Is India ready to call out its Harvey Weinsteins?
“I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then. I have since learned it’s not an excuse, in the office – or out of it. To anyone.”
– Harvey Weinstein
The incomprehensible case of Harvey Weinstein follows in the close footsteps of the moral disrobing of Bill Cosby and the inexplicable rise of Trump despite “the Access Hollywood Tapes”. The over-the-top reaction of Americans to these revelations of sexual impropriety should come as happy affirmation to Indian observers that progress is inevitable.
America and Echoes of Third Wave Feminism
America, today, is at a pivotal point in the feminist movement: there is a mainstreaming of the gains from what is popularly known as second-wave feminism. Feminist writers and intellectuals proclaimed that this ended in the ’80s with the recognition of a public role for women in the workplace and legal rights over their bodies. But cultural undercurrents usually have an insidious way of overcoming intellectual ones. The elite may have arrived at their happy consensus but nobody actually informed the poobahs of industry that their behavior was no longer acceptable.
Harvey Weinstein was one of that set. As the youngest of the powerful men preying on young girls uninhibited, Harvey is 65 years old today. Most of the allegations against him crescendo in the mid-90s. Bill O’Reilly clocks in at a close 68, he too having come of age before the gains of second-wave feminism translated into a commonly accepted zeitgeist.
Even Cosby’s pattern of alleged sexual assaults crested long before steroidal men had fully confronted the evolving role of women at the workplace. So, in hindsight, we should not have been surprised when Bill Clinton’s white stain came along in the ’90s. The 71-year-old Clinton belonged to this club too and as an impressionable 20-year old in the middle of the ’60s, he bloomed in a deeply misogynistic decade that the TV show Mad Men recreates for us: A time when men could whack their secretaries’ bottoms without fear of repercussion; where they could say things like “won’t let a woman talk to him this way”.
As an Atlantic article headlined “Mad Men’s Very Modern Sexism Problem” puts it, “We’re encouraged to shake our heads at these men and their outdated attitudes, but by presenting discrimination as a shocking feature of a past era, Mad Men lets us imagine that it’s just one more of those things that We Don’t Do Any More.”
Today, these old men may be tumbling out of their closets in America, but there is hope on the horizon that this parade may soon stop, as the Mad Men generation approach their twilight years. Soon, a new generation will take their place – a generation bred in a world that came of age after the gains of second wave feminism were the social norm.
India’s Long Road to Equal Access
India is on now going through its version of the second-wave transformation. In some ways and in some parts of the country, Indian women have always been more visible in the public sphere than women in the West. Every major South Asian state has had a female head of state; women have been active in politics since well before Independence including as voters with equal rights.
But on issues relating to sex and sexuality, however, we are only coming around to addressing the issues faced by women, children and other disadvantaged groups. Even in big metros, the idea of a woman self-identifying as initiators in the “mating game” hasn’t been seeded. Male members of the species are still taught to define their ‘manhood’ by getting a female member to switch a “no” to a “yes” by any means necessary.
However, there is a small glimmer of hope. As a member of the group that came of age in the 90s, we may well be the last generation of men in urban India not acquainted with the language of consent.
In the last couple of years, our cohort have had supposedly progressive men like RK Pachauri, Arunabh Kumar and Tarun Tejpal brought to their knees on charges of sexual harassment.
The next generation in upwardly mobile pockets of urban India are evolving ways to talk about ‘hooking up’. They belong to a cultural moment where the very words pre-marital and extra-marital sex are turning into quaint anachronisms from a prudish past. Young men are beginning to recognise the indicators of consent and women feel empowered to give consent.
The twin forces of empowering female consent to sexual activity (taking it out of the domain of secrecy and guilt) and a slow cultural shift away from shaming the victim, have altered the contours of the debate in subtle ways. Even the strange case of Manik Katyal, while highlighting his own personal depravity, further underlines the dramatic shift in public shaming away from the victim in urban India.
It may be a while before this conversation is mainstreamed from the commanding heights of yuppie Mumbai to the outer reaches of Chattisgarh … but it will happen.
Misogyny and sexual abuse abounds in every power structure within Indian society. So far, the reckoning for sexual promiscuity has largely been limited to godmen and others of whom a high bar of moral purity is expected. However, it’s not farfetched to predict that India’s own sexually abusive cultural icons, of the stature of Harvey or Cosby are also hiding in plain.
It’s only a matter of time before our own public reckoning for our deeply sexually abusive society blows open our protestations of public prudishness.
A version of this article was previously posted at arre.co.in.