A Postcard for Lena Dunham
I am writing from a very aspirational city- Bengaluru - in southern India. Many privileged women, here, are desperately trying to ape you and your lifestyle. I have lived in Delhi among young women, not unlike yourself. Looking for sexual horizons different from their mothers, looking for autonomy in however spurious a version. A lot of them in the media and arts – routinely turning into sexual fodder for powerful men. Their experiments often turn against them. But they conduct them, in any case. Out of twenty-first century ‘neoliberal angst’, as well as out of a thing called Feminism. And so do you. I am four or five years older than you, and you kind of reminded me of my youth. I would have been a combination of you and Jessa – indulgent, triumphalist, ultimately vulnerable. In watching Girls and reading Not That Kind of Girl, I remember a lot of those tumultuous years with a protective sentiment towards my younger self. I wish I had drunk less. I wish I had not dated that one. But, I come from India, Lena. From South Asia. Where women are silenced and routinely punished for wanting to live differently. The word ‘dignity’ is used often to shame their desires, their frustrations, their audacity to express desire. The spectre of capitalism is often invoked to cut to size their political selves. Once you are walking around in a cool Jockey bra, running in Nike shoes, and taking off Victoria’s Secret in bed, you can’t be political any more. I would urge these critics to read like the lovely Elle cover of Arundhati Roy, published recently – if that’s not a nice lefty package, I don’t know what it is!
I won’t say much about your critics, Lena, because you have so many. That’s the first sign that you’re something bigger than you realize yourself. I write of this one critic, I read this morning, in theGuardian Books section – mostly because she is a South Asian women. I write to let you know not all of us South Asian women think like her. It is mundane matronly rebuke. You have been asked not to get naked as often, and not to make naked your feelings and desires in such a ‘ribald’ manner. Let me quote:
There is a lesson for all women here: declaring a woman’s sovereignty over body and mind must not be reduced to a willingness to be naked, to prurient confessions or anecdotes of despair and self-doubt. These books may sell well in their “empowering” packaging, but accomplish little and may even hurt the cause itself. If dominion over the self is one feminist imperative, so too is dignity. Claiming one should not mean – no, must not mean – relinquishing the other.
But listen, Lena, to the censure my mother offered me yesterday. I run in a staid pair of pink shorts, I love them, but they are not good for a sweating butt. Being inside a somewhat permissive, upper class gated community, I am know I am safe. I won’t get raped for wearing shorts, at least I have security guards watching over me. There goes my class card. But I never dare to wear the really tiny black Nike running shorts that D had bought me when we lived in Connecticut. One morning I wore them. It was rainy, I knew not too many people would be out. So I could revel in feeling my slowly toning thighs. My mother, who is a very permissive person (by matron standards, considering she allowed me to live with a boyfriend) said, “Not here, my dear, I am not saying don’t wear it. Wear it when you’re abroad.” I want you to know Lena, that is how, ‘abroad’ came to be a place where desire goes to find completion. That is how Girls came to me at a point where I was beginning to re-desi-ize myself thinking all of this sex-business is all capitalism and ‘Western culture’. You made me think – but no, capitalism tells this story easily and makes the ‘ribald’ into a commodity, but the ‘ribald’ exists everywhere in wedding-songs, in hushed gossip, in afternoon diaries. You were using capital to tell a story which is hidden under the carpet in most societies, especially WASP society.
To the matronly censure you’re encountering these days, Lena, I give you a character like my mother. Who quietly turned her eyes away from the hidden locker of ‘skimpy’ clothes. Knowing she had to protect me from patriarchy of our family. Knowing as well that I would craft my own away out of it, she just had to look away at the right times. She often tells me, in amusement, what the Guardian matron has told you, ‘lojja nei!’ (‘Shameless!’) And she looks into the horizon with a triumphant glint in her eye for the feminist monster that she had carefully raised.