic, like it is a path-breaking discovery of another use for girl-hands and girl-legs.
Hidden implication: When someone says you’re practically one of the guys, the underlying implication is that they are extending a privilege to you. They’re basically reverting back to their 4-year-old self and reiterating that girls have cooties and their feminine qualities disqualify them from being in on the ‘cool-gang.’ Many women, as a result, feel the urge to suppress some of their “inherent (feminine) vices” as a result, to keep up the facade and maintain that they’re ‘chill,’ by indulging locker-room-like references and laughing along sexist humour, just to be in on the gossip and receive validation.
- “You aren’t like other girls. You know, that wear make-up and obsess over their looks.”
I performed a little social experiment last month for this one. I lugged around a fat and juicy make-up kit, and every time I had to leave from a sleepover at a male friend’s place, I’d pull it out and start attacking my face with a range of hues and colours like a kindergartener with a pack of crayons, all of it while taking my own sweet time in front of the mirror. I’d wait for someone to notice, which they always did. And then, I’d wait for them to share their two-pennies worth, which they also almost always did. The reactions I got were versions of “Oh my God, don’t tell me you’re one of those girls who spend hours on their looks.” To those who chose not to use their words but communicate their distaste with sighs and rolling eyes, I’d dangle some bait. “Oh, no no, I’m not one of those girls, who wear makeup regularly. This is just because I have to go somewhere fancy.” This would inevitably invoke a “Thank god!” out of them. Bull’s eye.
Hidden implication: This favouritism doesn’t end at women who aren’t big on make-up and fashion, for example. Women who happen to not be sensitive, women who don’t necessarily enjoy rom-coms perhaps, are hailed as desirable by a class of men who feel like they are empowering women who dare to not conform. This would have been great news – the best ever, perhaps – if they weren’t pitting these women against those who are that way and do enjoy those things. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can prefer one kind while not being condescending to the other.
Sniff out the dead rat, and chase it out of the ballpark. True empowerment will be attained only when we get to breathe free and be who whoever we want to be with pride, rather than trying hard to fit the flimsy and ever-evolving definitions of what’s desirable.