The Cost of Creep-Proofing My Career

Gender

The Cost of Creep-Proofing My Career

Illustration: Akshita Monga/Arré

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here are always reasons for women not to tell our stories. When I react to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the story of a predator, I am the one who will be labelled difficult, a drama queen accused of exaggerating what looks from the perspective of privilege as normal. I will be seen as “attention-seeking”, and this, along with “bitch”, is the ultimate insult they can throw a woman’s way. As someone only intermittently employed, I can afford none of these labels.

I have not yet begun my story and already I am examining my motives and anticipating the fallout. But this is how we women live, in a state of suspension, forever ready to explain our actions, our words, our successes.

The Weinstein episode has disturbed me profoundly, maybe out of proportion, since my professional life as a film writer and producer, is hardly filled with assault, rape, revenge porn. Just colleagues whose hands wandered where they shouldn’t have. Clients who wanted more than edits delivered. Even as I use these incidents to make a point, something inside me tells me if this is all I experienced, I should be grateful. Grateful that I could handle it. Grateful that the hands stopped wandering at my insistence. Grateful that the client didn’t take his business elsewhere.

At only my second job – and my first full-time one – at a film production house, one of my first assignments was sorting out model pictures. In those days, it meant piles of physical photographs that had to be pasted on cards with contact details. I was told to sort the women models into three categories: Will give, Won’t give, and Don’t care. The boss laughed as he gave out these instructions. His male assistants joined in, and then to my surprise, so did the girls. My outrage, if any, was quickly nipped in the bud. The next time I laughed too. After all, I did not belong in that pile. They were not compartmentalising me into these sexualised categories. They respected me for my work.

That was all that mattered. My job. And it was not to stand up for the rights of other women. This was a lesson I learnt early. This was a lesson that took years to unlearn. I still find myself peeling away layers of judgment on occasion.

I escaped relatively unscathed and that’s all that mattered. But did I? I may not have visible emotional scars, but there are ones that we women bury so deep, that they are inaccessible even to us, that change us as people.

Treating women unequally, and then making us feel indebted to them for doing it, is a game that many men are experts at.

I changed too. After those initial semi-traumatic fumbles/propositions that were considered near normal, I developed a kind of “minority report” attitude to men who entered my stratosphere, judging them for their future predatory potential before I allowed myself to feel safe in their presence. How many networking opportunities did I miss because of this? How many outstation shoots did I avoid? How many clients did I not pursue? When deals were being made by the boys over drinks, I was home safe. Safe being the highest possible goal I reached out for.

This was where many women I spoke to said they missed the most opportunities. The idea of going out for drinks is one fraught with layers of nuance. A director friend, now based outside the country, tells me how much she loves to drink, and yet she often doesn’t go, because it requires too much strategising. Spotting and keeping the creeps at bay takes vast amounts of emotional energy. Another friend, a successful advertising producer-director may say it is all right that she lost out on film projects because she refused to join in the drinking game, where brainstorming sessions have very little to do with the brain, but seeing men with half the talent get twice the money for what could have been your job is not easy.

This is the price we pay for carving out our safe spaces. This is how we get stuck in them.

An actress I knew married a director, and suddenly all offers dried up. It is not that she was looking to be part of the casting couch, but even if she had, an alliance with a powerful man precludes all offers. Men, mostly unsure of the line between propriety and perversity find it easier to exclude women from the inner circle rather than get their acts in order. I have often felt that the respect I got from people in the business – and here respect does not mean they give you awards, but that they leave you alone – was that other than exercising extreme caution, I also have a powerful man in my life.

It is an old Indian tradition to elevate a woman to a pedestal, the devi, and then conveniently leave her out of the mainstream that was fit for mortals only. One of the country’s top production houses employs no women as production managers. The official rationale is that the patriarch, now dead, respected women too much to entrust them with such difficult, menial jobs. Benign patriarchy means that the men decide which jobs are suitable for us, confining us to offices and studios, conveniently leaving outdoor shoots as all male preserves where “men can be men.”

Many women are grateful to be shielded from this toxic male environment. At least he employs women as directors and editors, they tell me of the legendary late producer, as if that is any consolation to the out-of-work female production executive. Treating women unequally, and then making us feel indebted to them for doing it, is a game that many men are experts at. We dare not protest too much lest we be accused of taking feminism too far. For those used to privilege, equality, after all, is taking things too far.

Inequality costs us far more than professional opportunities. We lose parts of ourselves in the process to stay ahead. We become bitches – louder, shriller, and meaner than we would normally be. Some of the most successful women directors and production managers in the business liberally use Hindi expletives, ironically ones that degrade the female anatomy, for this is the only language the vast crew under them understands and respects.

A woman friend, a producer at a big Bollywood production house, once offered an assistant a lift home from the shoot. The assistant, male, assumed it was a booty call. She was merely being kind. A man in her place would perhaps have had something of a sexual nature in mind had the roles been reversed. How dare the bitch think she can have the privilege of kindness? Since that day, she travels home alone in her “snooty bitch” mode. If that is what they were going to label her, she was going to own it. It is safer being a bitch.

As much as we embrace our inner bitches, it gets tiring after a while. Tiring to go against our better natures. Tiring to man up. But we know what the consequences are, should we let our guards down. There are Weinsteins, Tejpals, and Pachauris and all the men in film I dare not mention, lurking everywhere, because I still exist there, if only on the fringes.

There will be no Brad Pitts to save us. Even Pitt himself, shielded only his girlfriend. Even he, with his power, stuck to the bro code and let Weinstein free to harass others. It is only when the women started speaking up, that others joined in. In the end it is the sisterhood that will have to fight the bro code. The circle of secrecy, of shame, like the glass ceiling, will shatter only when women take a swing at it.

And that is why, despite my many misgivings, I write this. Because I have the privilege that nothing too bad happened to me. Because I have the perspective of age and experience. Because I have a comfortable bank balance. Because of all the times I could not speak up, and all the women I could not protect.

Of one thing I am sure. We cannot rely on the men to speak against one of their own.

Let me end by telling you my story. It was my very first job at a magazine. I was recruited by this journalist from college and I was going to be a writer. Life looked good. One night, not very late, he offered me a lift on the way home, and I accepted. And then, despite my vociferous protests, my very firm “nos”, he proceeded to put his hands where he had no permission to. So traumatic was the incident that I still remember what I was wearing that day – a blue turtleneck I never wore again. Luckily for me I was in a taxi, a public space, and I could escape. I got away – easily I am told – but nothing about that evening seemed easy to the 20-year-old me.

I continued working for the magazine, for the other option, the safe option, was staying at home. I remained friends with him, because pretending nothing happened is the easy way out. He also said sorry, but I still don’t know what that means.

What I did not realise then is that I should have had other options. I should have gone to the editor, a woman who I hardly knew then, but one who mentored me subsequently. She would have listened to me. Later, this man married a friend and colleague, a wonderfully empowered woman. I went to the wedding. Perhaps I should have told her. She may have taken my side. Surely she deserved to know. Even if she had chosen to marry him anyway, it would have been an informed choice.

But I kept quiet. As many women do. Afraid that it is our fault.

I did not trust in the sisterhood then. One day we will be powerful enough to protect our own. But only if we speak out now.

Silence does not protect us. Our silence protects the perpetrator. There are girls growing up on our watch. They can have the opportunities we missed. Their talent need not be held hostage by their gender. We have to speak up for them. Silence is the real crime. I’ve decided it is time to scream.

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