Why AIB Tries So Hard To Be Feminist — And Fails Every Time

I am a woman but I am also a person. But my body is constantly being gendered. I cannot escape this trap.

All India Bakchod — or AIB, as they are better known — is an Indian comedy group. They’re really famous and they’re out and open feminist. Kind of. It does not take more than a minute (of their 3-minute videos) to see the problematic nature of the feminism they have adopted and propagated.

Tanmay Bhatt, one of the founders and writers of AIB describes feminism as “basic equality between the sexes”. “If you believe men and women have equal rights, that’s it! That’s what a feminist is,” he says. Which is correct! Kind of. Declaring oneself a feminist is one thing, but understanding how to navigate life while being a feminist… well, that can be difficult — but it’s a learning process!

To begin with, it is important to understand patriarchy in the Indian context to understand feminism in the Indian context. While one may wish for men and women to be equal, it is important to understand why they aren’t yet. This is because of systems – both visible and invisible – that operate on economic, sexual, social and political levels that discriminate against and oppress women, denying them access to same opportunities that are afforded to men.

This discrimination, of course, varies according to caste, class, sex, gender, sex, religion and sexuality in India. And the lack of this very understanding had led AIB to become an unwitting but active participant in the creation of a mythological India which is casteless (code for savarna), classless (upper-class), atheist (definitely Hindu), sexless (men) and nauseatingly heterosexual.

They are an unwitting participant because they do not understand the issue at hand, because they do not see how identities are constructed and played out in our country. And the reason for this lack of insight – or even the curiosity to understand it — is their privileged background. In caste, sex, religion, and class, they seem to occupy a prime position of privilege in India.

In abundance or among the privileged, the markers of identities become invisible, and we find that the majority itself becomes invisible. They become invisible precisely because they are in abundance. Imagine – if everyone in a group belongs to the same class, caste (if not always religion), sexuality and sex, would these identities be apparent and visible to them? Their attitudes would suffer a change only when confronted with diversity, which lacks in their present company, and consequently, their thought.

Richard Dyer points this out in his ground-breaking work White. Speaking on the “non-raced” nature of whiteness, Dyer explains how the majority becomes invisible by normalizing itself, by being everywhere. Having set itself as the standard for normal, it is no longer special, it escapes notice and thus escapes the act of being called out at all. Whiteness becomes a “human condition” instead of just a particular condition. It thus escapes notice.

Seeing as the cast of AIB belongs to a certain privileged caste, class, sexuality, sex and religious ratio, the only difference that they can see, place their finger on is the Other Sex (and remember, there is only one here, because more than two sexes do not exist in this paradigm of patriarchy).  In doing so, AIB replicates the very models of patriarchy it seeks out to address.

To better explain it with an example, let us first divide AIB’s videos into two sections “generic” and “female-oriented/feminist” videos. The first type of content, as the name suggests, deals with humour relating to generic instances (“Mummy Ki Call”, Campus Placements”) and the latter include videos which are directly related to the ‘empowerment’ of women (“Harassment Through The Ages”, “Rape: It’s Your Fault” etc.).

What (a very light) examination of such bifurcation of content reveals is the obvious gender bias –and this is just at the ‘generic’ level of sex! (The can of worms with the caste, class, sexuality bias is too huge to be dealt with in this article, but relevant nonetheless.)

We see with AIB that women are allowed to come to the fore only when it is time to discuss their problems, to “empower” them. This seems to suggest that women largely do not have a life outside the bounds of their lives as victims of patriarchy. That they do not have their joys, their laughs — their stories. But by relegating women to this space of the Other, AIB further ostracizes and Otherizes women. As a recent article on the portrayal of black pain in America excellently points out, there is more to a minority than its problems. There are also traditions of loves, of finding reprieve, of secret lives and loud joys.

Further, AIB only skims over the oppressive structures that govern the lives of women, but it does not investigate, it does not explore, it does not solve. It stops at the interviews, the round-table discussions, the songs, the snapchat video revelations. It does not implement this idea of feminism in all of its videos.

Food for thought: Women can be empowered by being included in skits. More. Much, much more.

AIB also seems really afraid of addressing other minorities or sub-minorities (or perhaps they have forgotten they exist), preferring to focus on a uniform class(less) and caste(less community) of women. Feminism is not just the belief that men and women are equal. It is an expansive, ever-evolving idea. And it would be great to just dive into this movement and see the various forms it has taken to embrace environment, sexuality, economy, religion, caste, etc., into its framework, without only buying into the narrow, westernized white-feminist philosophy.

Feminism is about questioning heteronormative ideas about gender being equal to sex.  It is also a starting point to realize that the categories of men and women are arbitrary by nature — but that comes at a later point. First, it is important to see how the compact division of the sexes, our heteronormative, straight, casteist culture, and Hindu fundamentalism all configure in the larger national project. It is important to see how identities in India are configured.

