You really have to worry about the future of feminism when Jon Stewart, a white guy, has to point out the pervading gender stereotypes in our culture. I am talking of the sexy picture of Caitlyn Jenner plastered all over the media. When I first saw it, I felt a distinct sense of disquiet. I could not quite put my finger on the reason, however. Until Jon Stewart ridiculed the acolytes the media was piling upon Bruce Jenner for his successful transition to womanhood. The message then became clear; wearing a corset made you a woman. My confusion was compounded by the fact that I had always thought that a corset was something Scarlett O’Hara had worn to shrink her waist, not an outfit a modern woman could wear in public. I began to wonder if I had failed as a woman by not ever putting one on. Sure, I have sported sexy lingeries and stockings on occasion, but only for my partner.
After Jon Stewart—how I miss him already—stated the obvious, women writers jumped into the fray. But the damage had already been done. We had been told that women were only concerned with gossiping and looking sexy.
A New York Times op-ed articulated my misgivings. A white man who had been adored as a hero for decades could never understand what it was like to live an entire life as a woman, Elinor Burkett wrote, particularly a woman born in a certain era.
I could not agree more.
Burkett did not stop at deriding the gender stereotype evoked by the Jenner photo, but went on to criticize the transgender community for pushing its agenda on all women.
Her comments gave me pause. I recalled a writing workshop not too long ago where a transgender who was biologically a woman but chose to live as a man accused me of “not getting it.”
I felt he had insulted my intelligence. Of course I got it. What I did not get was why the entire workshop had to focus on this person’s “in your face” sexual agenda. The transgender community has no doubt suffered discrimination for centuries. Still, I believe that every individual has a right to prioritize his or her own political agenda, and not everyone puts gay marriage or transgender rights at the top of their list. Particularly if they have suffered discrimination in various forms, not only from men but from women too.
Take me, for example. Growing up with a psychologically troubled mother, I looked up to my father for a role model. The oldest and the strongest child, I was forced to act like a male in a very traditional society. I stood in lines at railway stations to be jostled by men; I rode bicycles late at night and got molested in the dark; I did many things girls and women simply did not do in India. I developed the brain of a man. I was forced to be aggressive, outspoken, courageous, and adventurous. I was encouraged to take risks. These are qualities generally associated with men. At the same time, I had to conceal my intensely sensitive, emotional, and vulnerable female psyche behind a tough façade. The result was a dichotomy I have had to live with all my life. My outward appearance, complete with knee-length hair, high cheekbones, and a petite physique, projected an image that at times was the opposite of what I felt inside. Even after I came to the United States and cut my hair, I suffered indignities like being ignored in professional meetings and receiving patronizing treatment. The worst came when women, too, sometimes treated me as an outsider because of my lack of girlish banter. Even today, I feel like an odd man out in certain all-female groups with cliquish, exclusionary vibes.
All such experiences could make me sympathize with people like Jenner, if only they could refrain from prescribing to me the Hollywood ideal of sexiness and femininity, if only they could avoid telling us the psychological qualities that make us feminine.
There is a continuum of male and female attributes that we all have, I think. Some men look physically masculine but are shy, emotional, and sweet, as my sons sometimes can be. Some women are warriors because they have had to fight all their lives.
Besides, I cannot help but be suspicious of someone like Caitlyn Jenner, whose motives for the media splash seem questionable. Is money and fame the object, I wonder, particularly since I have just discovered that Jenner was on a TV show with the Kardashians, a family known perhaps to every American but me? Transgenderism is no doubt the latest bandwagon on which the media is jumping. But my message to Jenner and the media is simple. Under the guise of promoting transgender rights, don’t reduce me to a body in a white corset.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.