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In Defense of Bella Swan

By: Nanditha Pillai

“Oh no, this bad,” I typed in my group chat. “This is REALLY bad.” My friend had sent me a personality test that matched you to a fictional character that was most similar to your personality. At the top of my list, with an alarming ninety-seven percent similarity, was none other than Bella Swan of the notorious Twilight universe.

Bella Swan–the object of countless jokes, derided as a disgrace to feminism, scorned as weak, passive and whiny. Everyone loves to hate her. Countless book reviews, movie reviews, and Youtube videos have pulled not just her, but her creator, Stephenie Meyer, and her actor Kristen Stewart, ruthlessly apart, as they read the books aloud in mock-agony because the writing and female representation was simply so excruciatingly terrible. One such Youtuber was Alex Day, in whose videos he reads Twilight, dismayed that the author could have possibly received a literature degree and yet produced such a, to loosely paraphrase him, “worthless piece of garbage.” It is difficult to find the exact quote because his Youtube videos have since been taken down after allegations of inappropriate behavior with women. Alex, under the guise of feminism, is just one of many people that partook in viciously putting down all the principal women associated with a successful franchise, undermining their qualifications, merit and skill.

In their incessant hatred for Bella Swan and her creator, men such as Alex in their enthusiastic “feminism,” as they instruct and remind Stepenie Meyer how to write women characters and tell other women why they should not be like Bella, forget the sheer popularity of the franchise. According to Forbes, at its peak, the franchise earned Meyer more than $40 million (Pomerantz 2010). People decried Meyer’s mind-numbingly horrible writing (their words) and engaged her in often unwarrantedly violent competition with other female writers (I remember one comment about how if she were placed in a ring with Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling, she would “get beaten to a pulp”). The hostility did not stop with Meyer, however. The lead of the movie adaptations, Kristen Stewart, was similarly ripped apart for her terrible acting, which, according to one writer, was “frustratingly emo” and “emotionally hollow” (Kim 2016). But despite the rabid, vindictive, violent antagonism towards the franchise, no one can deny its success. Its success speaks to the fact that as people were busy criticizing and disdaining it, the franchise, for whatever reason, appealed to millions of teenage girls across the country. Girls who felt drawn to the story, to Bella, who may have seen themselves reflected in her. But the people around them were too immersed in denouncing a fictional character as weak and insulting to pay attention to the actual resonances the character had with these female teen viewers. 

Scorn is not a new feeling for women as a group, historically. Whether it was by scorning women who were interested in science, in politics, by demeaning their literature as “chick lit,” their interests as vain and frivolous, women are used to not being taken seriously—for wearing makeup, for not wearing makeup, for paying attention to their appearance, for not. The young members of the Twilight fandom got an early taste of their feelings being scorned and dismissed by those who felt morally and intellectually superior to them.

 Even before the fateful personality test, the term “strong female character” had rubbed me the wrong way. Something about it bothered me and now I know why. In an effort to encourage and empower women, society is doing what it always has–setting an ideal for women to aspire to, telling them what qualities they should strive to embody, that one set of traits is more desirable than others, and in the process, undercutting, deriding, and dismissing all of the women that do not fit in to this prescribed profile. 

I understand how the term came along and its possible motivations, but I am bothered by the word choice. Back when it was almost entirely male writers and directors creating the female characters we saw on screen, any woman that displayed basic human emotions such as anger, or basic human subjectivity through opinions, was lauded as “strong.” A historical example of this was how a 1688 murder testimonial was notable in the way that it presented its female defendant as a “self-conscious, speaking subject” (Dolan 35). This was seen as a subversive risk. For that time, she was a “strong” female representation, merely because the author of the testimonial made the decision to include her feelings. In this way we see how “strong” characters are different from strong people. The character’s strength rests entirely in the fact that she was more accurately depicted than other women of her time and not necessarily her own qualities. Therefore, this representation was “strong” for a female character at the time simply because it was human. But to continue to call female characters “strong” today seems patronizing as though women have a different or lower standard of strength, as though having opinions or expressing anger, something all women do, is something remarkable. 

