Feminine Vulnerability and Toxic Masculinity:
A Comparative Feminist Analysis of Me Too in India and the US
Vanita Reddy and Chaitanya Lakkimsetti
In this brief essay, we focus on two concurrent, high-profile cases involving top-ranking US and Indian state officials charged with sexual misconduct in the era of Me Too: the Senate confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominee (now justice) Brett Kavanaugh and the resignation of Indian minister of state for external affairs M.J. Akbar. These cases serve as a useful starting point for a comparative transnational feminist analysis of the Me Too movement in India and the US. We focus on newspaper coverage of these cases, in part because news media serves as an arbiter of mass culture and in part because media culture is the milieu within which Me Too has gained so much social and political traction within and across national borders.
We argue that whereas patriarchy remains a powerful explanatory framework of sexual violence in the Akbar case, gender becomes a much more salient framework in the Kavanaugh case.1 While patriarchy and gender are not mutually exclusive social formations, we distinguish between them in the media coverage of these cases. In India, feminine vulnerability in state institutions, the workplace, and familial patriarchal codes of conduct remain important sites of feminist critique in the Me Too era. This is distinct from the way gender performance and toxic masculinity—such as in the focus on rape culture, masculine aggression, and bro-culture—have emerged in recent years as politically exigent sites of feminist critique in the US. We conclude by observing that a concern with women’s victimization and vulnerability in the Indian case precludes a more sustained discussion of masculine gender norms, while a concern with toxic masculinity in the US case precludes a more sustained discussion of patriarchal institutions such as the family, the workplace, and the state.
While Me Too began as smaller scale, grassroots movements in both India and the US, it garnered mainstream attention when actresses in the Hollywood and Bollywood film industries, respectively, came forward with sexual assault charges. In the US, Me Too was founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 to empower young women of color who were sexual assault survivors. Me Too’s popularity as a social media hashtag followed immediately after the publication of an October 5, 2017, New York Times article that named Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as the subject of multiple sexual assault violations spanning the last 30 years. The origins of Me Too in India can be traced to Raya Sarkar, a US-based Indian academic who published a crowdsourced list of alleged sexual predators in Indian universities on October 24, 2017.2 While Sarkar’s list and the discussion around it was confined to feminist and left political circles, the Indian mainstream caught on in September 2018 when Tanushishree Dutta, a young Bollywood actress, spoke openly in Indian media about the molestation and intimidation she faced from a prominent senior Bollywood actor, Nana Patekar, during a film shoot in 2008. Subsequently, the hashtag spread to other arenas including journalism and politics when journalist Priya Ramani named BJP minister M.J. Akbar as her abuser on October 8, 2018.3 In both the US and India, #metoo has come to represent victims who openly name their abusers and break the silence around sexual violence.
Power, Prestige and Indignity: Akbar and Kavanaugh
Kavanaugh’s and Akbar’s cases emerge as flashpoints of contemporary feminist discourse around sexual violence since they occur at the peak of Me Too conversations in the US and India. A brief timeline of major events in Kavanaugh and Akbar’s cases provides context for assessing their similarities and differences:
Kavanaugh and Akbar are men who hold highly influential positions in public office. Brett Kavanaugh was a federal judge at the time of his confirmation hearing and a nominee for the US Supreme Court. M.J. Akbar was a senior journalist turned politician serving as a junior minister for external affairs in Narendra Modi’s government in India. In his media career, Akbar launched several news periodicals including India Today, one of India’s preeminent political weeklies. The charges of sexual misconduct against both men occurred almost concurrently: the allegations against Akbar came into the public spotlight two days after Kavanaugh was confirmed as a justice.4 Each case preceded important political elections: the upcoming national elections in India and the midterm elections in the US. Both cases also invoked questions regarding the role of memory and the past in sexual misconduct cases, as Ramani’s allegations referenced events that took place 20 years ago and Dr. Ford’s 36 years ago.5
Each man denied the allegations against him by claiming that they were made in order to discredit and disqualify him as a public official. Akbar discredited Ramani by saying that she did not name him in her Vogue India article in the first instance and that she continued to work with him even after the alleged incident occurred. He called Ramani’s allegations (and those by 19 other women journalists who came forward with their stories of harassment afterwards) false, baseless and wild, claiming that they had “caused irreparable damage to my reputation and goodwill” (Deepika 2018). Describing the accusations levelled against him “a circus,” Kavanaugh similarly claimed: “[T]his grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade confident and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country” (New York Times 2018). While Kavanaugh demanded a hearing as soon as his allegations came out in public to clear his name, Akbar filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against Ramani. Nonetheless, both men’s expressions of indignation reveal an unexamined sense of entitlement that is routinely conferred upon men in positions of power.
