The Decline of “Aunty Feminists”: Why Feminism Needs an Update in a Post-Me Too World


The Decline of “Aunty Feminists”: Why Feminism Needs an Update in a Post-Me Too World

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Well, fuck, Indian women. What a strange, neurotic, upsetting, exhilarating month we’ve had.

Over the past three weeks – ever since Christine Blasey Ford’s US Senate hearing and Tanushree Dutta’s allegations against Nana Patekar – I’ve experienced more emotions than can be expressed through the navarasas. What’s the Sanskrit word for “triggered”, for instance? Where’s “confusion”?

But more than anything, there’s been “raudra” – anger – spinning out like a tentacled monster. At every new #MeToo account from every industry, from advertising to art to corporate India, my female colleagues and I have screamed at our laptops, thrashing about like injured elephants. Some of the men who have been exposed, have been men we’ve known at a close range, which has made us want to buy flamethrowers. (We haven’t yet, but that doesn’t mean the urge to set fire to the world has passed.)

But this is good, this cathartic blowing of the lid of collective pent-up aggression. This is necessary, for it has allowed our rage to flow. Now that the shock is over, hopefully, we will walk into this post-MeToo world with a deeper, sharper understanding of the work that lies ahead.

In an essay titled “One Year of #MeToo: What Women’s Speech Is Still Not Allowed to Do”, Jia Tolentino draws out the difference between the #MeToo “moment” and “movement”: One is a spontaneous but finite maelstrom of rage and grief, similar to the kind we are experiencing in India right now, and the other implies a progression, a continuum.  

Our time for settling into a continuum has arrived.

With journalists like Priya Ramani and Meenal Baghel who took on the task of bringing men like union minister MJ Akbar down, the lines between the genders have never been more tightly drawn. We will be forced to confront, question, and debate what should and should not be part of the #MeToo movement and we will introduce some much-needed nuance into what has – up until now – just been raw, visceral rage.

As someone who was so cockily assured of her feminism, I’ve had my own notions examined in the last exceptional few weeks.

As the slew of allegations against famous and not-so-famous men started appearing, I’ve found myself questioning whether some of them deserve to be yoked to #MeToo. In WhatsApp groups comprising older women friends, I’ve asked, “Is this also harassment?” or “How do you casually sext without objectifying a person you’ve never met and have no intention of meeting?” or “But yaar, equating a bad date with actual assault dilutes the movement.”

But this, I’ve been told in very firm tones, is “aunty feminist” behaviour, a term I learnt last year, when Raya Sarkar compiled an anonymous list of sexual harassers in academia, causing a rift between women who took exception to the list for unsubstantiated allegations, and those who’d had enough of the broken “due process”. Having come to adulthood in a time when feminism still meant arguing with your mother to stay out late and choosing to remain unmarried and asserting your right to make unconventional career choices, I’ve internalised behaviours that sparkling young women around me are refusing to accept. In the process, my feminism has proven in severe need of a software update. The world around us changed in the blink of an eye. I looked away for one second and the ground beneath my feet had shifted.

As someone who was so cockily assured of her feminism, I’ve had my own notions examined in the last exceptional few weeks. I’ve got an education in the entire gamut of terrible male behaviour, and my hobbyhorse – “We must introduce nuance into this debate” – has been invalidated. The definition of what is admissible and what men can get away with, has changed. Perhaps forever.  

Aunty feminists are pitched against “millennial” feminists, women who will settle for nothing less than holding men to account for every kind of painful behaviour. Amanda Petrusich writes in a New Yorker essay, about this same generational divide that sprang up in the wake of America’s #MeToo moment – millennial feminists with their “harsh, zero-tolerance policy toward uncomfortable behaviour of any sort,” versus older women who “support a more pliable and supposedly forgiving philosophy, which better takes into account the inherent messiness of sexual negotiations.” Petrusich writes that the divide itself is a kind of Catch-22 situation, because after all, we’re all on the same side. How we respond to sexual abuse and terrible behaviour and what retributive justice means to individuals, is eventually less important than the argument that abuse should not take place at all.  

What next, though? Now that we’ve examined male behaviour across the spectrum of awfulness, where do we go from here? This is a question I’ve parroted to myself and my women friends over and over. We’ve swung between sheer euphoria and a cynicism-stained hopelessness.

On one side are the after-effects of the outing, where I see women witnessing the unfair blowback from the messes that the men in their lives have created – comedian Mallika Dua, for instance, taking the flak for the charges levelled against her father, journalist Vinod Dua. And then the most important, sobering question of whether the momentum of #MeToo can be sustained at all.

Maybe the individual cases will come to justice – maybe they won’t. But one thing is clear: #MeToo will have knocked hard at the hinges of the door of patriarchy.

Tolentino introduced the phrase “delusive optimism” in her essay. That’s the phase we are currently in – a kind of delusive optimism about how far this juggernaut will go. None of us knew two weeks ago that when a comedian who sends unsolicited dick pics to women was outed on a Twitter thread, it would lead to the resignation of a union minister. What women’s rage and speech is capable of, we are unable to fully comprehend yet.

Maybe our #MeToo moment has already achieved its purpose: It has allowed women everywhere to scream into the void and have a public catharsis, to register their presence, and have someone acknowledge it, and briefly, feel like their stories are important too. Maybe that’s enough for some of us, for now.

Maybe the individual cases will come to justice – maybe they won’t. But one thing is clear: #MeToo will have knocked hard at the hinges of the door of patriarchy. It’s sent the men around me into an introspective silence – at least the bright ones; the mansplainers are still out there, insistent on public handwringing, virtue-signalling in the worst way possible by starting Twitter threads and FB discussions that are best described as a massacre of air.

At the very least, we will all come out of this with a better understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable to us. It will have us thinking about solutions, no matter how broken, makeshift, temporary, or mitigating they might be.  

So if one minister is forced to resign; if one HR manager in one organisation is able to put their foot down and refuse to hire someone with a problematic history of sexual harassment; if one director crashes at the box office as a result of the allegations against him; if one dude steps up to stop his male friend’s douchebaggery, we’ll have achieved something.

We’ll have pushed the needle.