Avenging Women: The Goddess Trope

Does this image look familiar? Most of you have likely seen it, in one form or another. Hindu cosmology in the North Atlantic belt presents many versions of Hindu goddesses—mostly defanged, in contexts they do not usually belong—and sadly, most conversations I've seen online about these goddesses involve racist appropriation. Usually, these conversations foster two camps, one against cultural appropriation and, on the other end, one that finds people shouting about creative freedom and the "exchange" of cultures (protip: if two cultures are not equal, the exchanges will most definitely mirror their political hierarchies too), as if the whole matter can be understood in the "SMS 'Y' if you agree" kind of way. No matter what "side" we may be on in this matter, we're all involved in making a frame—the Hindu Goddess who is Sacred And Must Not Be Touched, or Freedom Of Expression Means I Can Use Anything The Way I Like, hijacking most discussion around the goddesses in scales of ethics—so when this conversation takes a different form, for instance when mainstream Bollywood films use the goddess trope, we've been somewhat conditioned not to interrogate such an ideal.

As the loud and obnoxious daughter of an extremely religious Hindu family, I grew up very fascinated with Ma Kali. Considering the fact that her anger defines her and that she is worshipped for her powers of destruction made me feel less like a freak for being so angry all the time. Today I would tell my 12- year-old self that I wasn't so wrong for being angry at misogyny or racism, but in those days Kali was a figure I could cloak my my impolite opinions in. I reveled in her anger, and didn't question this until very recently: Why does our anger need to be subsumed by religion to achieve its legitimacy? I've always thought of her as "the Avenger," a more radical version of Durga even, but at the time I didn't really ask why most representations of "anger" onscreen need to fit in an "avenging goddess" narrative.

I remember watching 7 Khoon Maaf last year and excitedly defending the film despite its many fails (tired old stereotypes of Russian spies and violent Muslim men are only the tip of the fail iceberg) because for once "the avenger" wasn't a Hindu goddess. In the film, Susanna kills her six husbands after they've betrayed her or violated her in some form or another—it's a refreshing take on marriage, I still maintain that. There are plenty of films in mainstream Bollywood about unhappy couples, angry women, broken families—but not so many that treat women as people who can defend themselves when need be, or even as people who may believe in other forms of justice. Susanna is all of those things: smart, sexy, a person who is allowed to be an active decision-maker and one who is held accountable for her mistakes. But in the end, she has to "redeem" herself to the audience (and herself, we're told) by embracing Christianity. Throughout the film, we see enough markers that tell us she isn't "really" Indian (read: Hindu), by constantly emphasising her Anglo-(Indian)-ness and her inability to "fit" into any husband's religion. She tries most out for size: Christianity, Islam, and even a couple of Hindu husbands, she changes her dressing style and her speech to their cultures but she can't find herself comfortable in any faith. The minute she starts believing again, her anger seems to wash away, and we see her dancing with Jesus (I wish I made that up).

Another "avenger" film is Bandit Queen, inspired by the life of Phoolan Devi. In it, we encounter Phoolan, a survivor of caste-based sexual and physical abuse who grows up to form a gang and kill her rapists. There are quite a few myths around her life and death (the controversies with the film are another matter altogether), and a popular one is how she would go to a Durga temple after committing each crime to ask for forgiveness. There's a range of dolls in her likeness dressed as Durga, given that she is popularly remembered as "Devi" (goddess), and the film definitely helps cement that image—she is a woman who wants revenge, but she is incredibly sensitive to the needs of others, especially women and children; whether outwardly invoked or not, there is an over-arching subtext that sees Phoolan as a goddess with infernal rage, but also capable of love and kindness.