The “strength” is, therefore, seems to be an evaluation of the depiction and the responsibility lies with the male creator. So a more accurate term instead of “strong” female character, would be a more “realistic” female character.  But does that responsibility still exist when female-identifying authors create female characters? What if she is drawn from personal experience, thereby automatically making her more “realistic?” I think a “realistic” female character can be any that is created by or in some way resonates with women. 

Thus, by virtue of the fact that there are women out there that do like or relate to Bella, she is a realistic female character. And to tell women that they are weak for that connection is counterproductive and dismissive of their realities. 

As someone who personally can relate to Bella, to her awkwardness, her quietness and her clumsiness, this judgement of strength in women is not limited to fiction. A family friend was once visibly upset by my shyness, saying my lack of assertiveness was frustrating to her as a feminist. I’ve been told that I need to “smile more,” “be more argumentative,” that I look sad all the time by friends as jokes. The irony of it all is what was funny to me. If a woman’s demeanor, natural personality or inclinations, if the choices she makes about how to present herself is offensive to one’s feminist sensibilities, then that is not feminist. If a woman feels pressure to prove her “strength” by changing her behavior, not out of her own volition, but to meet the approval of society, then that is not feminism. I myself work on being more confident everyday. But the decision to change myself should be my own, whenever and if ever I see a need for it myself, and not because my previous version of existing—notably one that was still kind and respectful of other people—was seen as unacceptable, purely because it did not fit society’s new definition of how a woman should behave. When I see shy girls, I also want them to feel safer to be themselves, more proud of who they are. But the way to do that is not by calling them weak as they are now. It’s by allowing them the space, time and patience to evolve as they choose, whether that means making the choice to change or stay the same because they accept themselves the way they are. 

The idea of the “strong” female character also makes me think we should reevaluate our definition of “strength” as a society. Our conceptions of strength are heavily cultural and to create a sweeping, single definition of it which we use to evaluate all the world by is ethnocentric, racist, sexist, and exclusive. Back when gender was viewed as binary and gender roles were associated with certain qualities, traditionally “masculine” qualities of loudness, political leadership and stoicism were primarily associated with strength. I wonder if that same ideal for strength is what still exists today, just now for everyone. We see it play out today in quintessential “strong” female protagonists of dystopian stories, the Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors, the glamorous martyrs, the faces of revolutions, the athletic risk-takers. But this narrow view of strength excludes strength expressed by everybody in different ways–by quiet people, by people who cry a lot, by people who are not leaders but are discerning, critical and thoughtful in who they choose to follow. Yet these qualities often are not associated with “strength,” even though emotional vulnerability and expression takes courage, silence can be powerful, and it is from followers that leaders derive their status. All people display resilience in their lives, all people navigate complex situations and make difficult decisions. All people are strong.

What we need is for female-identifying individuals to have the space to share their stories, create their characters, and for their audiences to have the freedom to identify with them or not identify with them as they wish, without judgement from society telling them because a female character does not fit into society’s idea of “strength,” she and all those for whom she resonates with are weak and unacceptable. 

You can dislike Bella. You can disagree with her. Maybe you, personally, find her annoying. Maybe, you, personally, would not lead your life in the way that she did or make the same choices. Maybe you see her as heavily flawed, because she, like everybody, is flawed. But flawed should not mean unacceptable. Being flawed does not mean deserving of hate. In fact, I want to see more provocative female characters like Bella that evoke strong negative reactions, that spark discussion, that are full of behaviors that are looked down on by society but are seen as relatable by millions of women. Because the simple fact that they relate to her, even though millions of others might not, make her real, and therefore strong. 

When I received the results of my personality test, I was not really all that surprised, because I had noticed the similarities myself. But for a moment it did make me wonder if I should be concerned. That reaction in itself made me realize the need to make a case in defense of Bella Swan, and by extension, myself, and all of the other flawed, unlikeable, clumsy, awkward, resting-sad-faced women out there. Because she is not weak, and neither are we.

 So let’s leave Bella alone. And maybe reductive, exclusive, counterproductive labels, too, while we’re at it. 

Citations:

Dolan, Frances Elizabeth. Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550-1700. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Kim, Kristen Yoonsoo. “The Moment Kristen Stewart Stopped Being Hollywood’s Most Hated Actress.” Complex. Complex, April 20, 2020. https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/06/kristen-stewart-hated-then-beloved-now. 