Caste is a social reality as much as AIB or anyone privileged might be inclined to deny. So is the LGBT (hint: look at website this article is being published on) community and yes, they also intersect.

For good satire and good comedy, there is a need for deeper critical thinking. It is important to examine the place of privilege you are coming from, and how your privilege of caste, class, sexuality, religion etc., has contributed to your life.

And if AIB does read this, and decides to do something about it, here’s a tip to writing female characters by Junot Diaz (one dude to another, because we know how much you love dudes #nohomo):

“The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck. The baseline is it takes so long for you to work those atrophied muscles—for you to get on parity with what women’s representations of men are. …I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.”

Recently, owing to the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment charges, the hashtag #metoo has been trending, seeking to spread awareness about how sexual harassment is not unique to a select few but the entire female gender. While the practicalities and effectiveness of the hashtag may be debatable, it’s another way a movement, the feminist movement, has decided to mobilize itself. Unsurprisingly, AIB also decided to ‘participate’ in its own unique way: it asked its followers on Twitter to tell them about the times they have been sexist.

If this is not another example of patriarchal masculine arrogance, I don’t know what is. This is sexist! Right here! This tweet is just another way of making a mockery of self-reflection and correction. This privileged position from which the majority (here, male) can demand the minority (here, women) to educate them about their oppression, about the flaws in the ideology of the majority. Why must the onus of educating the majority be on the minority AGAIN? Can AIB not go through their archive themselves and create a catalogue for themselves if they so please? Perhaps include graphs and tables to pinpoint the exact moment of their regression.

This sense of entitlement is what needs to change. The conversation on patriarchy, on feminism is not new. It is not a day old. It is centuries old. What more is there to tell, to ask? We are only repeating ourselves. The #metoo is just another way the movement is keeping itself alive, but it is not new. It is still demanding the same things. It is asking for women to be treated as humans, to show that our gender overrides our condition of humanity.

Patriarchy uses our vulnerability as humans and turns into a charge against us as women. It genders us at every step. Thus gendered, it creates a trap for women who wish to be seen just as a “person”, all the while abusing our gendered flesh in the name of granting personhood.

In other words, I am a woman but I am also a person. But my body is constantly being gendered. I cannot escape this trap. If I ask for equality, the world construes it as asking to be treated like a “man”. And here, we remember what Dyer had said about whiteness being the invisible standard and see how the category of “man” replaces the category of “human”.

When we ask to be equal, when we ask for personhood, it is seen as a demand to be men. Because men are equal, men are persons. And if we are asking for equality, we are asking to be men — and if we are asking to be men, then we must not shy away from the challenges that the world throws at us. We must face them as bravely as men. But the challenges that men and women face are not the same! What a terrible complicated trap patriarchy has created! How many people has it devoured to spit out men, men, men!?

The gendered flesh of women poses their first challenge. In every stage of life, as a child, as an adolescent, our personhood is broken by our gender. We must be punished for the transgressive nature of our pursuit for personhood. Competing for personhood, some of us either try to discard our gender, so we become the cool girl who doesn’t care about things like feminism; we say the things we’ve faced are not because we’re women, they’re incidental, accidental. And some of us become feminists, some shy, some hesitant, some loud, some angry, some — well, there’s a lots of kinds of women (people?) so I don’t have enough space to write all of us down, but one thing is common: we are all suffering because of patriarchy. In this competition for personhood.

On being questioned about the lack of women in comedy in the (infuriating) discussion on sexism in comedy industry with Anupama Chopra, Tanmay Bhatt, believer in “larger good”, said, “It’s a circle, you don’t see enough women doing stand-up and not enough women will end up doing stand-up… somebody has to break it,” and “Everybody has to do their bit”, implying that women don’t do their “bit” and thus don’t make it to the top. But he also nods his head vigorously when Aditi Mittal, one of India’s best comedians, talks about the lack of opportunities given to women in terms of the space to grow.

What Bhatt does not realize is that it is patriarchy that creates “social structures”, as Aditi Mittal points out, which does not allow women to “do their bit”. And can we just appreciate Aditi’s patience and dry humour when she says, “no, no I’m learning about being a female in comedy…” after all the men have interrupted and spoken over her?

Mittal talks about this “bro-hood” which dominates the comic scene and insists that there is an urgent need for the “existence of female narrative — a female funny narrative” to come to the fore. May the force be with you, Aditi.

PS: this panel had only one woman.

For all its support of feminism, AIB always falls short of understanding just what the movement is about, and the philosophy behind it. So when AIB says, “Please tell me of times I have contributed to sexism. #IAmListening”, begrudgingly I want to point to this article and say, this many times.

About the author

Sunflower

Sunflower is a student of literature and enjoys dabbling in different areas of research. Translation and poetry are especially interesting to them.