Home Culture Monthly Review | Hegemonic Femininity in Popular Culture: Heteronormative Appropriation of Lesbian Sexualities in Contemporary India through Neeraj Ghaywan’s ‘Geeli Pucchi’

Monthly Review | Hegemonic Femininity in Popular Culture: Heteronormative Appropriation of Lesbian Sexualities in Contemporary India through Neeraj Ghaywan’s ‘Geeli Pucchi’

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Monthly Review | Hegemonic Femininity in Popular Culture: Heteronormative Appropriation of Lesbian Sexualities in Contemporary India through Neeraj Ghaywan’s ‘Geeli Pucchi’


Aratrika Bose is a PhD scholar in Gender Studies from CHRIST University, Bangalore, and is currently pursuing her thesis on the intersections of homosexuality and compulsory heterosexuality in modern India. Tanupriya is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be) University, Delhi NCR, India. Anuja Singh is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, CHRIST (Deemed to be) University, Delhi NCR, India.

Women’s desire to alter their bodies aesthetically can be liberating in its path toward self-identification and redefinition of the self, yet this desire is influenced by cultural phenomena. Often, the end goal of the aesthetical altering of the body is the pursuit of beauty. The body is then a “symbolic body,” a conduit for social meanings, embedded in sociocultural beliefs and gender relations.1 Gender relations are important for analyzing beauty, as beauty is often rooted in the binary performance of masculinity and femininity by male and female identities respectively.

This notion of masculinity and femininity is rooted in compulsory heterosexuality, the enforcement of gender categories such as men and women, and patriarchal ideology, which ensures the subordinate position of women. Therefore, gender critics globally, such as Raewynn W. Connell, Carrie Paechter, Mimi Schippers, and Sikata Banerjee use the terms hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity to refer to the constructed, idealized, and normative forms of masculinity and femininity. Connell resists the terminology hegemonic femininity at the start because she argues no version of femininity is truly in a position of power in society.2 All femininities are considered subordinate and secondary in relation to masculinity and men. She calls the culturally valued form of femininity “emphasized femininity.” Taking this forward, Schippers describes hegemonic femininity as “characteristics defined as womanly that establish and legitimate a hierarchal and complementary relationship to hegemonic masculinity and that by doing so guarantee the dominant position of men and subordination of women.”3 Compliance, empathy, and nurturance are womanly values that are important to hegemonic femininity. The binary of this hegemonic masculinity and emphasized, or hegemonic, femininity forms the gender order. Additionally, in terms of appearance norms and body image, hegemonic femininity comprises Eurocentric characteristics such as fair, slim, and flawless.4 In the context of India, critics such as Sridevi Nair demonstrate that there is a huge gap between actual Indian female bodies and the imposed ideal feminine body and, as a result, the idealized femininity becomes a goal or target for women to achieve.5 The cultural idea of gender performance of the female body constitutes being thin, fair, and overtly feminine in appearance and demeanor.

The “hegemony” in “hegemonic femininity” is understood through Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s definition, in which ideologies and social hierarchies are maintained with consent not only from those parties at the top but also extending to large sections of those at the bottom of the pyramid in order to maintain the status quo.6 This is done by normalizing the hierarchy as an organic, natural, and pre-existing human construct. Gramscian hegemonic femininity operates in inconspicuous ways by convincing all genders to participate equally in it and perceive it as one that is natural and pre-existent.7 Such forms of hegemony act invisibly; they remove a certain group from censure and lend it more power and relatability. Visual culture and popular culture consistently enforce this ideal form of femininity from early childhood in an attempt to make it the normative, even aspirational, form of gender performance. Fairy tales like Cinderella have the binary of the heroine as the feminine beautiful and the villain as ugly. In the institution of marriage, Indian women are subjected to unrealistic comparisons with the beauty standards depicted on television and with those who can embody such a femininity and therefore enjoy higher social status.8

Just as Connell and critic James W. Messerschmidt offer their critique of the homogeneous nature of hegemonic masculinity with gender framed only within a heterosexual context, hegemonic femininity must also be examined in the context of homosexuality in order to acknowledge the multiplicity of femininities and their relationship with each other, and not just as a relational category to masculinity. In trying to understand why women embody hegemonic femininity even though it ensures their subordinate position to men, many scholars such as Paechter and Connell have concluded that compliance with the gender order is the internalization of men’s views on femininity. However, critic Patricia Hill Collins offers a more relevant explanation. She argues that hegemonic femininity enforcing compulsory heterosexuality is often intersectional with class, race, and caste. Therefore, hegemonic femininities enjoy certain privileges over other femininities by virtue of their class or caste privileges. She terms this intersectional nature of hegemonic femininity the “matrix of domination.”9 Within this matrix of domination, some women adhere to the visual markers and gender roles of hegemonic femininity to achieve what Collins terms the femininity premium, that is, dominance over other femininities, even though they remain subordinate to men. This draws us to the important observation that, while hegemonic femininity may be beneficial to individual women, it is harmful to the group overall and enforces structures of inequality.