Pomerantz, Dorothy. “Inside The ‘Twilight’ Empire.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, July 11, 2012.https://www.forbes.com/2010/06/22/twilight-kristen-stewart-robert-pattinson-business-entertainment-celeb-100-10-twilight.html?sh=564b88e15761.

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The Caricature of Feminine Irrationality

By: Sheyenne White

For my project, I wish to challenge the false dichotomy between theory and practice. Given that academic theory is designed to be inaccessible through its abstract, dense, and jargonistic composition, I will mitigate its elitist exclusivity by applying it to the raw authenticity inherent of situated testimonies. For the sake of parsimony,  I have limited my interviews to three heterosexual, cisgender female UC Davis students.

  • Have you ever felt that you have carried the emotional weight during a relationship?

“Women are constantly being seen as fragile but when I don’t show any emotion, I’m seen as emotionless and less of a woman. In all of my romantic relationships, I’m always expected to be the motherfucker’s therapist, mother, maid, and caregiver. Anytime that something happens,  I can expect them to lash out and I have to walk them through their feelings. It’s on me. He wants me to fix it but I can’t always fix it.”

. . .

“Ooo my daddy issues. My dad didn’t go to therapy and he projects his unresolved trauma on my mother, sisters, and I. He has created a toxic cycle of transgenerational trauma. I may not be able to choose my trauma but I can choose how I react and respond to it. I understand this so why can’t he?”

. . .

“Men will very much ghost a girl if she gets too sensitive or attached but they’ll unload their trauma on any girl that they fuck. They’re not our boyfriends but we find ourselves acting like their mother or therapist. I don’t like it. As women, we learn to deal with this shit. We learn to award men for doing the bare minimum.”  

. . .

In her work, Alison Jagger reflects on the socially constructed dichotomy between emotionality and rationality. In her article, Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology, she disparages the Western derogatory attitiude towards emotion, and instead stresses its critical role in the construction of knowledge.
The emotionality of women is both a familiar cultural stereotype and an axiom of Western tradition. The ongoing and persisting subjugation of women can be traced back to the traditional tie between masculinity and reason within philosophy, in which rationality, morality, and emotionality are positioned as gendered pursuits. Masculine bias continues to be a pervasive thread that runs through Western thought and is maintained through hierarchical dualisms: like man-woman, masculinity-femininity, and rationality-emotionality. Such binary oppositions reinforce the gendered division that values the masculine and devalues the feminine. 

Although both men and women are held to norms of appropriate emotional expression, women’s perceived emotionality comes under greater scrutiny relative to their male counterparts. As interviewee one alluded to, women are expected to succumb to emotions and therefore, emotionally inexpressive women are deemed gender-deviant. As if, emotional expressivity alone constitutes womanhood. While the link between emotional expressivity and the lack of women in leadership roles is readily acknowledged, the extent of its overarching influence in banal and trivial encounters cannot be understated. Along these lines, heteropatriarchal accounts of emotion remain problematic insofar as they fail to explain the paradox between their caricatures of irrational, hormonal women and their need for emotional nurturance.

While some degree of codependency in any given relationship is to be expected, women take on the lion’s share of the emotional labor. As funny as it may be to refer to emotional labor as comparable to the work of a therapist, mother or maid, interviewee one’s experiences sheds light on the dangers of women’s warm, maternal, and communal roles within society. Under an androcentric patriarchy, “men’s emotional development is relatively rudimentary,” which in turn, leads to “moral rigidity and insensitivity” (Jagger, 10). It’s important to note that this phenomena is not incidental but a direct byproduct of toxic masculinity. Considering that male emotional expressivity has become a ill-equipped marker of homosexuality, the question arises, is it really homosexuality that is the fear or is it the loss of heteronormative masculinity? The concept of toxic masculinity can be interpreted as an embodiment of Western ideals: violence, aggression, status, and sex. When a society overemphasizes gender, it must grapple with the consequences. Unfortunately, those consequences manifest themselves in the form of destructive and unaccommodating gender stereotypes.