Despite these familiar performances of male privilege and fragility, there are some important differences. One is the way in which political parties responded to these events and the other is the political outcomes. The Kavanaugh case was seen as a partisan issue and as a political vendetta against a Republican Supreme Court nominee, which was reflected in even Republican women senate members supporting Kavanaugh. In contrast, Akbar’s case was explicitly not cast in politically partisan terms. Members of the BJP—including some women ministers—remained strategically silent or took a clear stand against Akbar's alleged misconduct, rather than backing him.
The political outcomes in these two cases also speaks to the differential impact of Me Too on Indian and US institutions such as the state and the media. Dr. Ford’s witness testimony and the subsequent FBI investigation into her allegations against Kavanaugh did not result in him stepping down. In being confirmed, Kavanaugh becomes the metonymy of US law, which is now seen as threatening women’s rights and progressive politics, rather than protecting them. In contrast, the Me Too movement in India was successful in pressuring Akbar to step down from his position. Moreover, after Akbar filed defamation charges against Ramani, the Indian news media—the very institution in which Akbar rose to power before becoming a minister—collectively mobilized against him. In addition to the 19 other women journalists who came forward to testify against Akbar, the Editors Guild publicly declared their support for the women, even offering them legal counsel.6 The media’s explicit naming of Akbar as, for example, one in a “growing list of men . . . named in India’s own Me Too movement” also positions the case explicitly within India’s Me Too movement. US media, by contrast, more often referred to Me Too as providing cultural context for Kavanaugh’s case, but not as being of the movement. This is a difference that may have to do, at least in part, with the way that media institutions were not at issue in the allegations against Kavanaugh (as they were in the case of Harvey Weinstein).
Patriarchal Protectionism and Toxic Masculinity
In India, the media conversation around sexual violence in the context of Me Too has focused on patriarchal institutions such as the workplace, which have been identified as lacking protections for women who are entering the public sphere in larger numbers due to liberalization and globalization. The wider conversation in India has focused on political change, such as the need for enforcing workplace anti-harassment laws.7 While legal protections for women at work are crucial for addressing gender inequality, both the state and the populace have tended to fold these protections into a practice of patriarchal protectionism. During the 2012 anti-rape campaign in India, for example, both women and men called on the state to protect women from sexual assault by, among other things, demanding the death penalty for rape. (The Indian government has also instituted the death penalty for the rape of minors below 12 years of age.) This demand characterizes sexual violence as a particularly heinous crime committed by a few “bad men” from which the state will protect women, and therefore silences Indian feminist critiques of patriarchy as a system.8
The discourse of protectionism also explains why Narendra Modi is still considered a champion of women’s rights, despite the fact that his “manly” leadership style helped explain his rise as a national leader (Srivastava 2015). This discourse of protectionism is entrenched within state-sponsored feminism, as well. When minister Maneka Gandhi called for setting up a special investigation to look into the Me Too allegations, she declared: “the Prime Minister has always given top priority to the rights of women. The first programme [sic] that he launched was Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao [Save the girl child, educate the girl child]. We don't save our daughters to allow big shots to insult them later in life” (Chandra 2018). Gandhi’s comments simultaneously praise Modi for upholding women’s rights even as she bemoans men who violate women in the workplace. They also reduce sexual aggression to an act committed by “big shots” rather than acknowledging the systemic operations of patriarchal power and masculine privilege.