The present study uses the theoretical frameworks of both Connell and Schippers on hegemonic femininity together with Collins’s matrix of domination to critically explore the bodily practices of lesbian women and their negotiation with hegemonic femininity. It is done through the methodology of critical discourse analysis of Netflix’s Geeli Pucchi (2021) by director Neeraj Ghaywan, deconstructing the visual signifiers of lesbian sexuality and nonconforming femininity through the characters of Priya and Bharti. It engages with the various effects of hegemonic femininity on lesbian identities in India. Geeli Pucchi is a visual text and part of a four-part anthology titled Ajeeb Dastaan. The film reveals anxieties and negotiations that arise when competing femininities actively participate in marginalizing one another in order to enjoy certain privileges in society. In its femme-butch binary, Ghaywan foregrounds the intersectionality of gender with caste—Priya enjoys a femininity premium for both her upper caste and femme identity that caters to heteronormativity, while Bharti is increasingly marginalized because of her lack of hegemonic femininity as well as her lower caste.

The Competing Femininities of Priya and Bharti

Just like the heterosexual imperative of sexual identity, the visual cues in the film are also governed by binaries: ugly-beautiful, fair-dark, fat-thin. This binary hierarchy is reflected in Geeli Pucchi through the differences associated with Priya and Bharti’s expressions of femininity (or lack thereof), despite their shared lesbian identity. The binaries devolve into characteristics associated with the body image, such as prude-slut and the like. For Indian women, an emphasis on body image and a body size that is neither skinny nor fat, with long hair, fair skin, and the appearance of feminine softness is the cultural standard. The adherence of women to these social cues creates a divisive hierarchy between them. The opening scene, when Priya walks in to a new workplace, the workmen point to her and condescendingly tell their coworker, Bharti, “seekho!” (“learn!”).10 The only difference visible to the workmen and the viewers is the feminine appearance of Priya as opposed to the masculine, unkempt appearance of Bharti. The “learn from her” comment implies that Priya’s ability to land the job Bharti had been aiming for so long owes to her hegemonic femininity and ability to adorn herself for a beautiful appearance. Bharti advocates for her skills profusely, yet is denied opportunities. She asks, angrily, “hum uske tarah makeup nahi karte islie?” (“I don’t do makeup like her, is that the reason?”).11

Erica Reischer and Kathryn Koo find that the growth and progress of female bodies in public spaces, primarily workplaces, are indexed in their bodies: “the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’ finds its analogue in the idealized shape of women’s bodies.”12 The hegemonic gender difference between masculinity and femininity is reflected in the treatment of women in male-dominated spaces and the consequent barriers to status, equality, and income, among other things. Bharti must negotiate respect and recognition from both her male peers and her male boss for a job for which she is clearly skilled. Priya is referred to as “madam” throughout the narrative, whereas the manager calls Bharti a machine “man.” The lack of a woman’s bathroom is only brought to attention at Priya’s mention, showing how Bharti’s needs as a woman have been slighted. This continued invisibility is seen to impact Bharti’s own self-perception, too. When Priya asks about the women’s washroom, Bharti retorts, enraged: “yaha koi ladki dikh rahi hai?” (“Do you see any woman here?”), therefore visibilizing herself as a woman.13

The overt representation of femme lesbian identities in Indian popular culture is because such representation resorts to the lesbian identity’s deference to the family and their roles and responsibilities in it. Adherence to the heterosexual family unit and culture redeems their sexual orientation. Priya is represented as a palatable lesbian, with her femininity fitting the mold of hegemonic heterosexuality—and, therefore, remaining aesthetically non-threatening. In contrast, Bharti fits the butch stereotype in lesbian aesthetics. Priya’s femininity is also reflected in her everyday behavior. She is chirpy, jovial, and soft-spoken, but naïve. Conversely, Bharti is rough around the edges, quiet, and worldly. The feminine lesbian is nondisruptive, and, in her presence, the butch identity becomes the undesirable other, shoved to the periphery. There is an attempt to discipline this butch identity, and its failure to conform ultimately makes it fade away. The lesbian appearance of femininity is, therefore, based on a conscious embodiment of a normative hegemonic understanding of femininity giving way to a female identity. This is reflected in clothing, body image, mannerisms, and so on. Such bodily performance of feminine appearance is based on corporeal and material social intelligibility.