As interviewee two noted, men’s limited emotional development extends beyond the scope of romantic entanglements and seeps into family dynamics. Nothing quite sums up the way women are burdened with the responsibility of emotional labor quite like the notion of  ‘daddy issues.’ Despite its visage of frivolity, the expression is weaponized as a cruel joke against women, designed to humiliate and mock their mistreatment they suffered on behalf of their father. Interestingly, the expression is utilized in the same fashion when women experience the same mistreatment in their romantic relationships. As if, the issue resides within the woman, and not the emotionally stunted men. Thus, the concept behind ‘daddy issues’ is pernicious in its perpetuation of a victim-blaming culture that once again asks women to shoulder the emotional trauma of the men in their life in addition to their own. 

After conducting my interviews, I could not help but recall interviewee three’s sophisticated articulation that women “learn to award men for doing the bare minimum.” When we applaud men for merely unloading their emotional trauma, we encourage their complacency. After all, the emotional labor is not often reciprocated for the woman. The flawed association of masculinity with reason and femininity with feeling, fails to consider the intrinsic and instrumental value of emotion as well as its potential epistemic value. Women’s experience in emotional nurturance allows us to cultivate the adept ability to identify and recognize emotions. Upon examining the social construction of emotions under an androcentric, heteropatriarchal ideology, “all of our human faculties — rationality, morality, and emotionality — reflect an aspect of human knowledge inseparable from the other aspects” (Jagger, 15). Only by reconciling emotionality with our rationality and morality, may we create a nonhierarchical and antifoundationalist mode of knowledge production, that is both sustainable and durable. For now, women must take advantage of their epistemic advantage by working to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Works Cited:

Alison M. Jaggar (1989) Love and knowledge: Emotion in feminist epistemology, Inquiry, 32:2, 151-176

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A Word Or Two On Gender

By: Wyatt Wagoner

I had a conversation with an older female mentor the other day. We talked about gender and how we both felt about it.

One notable thing she said was, “I never had to think about that stuff when I was your age.” (That stuff being gender) “It’s so confusing for you kids. I never had to question if I was non binary or if I was a guy. I just was who I was.”

I’m paraphrasing, but what stuck out to me about what she said was, “I was who I was.”

I think that’s the beautiful thing about gender. It’s a social construct, but it is one that helps us define how we feel on the inside.

So I often ask myself, what’s my gender?

The conclusion I have come to is that I don’t have one, but here’s where it gets confusing.

I like gendered terms along the female spectrum. I like my partner to call me his girlfriend and my mom often lovingly calls me her girl, which I don’t mind.

So this makes me question my gender all over again. Am I really a girl? Am I faking being non binary for attention?

The conclusion I have come to down boils down to two things.

  1. I am still new to my gender, and I am so used to being called girl and girlfriend that it doesn’t bother me to be called those terms.

The way I came to this conclusion is that my partner, James, has been calling me his partner, despite me expressing I am comfortable with partner and girlfriend. It’s almost like he knew more about my gender than I did, because the more he calls me partner, the weirder it feels on the rare occasion my mom refers to me as his girlfriend or his friends refer to me as such. 

  1. I am still aligned with my biological sex as a female.

I am very feminine presenting. If you saw me on the street you would probably not guess that I was non binary. And up until 2020, I did not even realize I wasn’t a girl. I would proclaim myself as a strong woman, and while I am still biologically a woman, it feels odd to declare that. I would rather declare myself to be a strong person, but at the same time I feel like declaring myself as a strong woman is somewhat accurate. Because I still get harassed on the street. I still have to worry about getting a lesser paycheck than a man does. While gender is a societal construct, my gender does not define all of my societal experiences, and unfortunately, I still face the discrimination that biological women do.

So maybe that is why every once in a while I find myself wanting to declare myself a strong, independent woman, because even though I am not a woman at heart, I am still taking on the adversity faced by women.

So I find myself questioning my own feelings as a non binary person. Am I not non binary because I feel attached to my experiences as a biological woman? Am I not non binary if I feel ok being referred to as a girlfriend?

I don’t know if I’m being honest with you. Every day I question whether my experiences and emotions are valid. Because I look at a feminine presenting biological woman and wonder if I want to be her. I love putting on wigs and looking like what society considers a woman. But the day I chopped my hair off, I felt so seen by myself and I felt so validated. I felt like I was myself. So if I feel like myself while feminine presenting, even though I also feel like myself when I’m presenting androgynously, am I really non binary?