These discussions certainly draw necessary attention to women’s vulnerabilities within institutions like the workplace. Yet what is missing in this conversation is a feminist discussion of Indian norms of masculinity and gender socialization. Akbar’s resignation, while buoying feminist claims that women lack equal freedoms within and access to the workplace, also precludes a discussion of how political and professional institutions participate in a larger culture of misogyny in India. The absence of this cultural discourse allows Akbar to emerge as a “bad patriarch,” rather than as a subject who is disciplined by a system of violent masculinity that allows women to become victims of sexual violence in the first place. In keeping its distance from Akbar, the BJP sent a clear message that he essentially failed to uphold the model of a “good patriarch,” one who protects, rather than harms, women.
The media coverage of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings took a different approach. Rather than portraying Christine Blasey Ford as in need of male protection from individual bad actors, the media emphasized the culture of misogynistic violence that surrounded her. Kavanaugh’s elite prep school and college fraternity were framed as institutions representing larger cultural norms of toxic hetero-masculinity. In other words, the media indicated that for young American men, joining a college fraternity is part of a developmental narrative of heteronormative male adulthood that is predicated upon cementing bonds between men through sexual conquest and violence (most often toward women and queers).
This focus on gender performance and socialization rather than on patriarchal structures may have to do with an entrenched post-feminist ethos in the US that understands a discourse on gender and gender identity as more relevant and imperative than one concerning patriarchy. Gender is also more readily tied to the US ideal of liberal individualism, as evidenced through appeals to identity politics as part of the fight for gender equality. Yet Me Too feminism in the US has not identified (hetero)patriarchy as the system that upholds and reproduces such gendered norms in the first place. Media coverage of women who supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation often took at face value that such women were “gender traitors,” rather than understanding that the category “women” is not equivalent to “feminist.” Perhaps more importantly, the women interviewed in news media failed to see this non-equivalence as part of a patriarchal system that disciplines and manages women as well as men, such that women can and often are agents of patriarchal norms and values.
The focus on gender performance in the Kavanaugh hearings was nowhere more apparent than in news coverage that marked the stark differences in the affective dimensions of Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies, emphasizing Ford’s timidity, docility, and reverence in the face of Kavanaugh’s unbridled defensiveness, indignation and rage. Newspaper headlines referred to a “high-stakes duel of tears and fury” (Baker, Stolberg and Fandos 2018) and news stories and op-eds described the “shaking” and “soft-spoken” Ford (Ali 2018) and the “ranting and raving” Kavanaugh (Freedland 2018). While both Kavanaugh and Akbar used aggressive speech in countering the accusations leveled against them, Akbar’s aggression was never named as part of his overall tone and never discussed as having to do with masculine gender, as was Kavanaugh’s. Instead (perhaps in part because Akbar ended up resigning), it was simply represented as part of his “personal” decision to pursue a criminal defamation lawsuit against Ramani.
While the grievances against Akbar occurred within the context of the workplace and those against Kavanaugh occurred within the context of teen bro culture, these differences alone fail to explain the absence of a more sustained discussion of patriarchy and patriarchal institutions within Me Too US and the absence of gender discourse within Me Too India. In the West, patriarchy is often associated with an “unfree tradition” (Patil 2013, 851) that is attributed to historically colonized or non-western women (the Global South) while gender is used to discuss the gender oppression taking place under “free modernity” (the Global North). Patriarchy is also seen as rearguard and even obsolete in the US because it is associated with second-wave feminist concerns with women’s access to the workplace and state resources. Indeed, Trump’s blatant misogyny as a self-proclaimed “pussy grabber” signaled for many liberal feminists a movement “backward” to a time when patriarchal ideas about women’s subordination dominated cultural discourse. Such collective indignation at Trump’s particular brand of misogyny stems from an understanding of patriarchy as rooted in the past and as out of step with a contemporary feminist movement that is centered on choice and consumption as avenues to social change.