The discursive practices that position Priya’s femininity over Bharti’s include her soft-spoken demeanor, adherence to hierarchy, and lack of assertiveness at work. This intersects with her upper-caste identity to lend her individual benefits compared to Bharti and the simultaneous subordination with respect to the men in her life. Priya is a Brahmin woman who embodies hegemonic femininity. The combination of her emphasized femininity and her caste allows her many privileges in her new job. In contrast, Bharti is marginalized not only based on her nonbinary femininity, but also on belonging to a lower caste. Here, hegemonic femininity allows individual privileges to Priya through the femininity premium, but also comes with certain gender roles and behaviors that prohibit her from any individual freedom or growth.

Taking from Connell’s concept, Laura T. Hamilton and her collaborators acknowledge that all femininities are subordinate to masculinities, and, at the same time, hegemonic femininity perpetuates other forms of inequality. Hegemonic femininity, while wearing the garb of a so-called ideal womanhood that would privilege the performer, ultimately reproduces structures of inequality of not only femininity in relation to masculinity but also other femininities. Any identity that does embody hegemonic femininity may enjoy certain privileges, but it always comes at a cost, as we see in the case of Priya. A part of this hegemonic femininity is marriage, which allows Priya to reap further economic and social benefits. She receives a promotion and maternity leave, despite the fact that she is not entirely fit for her role in the first place. This potential for individual women to gain from the femininity premium is precisely why the matrix of domination persists. Even when it is advantageous to the individual, it has harmful effects on the entire category of the subordinate group. Hamilton and her collaborators write that “individual women work against the interests of women in general but toward their personal advancement, which, in combination with the advancement of racial or class-based goals and interests, provides substantial individual rewards. Thus, as women pursue a femininity premium, they reinscribe the matrix of domination.”14 The performance of hegemonic femininity comprises appearance, norms, gender roles, and heterosexuality—and the privileges meted out occur with the adherence to each category.

Ghaywan depicts how these characters’ social identity as women is deftly woven into their gender roles and appearance. Queer researcher Sohini Chatterjee states that femininity as heterosexual is depicted by invisiblizing femme lesbians in popular culture depictions, or is consumed by patriarchal female gender roles, “the politics of respectability, and the centrality of culture and family.”15 At Priya’s birthday party, Bharti’s sober top and pants are judged by the guests, who ask whether she always dresses up like this. Immediately, Priya’s mother-in-law questions her caste and family background, based only on her appearance. Meanwhile, Ghaywan’s camera focuses on the mother-in-law forcefully tying the pleats of Priya’s sari uncomfortably tight in order to give her a slender, more feminine, and “beautiful” look. The older woman warns Priya to dress and behave in a certain manner, as her father-in-law is going to be the mahant (high priest) and she needs to appear to be a respectable daughter-in-law. Here, respectability is linked to clothing and appearance. The ideals of attractiveness often converge with the core social values commonly upheld by a culture, since “attractiveness is that which is found ideologically appealing with an overarching set of values.” The woman’s body must carry the weight of both.16

Priya performs hegemonic femininity not only in appearance, but in gender roles and behavior; while being a lesbian, she adheres to the heterosexual family structure and engages in patriarchal gender roles of servitude and nurturing that make her palatable to heteronormative society. Simultaneously, this embodiment of hegemonic femininity that lends Priya these advantages also burdens her with the gender roles associated with it. She tells Bharti how she is constantly being pressured to have children, even though she has not yet discovered pleasure with her partner. In contrast, Bharti—whose removal from the category of an ideal, socially powerful woman also unburdens her of heterosexual familial obligations—is able to replace Priya in her job and get promoted.

The very existence of such an overlap between ideal femininity and complicit femininity is proof of the hegemonic nature of femininity. Jacob Hale terms this as the threat of “the bad girl.”17 Being a bad girl excludes one from the category of woman, rendering them genderless or nonexistent. If female bodies do not comply with the standards of hegemonic femininity, they face the threat of alienation from the category of woman. Thus, Bharti’s identity as a woman is denied to her due to her perceived lack of femininity. In the factory, one workman likens Priya to the goddess Lakshmi, stating that before her arrival, a woman had never entered the factory—all in front of Bharti. He also sardonically states that Bharti is close to growing a mustache. Female bodies that embody what are considered masculine characteristics, such as assertiveness, individualism, and ambition, with less of a focus on appearance, are also considered less desirable. Schippers and Connell call this “pariah femininity,” in which masculine traits and roles embodied by female bodies are not considered aspirational, but an anomaly. This threatens stereotypical heterosexual attraction, in which the man is dominant and assertive and the woman is passive and seeking approval. Bharti faces similar ostracization; her butch appearance and lack of femininity are equated with a lack of intimacy and love in her life. In one instance, a fellow worker insults Bharti by making an inappropriate joke about her lack of a sexual partner; he states how her rough hands are habituated with handling the machines in the factory and have forgotten how to express sexual desire. Such humor implies that women need to have feminine beauty in order to be found attractive by men and worthy of sexual intimacy.