But sometimes I remember how cis people look at gender. I don’t think a cis person has ever looked at Stitch from Lilo and Stitch and envied how much androgyny the little gremlin has. I don’t think cis people feel the way I do when my partner stopped saying, “Ladies first,” and jokingly started saying, “Enbies first.” It was such a simple gesture and I don’t know if he knows how much it meant to me, and how validated it makes me feel.

In the end, I think it boils down to this: I just am who I am. It’s like my mentor said. I was born a woman and I have faced the adversity a woman has faced, and I cannot change that. I am biologically predisposed to some diseases because of my sex, and I cannot change that. But I also cannot change the way my brain feels when I look in the mirror and perceive myself as androgynous. I cannot change the way I feel when my friends use they pronouns for me (even though I use she as well.) The one thing I can change is how I show myself to the world, and how I tell the world about myself. I am here to tell the world I am non binary, no matter what my self doubt says sometimes, and no matter what the world says sometimes.

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Why We Dislike the Idea of Being Girly

By: Sindura Vuppu

I watch my thirteen year-old cousin grow into an incredible young woman. She is mature, opinionated, and kind-hearted, with morals so great that I learn something from her everyday. Not long after, my proud smile falters. “I’m not like the other girls,” she says, “No offense, but the girls I know are…too girly.” I’m immediately reminded of my thirteen year-old self. 

I called myself a feminist at a very young age, and held so many strong opinions about issues like gender discrimination and misogyny. What I failed to recognize was my own hypocrisy. Books and movies made me believe that being a “regular” girl was scornful. I had to be different, so I hid my Barbie dolls and started watching Power Rangers because I believed that it was cool and tomboyish. I wore makeup in secret as if makeup were a ridiculous thing to do. I said I disliked “typical” girls who wore pink and talked about boys all day. Instead, I idealized the “girl next door,” who, as One Direction once put it, doesn’t know she’s beautiful and needs help recognizing her beauty. She reads books instead of partying, pays no attention to boys, has high morale, and is intelligent unlike the other girls.  

Pop culture played an important role in defining idealistic standards and contrasting archetypal girls to me. In Taylor Swift’s song “You Belong With Me,” Swift sings, “She wears high heels, I wear sneakers, she’s cheer captain, and I’m on the bleachers,” which I believed meant that all girls fit into two binary categories; they were either sweet and innocent or mean and callous, depending on how “feminine” they are.  This depiction is a reinforcement of the famous Madonna-wh*re complex that was first identified by Sigmund Freud. In psychoanalytic literature, this concept explains that men view women as either “tainted” and “impure,” or as saintly “Madonnas” who are worthy of love and respect. To live up to this bizarre dichotomy, literature and cinema have often brought up contrasting characters to glorify the Madonnas. Now known as the “girl next door” trope, these “good girl” characters have been idealized for generations, tracing back to Lizzy from Jane Austen’s famous love story Pride and Prejudice (1813). Lizzy is presented as a contrasting alternative to her glamorous rival Miss Bingley who competes with her over their love interest, Darcy.  Lizzy is tomboyish, intelligent, and rugged in her ways, while Miss Bingley is more stereotypically feminine. Similar to Regina George’s character in Mean Girls (2004), Miss Bingley is portrayed as “the bitch” who is pretentious, manipulative, and sabotaging. Because she differs from Miss Bingley in that she does not publicly vie for Darcy’s attention, Lizzy’s character is glorified for being different from other young women of her time. Her individuality is focused upon in a more positive light, while Miss Bingley is degraded as the “typical” girl, as if it was inferior to be one; she is dismissed and ignored by Darcy for not being his “Madonna.” The girl next door trope in such stories mainly serves as the good alternative for the male protagonist to choose. Her individuality bears no significance if it does not align with what our patriarchal society expects from a respectable woman. Today, these Madonnas have a different role to play. Often paired with “bad boys” with a traumatic past, these “good girls” heal and transform them into better men. The character of Jamie from A Walk to Remember (2002), and Tessa from the popular fan-fiction inspired movie After (2019), serve as perfect examples of these angelic life-changers. These characters exist solely to contribute to the character development of the male protagonist. 