Similarly, the recent blockbuster Kahaani also employs the goddess trope. The protagonist (an undercover police agent) Vidya uses the event of Durga puja in Calcutta as a cover for finding a sought-after terrorist. She uses the festival, dominant ideas of nationalism, and a fake pregnancy to get where she does—which I have to admit is pretty intriguing. At the end, however, after the terrorist is killed and Vidya retreats to a place no one knows, the voiceover explains how Vidya, like the goddess Durga, will always protect her people and rid the world of evil, as if to make absolutely certain that religion cannot (and dammit will not!) be a part of her arsenal. She cannot be a police officer who is doing her job any way she can (even if it means using people's sexism to her end), she has to fit into the Hindu pantheon of goddesses; neither can she be "just" an officer on her mission—she is also a widow who has lost her baby due to the same terrorist's deeds, and thus is out to kill him. Patriarchy and religion collude in really ugly ways to inject some kind of rationalization to Vidya's need for revenge, and this meta narrative of religion is the reason we see her (and all the women above) as heroes—otherwise they'd just be criminals.

The flipside to this trope seems to dangerously suggest that "anger" not backed by religion cannot exist. Rather, it won't be tolerated and it's those "non-Hindu" women who can dream of picking up arms for their "personal" revenge; Hindu women commit violence against their own sons or terrorists like Vidya does, but it also has to be for "greater good." The only possible exception I can think of to this rule is the film Fiza where the protagonist Fiza, a Muslim woman, is asked to choose her country over her community and ends up killing her terrorist brother out of mercy. It's not a coincidence that a Muslim character is asked to make that choice, while the Hindu protagonists get to be exalted (looking at you Mother India), nor is it just a plot convenience that "angry" women have to be rationalized as "goddesses."

What happens when most media you see tells you that this goddess trope is the only way your anger will be tolerated? Or worse, that you can't even be angry (in ways conducive to the Hindu dogma) if your faith doesn't belong to the Brahminical system? What happens when you're asked to choose your nation or your "national duty" over your community so that your humanity is retained, while Hindu protagonists are seen as "goddesses" and saviors? What do we miss when we're only looking at goddesses whose integrity one must "protect" at all times and cost either from cultural appropriation or by "preserving" their sanctity?

Previously: The Tales Of Feminist Conferences in India, and of Ice., Once Upon a Time There Was an Indian Village and Everyone Lived Happily Ever After

Comments

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If it's "spiritual" than it's OK

So many great points in this article, and a lot of movies I'll have to check out - also why does my browser spell check not know the word "movies"?

This reminds me of some conversations I've had about sexuality and how certain things are excused or otherwise become acceptable (sex work, public nudity, etc.) when they are "spiritual" in nature, but when they are mundane they suddenly become obscene, taboo, stereotyped. What is it about this designation within the realms of religion or spirituality, even if it isn't necessarily codified (in neopaganism, for example), that makes these boundary-pushing topics seem suddenly safe?

I agree completely

There is something about religion that makes it "safer" -- having a whole hierarchy of belief systems and millions of people buying it can be quite a drug. Violence for religion is legitimised (and so is colonisation) when there's religion backing it, can't imagine why gender, sexuality or any other thing will be an exception. 

Which is why it's imperative for us to examine our "feminist" heroes and how they get legitimised, if we even want to be behind such a system and so on. 

Thank you for your kind words. 

What happens when most media

What happens when most media you see tells you that this goddess trope is the only way your anger will be vilified?

Did you mean "validated"?

Oops

Thanks Ilana. Fixed it.

Plotline

I'd like to mull over your piece before commenting on some excellent points raised. But dear Battameez, you;ve given away the plotline for Kahaani for your readers who may not have watched the movie. Maybe a spoiler alert could remedy that. btw, sorry for the tardy comment to your previous post.

Ekdum oops happened

Hey 3rdWorldFem, 

Don't worry about the tardy comment, I'm always happy to hear from you. Will go and check now! 

Aaah sorry about the spoilers -- but there is no way to talk about Kahaani without giving away the plot! Can I just say that the film is done well and is fast-paced enough that the end seems to surprise everyone. I went in knowing the plot and still at that moment was extremely amused and shaken. 

Hopefully I haven't comepletely ruined Kahaani for you. 

still mulling it over but...

