Women who dare to be disliked

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Barkha Dutt :

There are many reasons to admire Kangana Ranaut—her acting prowess, her stylish good looks, her gumption, her self-made journey to stardom from a village in Manali to the razzmatazz of Mumbai, how she slept on pavements when she had to, fought physical abuse from an early mentor, taught herself English and the confidence with which she wears her outsider status in an incestuous, insular industry. But none of this is why I like Kangana. I like her because she doesn’t give a damn about not being liked.

Fiercely independent women who make it on their own terms and refuse to conform to other people’s expectations of them are routinely disliked—and incidentally, by both men and women—because patriarchy and misogyny are the one thing that is gender-neutral. When you can’t fit a complex woman on the inside of a neat little box that can be pinned with a red bow and kept away; when your labels run short, when the worst you say about her (whore, bitch, slut, gold-digger, unstable, crazy, vulgar) doesn’t break her self-esteem; when your fantasy that even if she is successful, she must be so lonely gets challenged; when there is no man, picket fence, child or dog to complete your version of what her family portrait should look like and when your toxic whispers are unable to crush her individualism or flatten her into submission—all you are left to attack her with is dislike. Women who succeed—and especially those who do so by drafting their own rules—must be ready to grow the thickest hide possible and embrace their unpopularity. Kangana is one such person.

For me this is not about something as narrow or specific as the nepotism debate (full disclosure: Karan Johar is a dear friend); as the media-professional daughter of a journalist I can hardly hold forth on that with honesty. Nor is it about who is right and wrong in the intimate battle between Hrithik Roshan and Kangana. But while she gathers kudos in public every time she fights back, the truth is that Kangana is constantly deconstructed in the most unflattering terms and often in full public gaze. She has been vilified on social media, mocked in swish drawing rooms and, of course, had both her mental health and her sexual morality questioned.

Every time I praise Kangana or she has come on one of my shows, there is enormous admiration from one section of viewers, but intense pushback from another, including many of her industry colleagues. I have been accused of foisting undeserved feminist iconography onto her persona; I have been told she is an illusionist living a deluded life. I have heard way more than I need to know about her personal proclivities—true or false, I have no idea. She has been smeared, abused, made fun of and yes, sometimes, even socially shunned by her fraternity. She is prefixed to controversy, real or manufactured—an age-old trolling tool to silence women who prefer to smash the status quo.

Yet, she has remained unchanged and unbent, utterly comfortable with her own imperfections, angularities, eccentricities and weaknesses and absolutely self-possessed and anchored by her own strength. Not once has she surrendered to peer pressure and adapted her personality to ‘fit in’. She has remained stubbornly individualistic. She has remained herself. The rest be damned.

Among women, very few of us are able to withstand that sort of public and personal pressure. But once you do, and other people’s opinions about you cease to matter, you discover a genuine sense of liberation. Isn’t that what feminism is all about—freedom?

So here’s my toast to women who dare to be disliked.

Reproduced from The Week.

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