Perhaps one of the most popular female archetypes is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, first coined by film critic Nathan Robin to explain the character of Kirsten Dunst from Elizabethtown (2005). Unlike the soft-spoken and composed girl next door, the manic pixie dream girl is impulsive and spontaneous. As described by Robin, the manic pixie dream girl “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” The manic pixie dream girl approaches the depressed and gloomy man in order to “help” him recover and open up to life’s infinite possibilities. This highly stereotypical depiction of  a free-spirited and quirky girl has been celebrated in several movies, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and 500 Days of Summer (2009). Once again, this “dream girl” is associated with a man and is assumed to serve as his life-changer. But this type of girl is being challenged more recently; the character of Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) calls out the ridiculous assumptions about her character: “I’m not a concept. Too many guys think I’m a concept or I complete them or I’m going to ‘make them alive’…but I’m just a f*cked up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind. Don’t assign me yours.” The coining of fearless and self-reliant girls like Clementine as “manic” is sexist by itself, and to make it worse, we get too busy focusing on her role in the man’s life and often ignore what she means to herself.  The breakdown of female characters into rigid categories, and the glorification of some of these as “ideal” stems from generations of misogyny. Both young girls and grown women are made to believe that the stereotypes associated with their gender are somewhat contemptuous. By portraying some of these categories in a negative light, literature and cinema have normalized the attitude of these characters as derisive. While we laugh at Mean Girls’ Karen Smith for being ditzy and gullible, we don’t recognize the degradation of what is considered the “girly” girl trope. Society has defined the characteristics and roles of men and women and has asked women to fit the “feminine” standard. The portrayal of the same femininity as manipulative and toxic, or as shallow and dim-witted, influences young girls to dislike the idea of being girly or feminine. This double-standard often leads to girls being torn between following the stereotype and being different at the same time. As a result, they start an unhealthy competition to be respected. Eventually, each girl’s originality is compromised as she chases a different kind of “originality”. On the other hand, young boys lose their perception of girls as they are, and instead place them into discrete and dichotomous categories. A set of unrealistic expectations follow, often ending up in disappointment. Girls come in all shapes, sizes, and personalities. Every person’s priorities and interests differ and sets them apart in their own unique way. I like to think of these personality types as a bunch of Venn diagrams; some traits overlap with a couple of others’ and create a unique product. Glorifying some of these and degrading the others only damages the already fragile perception of women in society.

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LGBTQ+ Themes in Hindu Mythology and Indian History

By: Sindura Vuppu

It was not until I turned sixteen that I stepped into the world of political and social issues. I grew up in ignorance and indifference with limited exposure. My friends and I were clueless about issues like the marginalization of certain groups. When I finally educated myself, I recognized the unfairness in the way the LGBTQ+ community is treated in India. I felt ashamed of our ignorance. Was it always like this? One day, I discussed this with my mother.  She mentioned the “Hijras”, transgender women, whom I’ve seen beg for money in groups. Many people, mostly young men, get uncomfortable and feel sexually victimized by the Hijras. These Hijras are disowned by their parents at a young age, after which it is almost impossible for them to find a decent job. Some become sex-workers to men who cannot afford a cis woman, and most generally choose to stay within the transgender community and earn a living by begging in groups. When their requests for money are met, the Hijras give us their blessing since they are thought to have the “power to bless or curse fertility”(Biswas). They show up at auspicious ceremonies like the celebration of the birth of a child, and lovingly hold the baby in their arms to bless them. The same people who treat them as “untouchables” rejoice over their blessing. If this is an age-old tradition, the discrimination does not make sense. To learn more about the LGBTQ+ involvement in Indian history and Hindu mythology, I went online. 

