Goodbye #WomenSupportingWomen. Welcome to the New Slanderous Sisterhood


Goodbye #WomenSupportingWomen. Welcome to the New Slanderous Sisterhood

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Lockdown changes us all in unexpected ways. People who never used to step into a kitchen have emerged as unlikely masterchefs, while every cutthroat career person I know has apparently moved to the hills to find themselves. As for me, the early months of lockdown found me becoming an enthusiastic social media challenge person. Most recently, it was the #WomenSupportingWomen challenge in July where I posted a black-and-white selfie, spurred on by women friends who had nominated me. The #GoodVibesOnly patina of those days seems like a thing of the past. Now that our news cycle is dominated by increasingly unhinged speculations over actor Rhea Chakraborty’s nefarious role in actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s untimely death, the idea of #WomenSupportingWomen seems almost quaint.

After being harassed by the press, public figures, and online trolls, Chakraborty is now in jail charged with marijuana possession, while the serious claims made against her have not yet been borne out in the ongoing investigation. One of the first to wade into the row was actor Kangana Ranaut, who considered Sushant a victim of Bollywood nepotism and demanded justice for him. Since then Ranaut has changed her tune from accusations of abetting suicide, and is now claiming that the entertainment industry is little better than a drug cartel. On primetime and social media, the saga of Chakraborty – and by extension, Ranaut – is inescapable.

#WomenSupportingWomen was a far cry from this systematic tearing down of a woman that has now become a kind of national blood sport. Earthshaking scandals are often put on the shoulders of the women deemed to be at the centre of them; Chakraborty’s position is not so different from Monica Lewinsky in the ’90s, an intern who was vilified non-stop in the press even as President Clinton, with whom she had an affair, was painted as a victim of her wiles.

The hope of female solidarity

The unfairly named “Lewinsky Scandal” was perhaps the first of these scarlet letterings to go global thanks to the power of the internet — which is also why the sentiment of #WomenSupportingWomen is more than a cliche. The latest show of social media collectivism comes from Malayalam and Tamil actors banding together for #WomenHaveLegs, after actor Anaswara Rajan was trolled for posting a picture wearing shorts last week. Fellow Mollywood actors like Parvathy and Nazriya came to Rajan’s defense, with many posting carefree pictures with their own bare legs with the hashtag. Female networks have long served as a saving grace when women are marginalised by the mainstream.

Hopefully, this solidarity won’t prove as short-lived as it has been in Hindi media, where “women supporting women” has reached a new low. Ranaut recently stigmatised senior actor Urmila Matondkar as a soft porn star in an interview with “news” anchor Navika Kumar — a woman who has spent the last two months speculating on whether Chakraborty is a daayan or simply a mafia moll.

As for why Matondkar was insulted on national television? She took exception to Ranaut’s characterisation of Bollywood as a drug nexus, and Mumbai as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Matondkar suggested Ranaut turn her attention to the rampant drug production in her home state of Himachal Pradesh instead of playing the victim card. She also asked why Ranaut never brought her insider knowledge of drug-trade to the police. Ranaut’s response was to slut-shame Matondkar — a bold move considering Ranaut herself has done her share of “vampy” roles, and spoken against judging women by their clothes.

For her part, Navika Kumar did nothing to stop Ranaut’s tirade in the segment entitled “Frankly Speaking”, nor did she address the undeniable hypocrisy of her insults towards Matondkar. She simply looked on as Ranaut slandered another woman live on-air. The message was clear: With the kind of establishment power Ranaut and Kumar wield, they don’t have to worry about being treated the same way they treat other women.

The dawn of a new sisterhood

Clearly, the sisterhood has taken a hit since millions of women poured their hearts out on social media in a bid for feminine solidarity. Nor did Ranaut stop with Matondkar. Actor and MP Jaya Bachchan expressed her alarm when fellow actor-turned-MP Ravi Kishan praised the draconian arrest of Chakraborty. Bachchan criticised Kishan for tarnishing the industry that launched his career based on a few individuals. Ranaut piled onto Bachchan to proclaim herself the pioneer of feminism in Bollywood, an industry that has given her nothing. It’s worth noting that Bachchan, beginning her career a quarter-century before Ranaut was born, holds the record for Filmfare Awards wins by an actress. She walked so Ranaut could run.

This murky stew of drugs, nepotism, and mental illness that has come to permeate the sprawling Rajput case was never complete without a heaping dose of misogyny. As the confusing misinformation mounted, Chakraborty’s status as a sacrificial lamb was cemented by women like Kumar. Rajput’s ex-girlfriend, actor Ankita Lokhande for instance, claimed Chakraborty lied about his mental health problems despite evidence given by four professionals he’d consulted. Chakraborty is dealing with what Mean Girls would call “girl-on-girl violence.”

The narrative of women tearing each other down is age old; actor Jameela Jamil and celebrity Chrissy Teigen have recently spoken out about their names being dragged into every headline without provocation, just for clickbait. Jamil has lambasted “tabloid culture” that thrives on pitting women against each other — a phenomenon we Indians consume through our saas-bahu serials, which operate on the premise that women can’t possibly co-exist in harmony. They are forever administering poison through glasses of sharbat and taking channa out of the cooker. No wonder it’s so easy for women to see Chakraborty and countless others as villains.

But women’s support isn’t dead yet; actors like Vidya Balan, Sonam Kapoor, and Taapsee Pannu have condemned the witch-hunt of Chakraborty even as their male counterparts largely stay silent. With #WomenSupportingWomen, maybe it’s time for another social media campaign to bring us together again?