I think we all couch our emotions in the mythical-cultural heros we grow up with, to some degree, as those figures are some of our best points of reference as we try to make sense of our lives. It's one of the reasons we tell and retell the same stories, just in slightly different forms. We do this with cultural narratives, and we do it with personal narratives as well. Because that helps to define who we (think we) are. So, it is no surprise that Hindi films (or Hindi-Bangla hybrid films, like Kahaani) follow this pattern, particularly when there is a need for moral justification for a protagonist to do 'bad things'. Religion is used for this justification in stories cross-culturally. And this is the point at which you and I may diverge a bit. I don't see this as being a dichotomous issue of anger necessarily requiring religion to be righteous or otherwise it is invisible or evil. And how exactly are you defining 'anger' here? Surely you'll admit that anger is a crucial turning point for many Bollywood romances that have little to no religious plotting. And are we only considering Bollywood here, or are we considering Indian cinema (or broader yet, cinema of the subcontinent) as a whole? Because more nuanced filmmakers like Nandita Das, Deepa Mehta, Q, and others also have more nuanced cultural, social, and religious commentary embedded in their films that don't follow the pattern of which you speak.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Hello Mandy

Religion is used for this justification in stories cross-culturally 

Yes, it is. I'm looking at anger specifically within women's narratives -- anger at the frustration and silencing, anger at being left out, anger at a loss to the social hierarchies that mark our communities and bodies. 

 And shouldn't we question the idea that a feminist hero can only be validated if they are angry when fitting into a religious ideal? My problem isn't with religion -- it's this imagination of the anger, of the violent fight/resistence against gender/caste/race hierarchies has to be 'divine', it has to be "for the greater good" for it to be legitimised. 

I deeply resent the idea that horrible things have to happen to the woman *first* and *then* she resists, so she shows some spine after the point she has been abused so much that she nearly breaks? Why can't we have shallow, conniving charcters? Characters, who are allowed to exhibit anger that doesn't need a complex defense -- because it's a perfectly natural response when faced with aggravating things! 

Speaking about Kahaani, why did she have be a wife/mother first, to have lost everything to be able to *do her damned job*? A flipside to this logic says, a mother and a wife cannot be a skilled special service agent, because she has *people* she cares about, she has "too much at stake". I loved Kahaani till the last two minutes, they used nationalism, the durga puja and even the pregnant body as a plot device -- till we're told she is an exception. She uses people's sexism to her advantage -- and unapologetically, till we're told she did what she had to, like the Goddess. And that she is only doing this to protect a purpose larger than her.  

shouldn't we question the

shouldn't we question the idea that a feminist hero can only be validated if they are angry when fitting into a religious ideal?

I suppose this is where we may disagree. If this were the only way anger (or women's anger specifically) were seen as valid then 'yes' -- but I don't believe it is. And this is demonstrated in a great many films and books of literature. Firaaq, for example, demonstrates the messiness of anger and does a good job in complicating the narrative of 'religious good' and the expectation of choosing sides because one is 'right' and the other is 'wrong'. It also demonstrates the problems of justifying anger thru religion.

I deeply resent the idea that horrible things have to happen to the woman *first* and *then* she resists.

As do I. However, the reality is that when people are living relatively comfortably, they see little need to resist. And when people are living quite uncomfortably, it is usually because they are (systemically) or believe they are powerless to resist. And it does tend to take something traumatic or otherwise jolting to bring them to a place where they recognize the need to act or feel like they've no choice but to do so. So, in the context of exploring 'big questions' it makes total sense to use this narrative.

In the context of fluffy story lines, I revert to my earlier point that Bollywood and TV serials have plenty of petty, banal, angry, scheming women.

I agree with you that Kahaani lost me in the last few scenes by completely decimating the strength Vidya -- with a 'V' ;-) -- had shown throughout the film. That said, I think you've made the point I would about why a wife/mother would have a hard time being a special agent. She DOES have too much at stake. That's actually why a great number of women who are in these positions in real life aren't mothers, and why people in general in these careers marry their colleagues, who understand the demands of the job because they have them too. And truly, if that weren't the plot of Kahaani, then you'd have no film. But I'd have ended it in a way that maintained her dignity instead of placated the (male) audience who'd have been scandalized by a remorseless woman who manipulated the system to her advantage and got the job done.