Later, Priya’s claustrophobia is evident when she cries on the riverbanks, asking whether she is defective and needs to be fixed. Her feminine appearance, emphasized by a sari and heavy gold jewelry, is reflected in her womanly duties: birthing a child, declining to walk home alone after work, having sex at the whim of her husband, and acting as the ideal daughter-in-law. Appearance and gender roles are intrinsically linked to one another. Priya’s femininity further entangles her in the role heteropatriarchy deems fit for a woman; therefore, after the birth of her child, she is forced to quit her job and take care of her baby full time. Similarly, we see Bharti being treated as a servant, asked to distribute cake to the other workers. Even though she is equally an employee, her stature is reduced to her appearance as a woman. The culturally and politically dominant class of heterosexual men benefit from this hegemonic imposition, in controlling and regulating the bodies of women. These men limit women’s involvement in the public spaces of autonomy and power. When Priya tells Bharti during lunch in her small cubicle that this cubicle will be “our little world where men aren’t allowed,” we understand how hegemonic femininity is harmful to all femininities—both the ones who comply and the ones who subvert.

Conclusion

Judith Butler’s seminal framework for understanding of gender as performative and constructivist marks the body as a site of cultural meanings through a dynamic that is integral to so-called feminine identity and femininity concerning lesbian identity formation. Women considered universally beautiful in India fit into the hegemonic definition of femininity and are conceptualized as heterosexual, with patriarchal and binary gender roles and behavior. Hegemonic femininity relies on compliance with the heteronormative order and its perpetuation of the masculine/feminine binary. The resistance to hegemonic femininity and the gender order, states Connell, is of two kinds: either outraged rejection and defiance of the markers of femininity, or a negotiation of it in order to survive. Priya’s lesbian desire positions her on the periphery of the heteronormative society, but her upper caste and acquiescence to norms of appearance, the heterosexual family structure, and gender roles lend her individual benefits such as social mobility. Concurrently, Bharti’s rejection of hegemonic femininity, in addition to her lower caste, marginalizes her at work and in society. These intersectional and competing femininities, in their own way, negotiate the gender order in order to meet individual needs, but ultimately, neither Bharti nor Priya is able to demonstrate agency or equality for the collective lesbian subculture. The current critique of hegemonic femininity within the ambit of lesbian sexual body image is not to eradicate femininity completely, but to introduce a more inclusive understanding of what constitutes femininity and to disengage it from the patriarchal male gaze. The need is not to eliminate femininity from lesbian aesthetics, but to incorporate a non-heterosexual, nonbinary body image, one that is not forced to fit into the boxes of feminine and masculine.

Notes

  1. Erica Reischer and Kathryn S. Koo, “The Body Beautiful: Symbolism and Agency in the Social World,” Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 297–317.
  2. Raewyn Connell, Gender and Power (Cambridge: Polity, 1987).
  3. Mimi Schippers, “Recovering the Feminine Other: Masculinity, Femininity and the Gender Hegemony,” Theory and Society (2007): 85–102.
  4. Connell, Gender and Power, 185.
  5. Sridevi Nair, “Hey Good Lookin’! Popular Culture, Femininity, and Lesbian Representation in Transnational Regimes,” Journal of Lesbian Studies 12 (2008): 407–22.
  6. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, eds. Q. Hoare and G. Nowell-Smith (London: ElecBook, 1999).
  7. Carrie Paechter, “Rethinking the Possibilities for Hegemonic Femininity: Exploring a Gramscian Framework,” Women’s Studies International Forum 68 (2018): 121–28.
  8. I. G. C. Kumara and R. A. W. D. Jayawardhana, “International Beauty Pageants and the Construction of Hegemonic Images of Female Beauty,” Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 41 (2018): 123–36.
  9. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  10. Geeli Pucchi, directed by Neeraj Ghaywan (Netflix, 2021).
  11. Geeli Pucchi, 1:13:49.
  12. Reischer and Koo, “The Body Beautiful,” 314.
  13. Geeli Pucchi, 1:11:51.
  14. Laura T. Hamilton, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, J. Lotus Seely, and Elizabeth M. Armstrong, “Hegemonic Femininities and Intersectional Domination,” Sociological Theory 37 (2019): 315–41.
  15. Sohini Chatterjee, “The ‘Good Indian Queer Woman’ and the Family: Politics of Normativity and Travails of (Queer) Representation,” South Asian Popular Culture 19 (2021): 177–92.
  16. Reischer and Koo, “The Body Beautiful,” 300.
  17. Jacob Hale, “Are Lesbians Women?,” Hypatia (1996): 94–121.



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