Yet, as women of color and indigenous feminists have taught us, patriarchal ideals have never been disconnected from the racial projects of colonization and white supremacy and therefore continue to hold explanatory power in the US. For example, Andrea Smith’s apt phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” names the interconnectedness of these systems of oppression such that they cannot be disaggregated fully from one another. More recently, Vrushali Patel has argued that insofar as patriarchy has been associated with universalizing and totalizing narratives of “women’s oppression” that are premised upon a gender binary system, other analytical frameworks, such as intersectionality, do the necessary work of de-essentializing gender. Like Smith and other women of color feminists, however, Patil argues for the central role of patriarchy in shaping colonial and imperial hierarchies such as the gender binary system. This means attending more carefully to the ways patriarchies continue to structure gender relations in the Global North as well as the Global South. Such a rethinking of patriarchies could loosen the hold of liberal ideals of individual expression in the US and attend more carefully to structures of power and inequality that would, for example, make Trump’s, and, by extension, Kavanaugh’s, brand of misogyny, male privilege, and masculine aggression appear not as exceptional nor as rearguard but as rooted in past and present US colonial and imperial imperatives.
Likewise, there needs to be a serious rethinking of how masculinities are privileged through familial and state patriarchies (but not limited to these institutions) in the Indian context. The construction of Indian male superiority through a discourse of protectionism is tied to the role that family plays as a disciplinary regime of gender. Young men’s sexuality is also under scrutiny and surveillance (even if it is not as consequential as it is for women) by families and educational institutions that socialize them into being providers and protectors of patriarchal households. Unlike in the US, where sexual conquest is frequently an ingredient of men’s identity and socialization process, in India, Gandhian ideas of masculinity, such as renunciation and celibacy, have been central to the construction of nationalist and postcolonial masculinity (Srivastava 2004). The de-eroticization and de-sexualization of Indian masculinity was essential to countering colonial discourses of the oversexed native (Dasgupta and Gokulsing 2013). Though Indian masculinity is transforming to adapt to global consumerist aspirations (Srivastava 2015), family and kinship still center Indian men’s consumer aspirations, when compared to individual-centered and autonomously driven practices of consumption in the U.S.
Familial ideologies that privilege men and masculinity also function to silence and undermine women’s role in the public sphere. Women who seek advancement in education and career are subjected to everyday violence in the streets, and women’s right to public space is still a charged and contentious issue (there are of course class- and caste-based distinctions). This is why, since 2011, India has also witnessed campaigns such as Why Loiter, Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) and Bekhauf Azadi (Freedom without Fear) that challenge violence in and establish women’s right to public spaces. A serious critique of gender socialization in the family and of Indian masculinities must be part of a conversation around sexual assault in the Indian workplace. More sustained attention to culturally hegemonic masculinities would help to address a different kind of liberal strain in Me Too India, in which feminists place demands on the state as an arbiter and guarantor of rights and in which state-based feminism is held up as a liberal democratic ideal.
A comparative transnational feminist analysis of Me Too must question an entrenched liberalism in both patriarchal and gendered discursive formations and must caution against embracing either one or the other as explanatory frameworks of sexual violence. At the same time, we must be cautious of constructing patriarchy as somehow culturally backward and obsolete in the face of a purportedly more “progressive” framework of gender. Rather, a comparative transnational analysis of Me Too India and Me Too US can reveal the nuances of patriarchy and gender. It can show that patriarchies have been falsely assumed to be universal across time rather than temporally bound formations and that privileging gender as an analytic can elide a fuller recognition of the explanatory power of patriarchy within discussions of sexual violence.
1 While patriarchy is not a monolithic concept, we use patriarchy here to name a system that naturalizes male dominance and that maintains and upholds gender inequality. Gender refers to a complex system of social relations through which masculinities and femininities are socially created and maintained; within this system, state and other resources are distributed on the basis of masculine and feminine difference (Barriteau 1998).
2 Sarkar’s list generated heated conversations within feminist circles in India with some feminists taking a stand against the list and calling its naming practices antithetical to feminist struggles. They objected that the list violates principles of natural justice (the right to a fair hearing and to represent oneself) and due process, which feminist struggles have tried to institute at workplaces in order to redress sexual harassment.
3 Ramani first spoke about her experience of sexual harassment by a senior editor (without naming Akbar) on October 12, 2017, in a Vogue India article titled “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World We’ll Get You One Day” (Ramani 2017).