Facinating and unconventional views on women

This article was so fascinating to me, as a man. I get so very much out of these discussions.
Anger and violence are so typically defined as "male", when any thinking human being knows that these are traits that all PEOPLE have to deal with, no matter their physicality. Men get violent...and women get violent. There is NO "gentle" sex. Sometimes I think we, as humans, are all holding back something determinedly destructive. But, for the most part, we all deal with it and get by.
I remember how Kali was taught to me, as a student. I was told that she's harsh, yes, and aggressive. But her violence has a cause. She decapitates, but it's to destroy the ego. She takes your head off quickly and cleanly, to minimize the inevitable pain of enlightenment. Great Kali destroys the ego. In her anger is a form of deep, ultimate kindness. And I LOVE that. Why shouldn't growth be hard and hurtful?
It isn't about vengeance. It isn't about retaliation or literalness. You don't need to wage war to find peace. In fact, the very notion is absurd and contradictory. All you need is to be strong, and assured, and self-reliant. The anger may not go away...but nor is it in charge. Use your strength for peace and enlightenment, and abhor the petty impulses that rise in women and men both.

And hello to you too

I agree, every one is capable of great violence and destruction -- it's of course not a co-incidence that historically marginalised groups are viewed as 'weaker', 'inferior', or 'mimics'  by their oppressors. 

Growing up, the Kali I knew wasn't the one who sat on a corpse, or one who wore a necklace of skulls and drank blood -- I knew Durga, angry but one who would surface for a limited time each year. The Kali you mention is a stranger to me, and I've never yet come across a version of her like this one: 

In her anger is a form of deep, ultimate kindness. And I LOVE that. Why shouldn't growth be hard and hurtful?

I'd in turn ask why is her anger supposed to be coupled with kindness? None of the male gods or saints ever would be described in such a way. I'm not saying people (and by extension these gods) shouldn't be held accountable for their actions. But. We also have to ask whose anger is repeatedly legitimised only if it has a "bigger purpose" behind it

Subtle Complexity

I know that it's hard to feel to feel anything but anger and vengeance against the vast, powerful, establishment of patriarchy and religion. I do too, I really do. I get so angry I'm practically paralyzed. But paralysis is no way to move forward. Things are changing. Thoughts are changing. Women are taking over, once more.
I'm a man, and am I SO on your side. And I'm not alone, not at all. More and more and more, we're so totally with you.
No, I'm not 100% sure on everything I say. But I do truly and totally believe that all religions are about kindness, compassion, and growth. I'm no guru, but Kali will always stand for growth and compassion to me. I respect contrary opinions, but nothing will dissuade me from what I feel. And I feel that women are the same as me--human beings, every bit as intelligent and flawed as anyone else. We're all just people. THAT'S what I truly believe, in all it's subtle complexity.

mansplain much?

I mean, what's the point of this comment?  Other than to say

"blahblahblah, these negative thoughts hurt my man-brain, things happen, don't worry, be happy, put on a smiling face, girls who complain will not find suitable husbands, I'm a good guy, do you want to date me?"

Next time just post your telephone number and say

"call me, I'm Chris"

Really now

Chris -- Next time someone is trying to explain their point of view, it would be most fruitful if you don't wave it off and center yourself all the time. 

Sexgenderbody -- I agree, but a bit harsh.

 Unless the two of you have something to say that is related to this post, I'm going to ask you two dudes to take your squabbles elsewhere. 

I, for one, apologize for the

I, for one, apologize for the direction my posts took. I know it was silly and off-topic. I tried to stay focused but my passions got in the way in the face of a direct attack... I misread the situation and gave a troll far more attention than they deserved. I appreciate that you've put a stop to it. I'm not here to fight, at all, and I thank you for keeping this weird ugliness in check.