Hindu mythology is a major source of ancient India’s attitude towards gender fluidity and sexual identity. Ardhanarishvara, a form of Lord Shiva that I grew up worshipping, is a mix of Shiva and his wife Parvati. The form has both male and female elements divided equally, therefore creating a genderless deity. “Parvati wished to share Shiva’s experiences,” says Kavita Kane in her article on LGBT themes in Hindu mythology, “and thus wanted their physical forms literally to be joined to show that the inner masculine and feminine coexist and can coalesce” (Kane). This non-binary form was and still is revered for the powerful message is conveys. This isn’t the only instance where Lord Shiva exhibited gender and sexual fluidity. Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe, takes on the “feminine” form called Mohini, who Shiva, the destroyer, falls in love and procreates with. Although the mythological texts say that Mohini was a female form, many scholars interpret their relationship as a same-sex one.  Mahabharata, which is considered one of the greatest epics of all time, narrated the story of the great warrior Arjuna, who took refuge in the harem of a king’s court for a year as an eunuch teaching singing and dancing. Even as someone who is considered a tough and masculine war hero, Arjuna’s “feminine” eunuch form is one of the most significant facets of his character in the epic. I grew up listening to these stories and marveling over their greatness. They act as moral stories that children are encouraged to read. These deities are revered as examples of dharma and righteousness. 

 Hindu mythology isn’t the only source of LGBT significance in Indian history and culture. In her article on LGBT themes in Indian history, Amy Bhatt notes, “Indeed, in India’s 16th-century Mughal courts, hijras and eunuchs often held positions of high esteem as advisers or emissaries between men and women.”(Bhatt).  Eunuchs were accepted and even revered by the common folk. They were important and trusted caretakers of the harems of the kings, as we can see in warrior Arjuna’s case.  Homoeroticism has also been celebrated in ancient Indian literature. “In the Kama Sutra, India’s famed erotic guidebook,” Bhatt writes, “the character Svairini is described as as a liberated woman who lives either alone or in union with another woman.” (Bhatt).The Khajuraho group of Temples in Madhya Pradesh, The Sun Temple of Konark, and several other monuments in India also have homoerotic sculptures engraved on their walls. After finding so many inclusions of the LGBT+ community in ancient India, one cannot help but wonder where the respect and tolerance went. When did the Indian people start marginalizing them and calling their existence “unnatural”? There is an answer to this question: the British colonization. 

In 1860, Lord Macaulay, the President of the Indian Law Commission authored section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizing “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” (Biswas), therefore imposing Victorian values on its biggest colony. Under the British Raj, homosexuality was criminalized.  In addition, they described eunuchs that served in royal palaces as “ungovernable”. “Commentators said they evoked images of “filth, disease, contagion and contamination,” writes Soutik Biswas in his article titled “How Britain tried to ‘erase’ India’s third gender” (Biswas). The British also had the conception that the “Orient” were “Overly erotic and over-sexed” and would “corrupt” young colonial officers (Han). The two hundred years of rule which left India in great economic and cultural depression is believed to have been the primary cause of the conservative and marginalizing shift in Indian societies. So, how is India recovering from this and reforming its social, political, and judicial system on this particular issue?

On 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India declared Section 377 unconstitutional, therefore overturning a 157-year old ban, and decriminalizing consensual homosexual sex, after the government’s first recognition of the law’s barbaric nature in 2009.  The Court stated that “the inclusiveness that Indian society traditionally displayed, literally in every aspect of life, is manifest in recognising a role in society for everyone… Those perceived by the majority as ‘deviants’ or ‘different’ are not on that score excluded or ostracised”(Misra). There has been enormous LGBT activism in the sex-workers community as well, “to change perceptions of sexuality, embracing diversity among the ranks of members of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (the largest Sex Workers’ union in India)” (Misra). Under a legislation that was recently passed in India, transgender people are allowed to change their legal gender post-sex reassignment surgery and have a constitutional right to register themselves under a third gender. However, this law has not been received well for various reasons: lack of medical benefits, addition of bureaucratic layers and red-tapism for legal recognition, and the lack of detail on matters such as marriage, adoption, and social security benefits (Pathak). Activists are pushing for amendments to this bill, and for additions and improvements to other LGBTQ+ laws. But such issues don’t get resolved easily. Along with the fight for change comes the fight to stay the same. 

Many Indians, mostly middle-aged and elderly Hindus, believe in a fundamentalist interpretation of Hinduism that portrays homosexuality as a “reprehensible Western import”(Bhatt). But on exploring some great Hindu mythological epics, it is quite clear that Hinduism is more liberal than the “western” (or Victorian) beliefs. Moreover, the significance of the community can be seen throughout Indian history and culture. I think it is time we revisit our history and re-interpret some of the lessons it teaches. It is time we recognize the unfairness in the way the LGBTQ+ community is treated, and join the fight against injustice and for reform.