Discussion of Indian film Dangal's ‘patriarchal’ values sparks online backlash

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/17 18:23:40

○ Bollywood hit Dangal, which tells the story of a father forcing his daughters to become wrestlers, has been criticized by some Chinese viewers due to its "patriarchal" values

○ Some have responded to this criticism, arguing that not everything requires feminist analysis. This is a continuation of a Chinese backlash to feminism in recent years, with some people claiming feminists are "too radical"

○ Feminists say this backlash shows feminism has entered the public consciousness. However, they think the concept is still stigmatized

A woman looks at a movie still for Dangal on her laptop. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Two weeks since hitting cinemas in China, Dangal has won massive praise and its box office take has almost caught up with Hollywood blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy 2, earning close to 500 million yuan ($72 million).

However, at the same time as raking in cash, the film has also received some harsh reviews. On popular Chinese culture site Douban.com, where the movie received an aggregate rating of 9.2 out of 10 based on user reviews, hundreds of people also submitted low ratings and bad reviews.

Debating Dangal

One review read, "the father's values make me vomit, he forces his daughters to live a certain type of life with his dream, with money and becoming a champion. You think the movie is about breaking gender stereotypes, but actually it's knee-deep in prejudice."

Another said, "the movie reeks of patriarchy and male chauvinism. The daughters didn't have any freedom to choose and were raised ferociously by their father to be world champions. The 'correct result' in the championship justifies the father's education."

The film is based on the true story of retired Indian wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat. He trained his daughters to be wrestlers, who went on to international sports success, fulfilling the dream he always had. In reality, the success of Phogat's daughters sparked hundreds of young women's interest in wrestling, perhaps encouraging them to have ambitions in life beyond serving their family. 

While the film was being advertised in China, it was touted as feminist because the lead female character in the movie struggles against sexism and wins India's first gold medal in women's wrestling.

But some aspects of the movie have particularly sparked debate online over whether the film can be considered feminist. The biggest point is that the girls were never given a choice, as their father forced wrestling on them. He also made them cut their hair short and denied them their favorite foods when they were training.

But some emphasize that the movie is about breaking gender stereotypes.

"I think you might understand the father as an expression of patriarchy, but that's not the point of the story," said Sophia Zhu, a Beijing resident. "He taught his children to be brave, to persist no matter what others say. I think that shows he taught them to have an independent spirit."

She thinks the father's motives are justified. It's explained early on in the movie that many women in remote villages in India, such as the one the family lives in, get married as early as 14 and spend the rest of their lives in domestic servitude. Though their training is hard and they had to face discrimination, the path their father made them take ultimately allowed them to choose their own paths as adults, Zhu said.

This debate has also caught the attention of famous film reviewers and critics. Dushe Dianying, a movie criticism app popular among young people, sent out a strongly-worded article specifically addressing some of these points.

"I'm not saying that women should not fight for their rights, I'm saying feminist slogans that overlook cultural and social contexts and reality can be a type of hijacking. When words are tied to 'isms' their meanings change. When social phenomena are tied to 'isms' they get out of control," the article said.

Ultimately, the debate over the film has turned into a discussion about Chinese feminism and whether it has "taken a wrong turn." 


All with a feminist touch

Feminism has faced a backlash in China in recent years. Netizens have particularly targeted two "branches" for their most vehement criticism.

They call one "field feminism," represented by a group of people who call themselves feminists but embrace things they like about patriarchal societies, such as having men pay for their meals.

The other is radical feminism, represented by people who turn gender equality issues into bashing the opposite sex, or people who overanalyze everything in terms of feminism.

One netizen told the Global Times he usually stays away from debates about feminism online because he feels some forces are too strong and he will get caught in the crossfire.

"I think some people who call themselves 'feminists' in China have not received the full training and do not fully understand the concept, so they do not have a mindset of equal rights and may become extreme," he said.

There is no doubt that discussions online are more regularly taking on a feminist bent than before.

A couple of months ago, post-80s writer and cultural icon Han Han released a new movie. Its theme song, sung by a man to his wife, included lyrics such as "You have to cook for me, get up earlier than me, you can't die ahead of me." It sparked nationwide debate as to whether these lyrics are sexist.

Also, when feminists staged protests over social issues, people said they were just "putting on a show."

In 2012, in response to sexual harassment on the subway, many women in Shanghai started holding signs that read "I can be 'slutty' but you cannot harass me" while wearing short skirts or tank tops in public places. This act met with a lot of online criticism, with angry netizens saying these women are "extreme" and were going too far.

Ai Ke, who has a master's degree in gender studies from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and is a former feminist activist, told the Global Times she thinks it's quite normal for there to be debate over these issues, especially as feminism has only recently come into public view.

"There are always debates about feminist values, so different voices can rise on specific matters, on the other hand, because feminism has become a hot topic in public discourse, its values are spreading, now even cosmetics advertisements use phrases like 'girl power' or 'lean in,'" she said.

Ai thinks the constant criticism of feminists show that the concept has become stigmatized, at least online, and how to clear its name is quite the challenge.

"If you look at real life, feminists are far from 'feminazis,'" she said, referencing a slur used by those who say modern feminism is too radical and oppressive. "When have feminists had real power and say?"

Wei Tingting, director of the Guangzhou Gender and Sexuality Education Center and feminist activist, noticed the trend as well. She read the reviews of Dangal on Douban.com and found that even though only a small proportion of posts are critical feminist comments, they were often met with long diatribes.

She thinks this shows public's anxiety around feminism. Women who want more gender equality are anxious about defending their own rights and therefore apply feminism to every issue, while some men feel challenged by women's rising status and attack feminism. 

"I'm happy to see these comments and debates, it means that people are starting to take this seriously … when women start to do something different, they always meet finger-pointing or negative comments," she said. "One day, when the world thinks everything about it is normal, maybe there will be nothing to discuss."

Newspaper headline: Wrestling with feminism

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