4 Indian news media regularly referenced the Kavanaugh case in its coverage of Akbar.
5 A necessary discussion of the way that misogyny asserts itself in questioning the accuracy and reliability of Ramani’s and Ford’s memories is beyond the scope of this essay. However, feminist research reveals how the fear of public mistrust and retaliation often prevents victims from ever coming forward publicly or naming their attackers—those who do often wait years or decades. We need only look to Ford's experience during the confirmation hearings and how she was harassed with death threats on social media to see how women are re-victimized in the process of coming forward. To paraphrase Sara Ahmed in Living a Feminist Life: to name a problem is to become the problem (Ahmed 2016, 37).
6 While political calculations might have played some role in Akbar’s decision to step down, his resignation still sends a clear message to political parties that they cannot ignore institutional critiques of misogyny and sexism.
7 In 1997 the Supreme Court of India (Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan) laid down guidelines for employers dealing with complaints of sexual assault and stipulated the formation of complaint committees to address complaints from victims. Before 1997 there were no such guidelines for sexual assault grievances at workplaces and women had to take recourse in criminal law.
8 This is much to the dismay of an Indian feminist movement that has pushed against severe punishment for sexual violence and has argued against the death penalty on the basis that it will reduce convictions since courts will require increasingly more difficult to procure evidence to substantiate rape claims.
Ahmed, Sara. 2016. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ali, Lorraine. 2018. “She Said/He Bellowed: The Optics of the Ford/Kavanaugh Hearings were as Divided as America.” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-et-st-hearing-commentary-ali-20180927-story.html.
Baker, Peter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Nicolas Fandos. 2018. “Christine Blasey Ford Wants F.B.I to Investigate Kavanaugh Before she Testifies.” New York Times, September 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/18/us/politics/christine-blasey-ford-kavanaugh-senate-hearing.html.
Barriteau, Eudine. 1998. “Theorizing Gender Systems and the Project of Modernity in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean.” Feminist Review 59 (1): 186-210.
Chandra, Jagriti. 2018. “Maneka Gandhi Proposes Committee of Legal Experts to Look into #MeToo cases.” The Hindu, October 12, 2018. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/maneka-gandhi-proposes-committee-of-legal-experts-to-look-into-metoo-cases/article25206186.ece.
Dasgupta, Rohit and Moti Gokulsing. 2014. “Introduction: Perceptions of Masculinity and Challenges to the Indian.” In Masculinities and Its Challenges in India: Essays on Changing Perceptions, edited by Rohit Dasgupta and Moti Gokulsing, 5-26. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Deepika, S. 2018. “‘False and Fabricated:’ MJ Akbar's Full Statement on #MeToo Allegations.” OneIndia, October 14, 2018. https://www.oneindia.com/india/false-fabricated-mj-akba-s-full-statement-on-metoo-allegations-2792987.html?utm_source=/india/false-fabricated-mj-akba-s-full-statement-on-metoo-allegations-2792987.html&utm_medium=search_page&utm_campaign=elastic_search.
Freedland, Jonathan. 2018. “Kavanaugh has Revealed an Insidious Force in Global Politics: Toxic Masculinity.” The Guardian, September 29, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/29/brett-kavanaugh-insidious-force-global-politics-toxic-masculinity.
New York Times. 2018. “Brett Kavanaugh’s Opening Statement: Full Transcript.” New York Times, September 26, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/read-brett-kavanaughs-complete-opening-statement.html.
Patil, Vrushali. 2013. “From Patriarchy to Intersectionality: A Transnational Feminist Assessment of How Far We've Really Come.” Signs 38 (4): 847-867.
Ramani, Priya. 2017. “To the Harvey Weinsteins of the World”. Vogue India, October 12, 2017. https://www.vogue.in/content/harvey-weinsteins-open-letter-sexual-harassment.
Srivastava, Sanjay. 2004. “The Masculinity of Dis-Location: Commodities, the Metropolis, and the Sex-Clinics of Delhi and Mumbai.” In South Asian Masculinities: Change and Continuity, edited by Radhika Chopra, Caroline Osella, and Filippo Osella, 175–223. New Delhi: Kali for Women.
--------. 2015. “Modi-Masculinity: Media, Manhood, and ‘Traditions’ in a Time of Consumerism.” Television & New Media 16 (4): 331-338.