Women in Malayalam cinema have expressed solidarity with a young actor who got trolled on social media for wearing a dress of her choice via the online campaign ‘women have legs’. Many actors have vehemently resisted the trolls, paying them back in their own coin of hatred and anger, sneering at them as ‘unlettered’, ‘jobless’, and ‘unacquainted’ with western culture and feminist writings.
Such responses from actors often stimulate the interest of media and society and are highlighted as positive examples of standing up for personal freedom. However, there are some fundamental problems with the ‘women have legs’ campaign.
First and foremost, it is worrying that the actors could be right and the trolls could in fact be ill-educated and unemployed youth, who possibly lack the privilege of class power and wealth yet, have access to the world’s cheapest mobile data. In a country like India, the issues related to the protection and security of women have to be viewed in conjunction with a deeper crisis that exists among its younger generation. The unemployment rate in the country has hit an all time high of 23.5% following the closure of business during the pandemic. In the state of Kerala, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate has reached a 40-month high of 26.5% in May 2020.
Second, the campaign ‘women have legs’ is in distaste of the entire opposite sex. This false dichotomy gives rise to a wrong notion of the battle of sexes and could estrange even the allies among men. Following the rise of violence against women, legal experts like Ratna Kapur have affirmed that stringent laws/policies or stricter law enforcement may not be the answer to a deep-seated societal problem. The need of the hour is to foster equality in ways that are not threatening, by involving young men as advocates for women’s rights.
Third, the very sincerity of the campaign, which projects a sisterhood or camaraderie among actors, is questionable. Psychological studies confirm that trolling is a status-enhancing activity attracting attention and approval. Trolling encourages people to be instinctive by providing them with anonymity. Perhaps campaigns such as ‘women have legs’ pick up tremendous support as it is easy to contest less powerful and anonymous individuals. For example, it is evident that the formation of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) – formed following the assault of a female actor – has not won equivalent massive support in Malayalam cinema. Several female actors who had given favourable statements supporting the assaulted actor during the initial investigation stages have recently disavowed their earlier stance.
Female actors are hesitant to respond to controversial issues that involve powerful male colleagues unless the former are veterans or part of an established clique. They dodge questions on equal pay, WCC, and feminism, leading to vicarious embarrassment among the educated viewers, who look up to them as role models and privileged advocates of gender equity. This deep-seated culture of silence, denial, or even justification of existing hierarchies is a clear indication of deep-rooted internalised oppression and prevalent power dynamics.
Lastly, can we wash our hands of the responsibility of raising a disoriented generation when our education system undermines gender equity? Post-economic liberalisation, India’s urban population frequents cafes and malls, shops for happiness, and travels abroad for vacations. In stark contrast, another section of society is destined to work like a horse and live like a saint to fight poverty.
There are no economic solutions proposed to integrate marginalised individuals into a rapidly growing society and reasons for their aberrant behaviours are not examined, understood, and dealt with. Having great influence especially over the younger generation, the least the actors can do is to meet with them, engage in productive conversations, involve in community activities to promote causes such as gender and class equity and share such experiences with the public.
According to activists like bell hooks, feminist politics is about coming up with strategies to empower women and men of all classes. We need to critically introspect whether movements like ‘women have legs’ are in fact exposing our feet of clay.
Priya Harindranathan has a PhD in Education, Equity and Transformation from the School of Education, Colorado State University (CSU), and is currently a researcher at the Center for the Analytics of Learning and Teaching (C-ALT), CSU.