One of Asianet’s most popular serials, Amma Ariyathe is constantly among the top 5 shows on Malayalam TV’s TRP charts. It is the story of a ridiculously over accomplished young woman seeking revenge on her estranged mother’s abusers and it certainly has gripped the minds of the Malayali public.
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Like most other serials in Malayalam, Amma Ariyathe has some serious problems. The story of Amma Ariyathe isn’t original – the same director made Kumkumapoovu, again the story of a separated-at-birth mom and daughter duo. The language is unnecessarily grandiose and it is almost as if the purpose of the glazed language is to compensate for the blatant sexism in the serial. This is under the assumption that the makers acknowledge their sexist tendencies, but most likely they don’t because not a single episode goes by without at least one character remarking on the female lead Aleena’s extraordinary bravery despite being a woman. The epithet she wears most proudly-“annathom olla penn” – tells us all we need to know about this matter. Also interesting to note is the surge in popularity this serial got after introducing a macho love interest for the un-tameable Aleena.
The problem of sexism is certainly not unique to this generic serial. It is found everywhere in Malayalam entertainment, from our songs to our movies and everything in between. To be brave is to be a man and to be weak is to be a woman. It is a carefully constructed gender stereotype that harms both men and women. It assumes that women are naturally timid because they are weak and that men are naturally brave because they are strong. This weakness attributed to women comes with its own set of feelings like fear, compassion and care. For a man, this set changes to bravery, anger and stoicism. Hence, a courageous woman and a fearful man both become aberrations. The man with the ‘womanly’ quality is degraded and the woman with the ‘manly’ quality gets attacked for not being a tamer.
It’s obvious how this harms men. Condensing a man’s entire emotional capability into one word, either ‘brave’ or ‘strong’ does not leave much space for emotions other than anger. What about fear, are those who have fear, not men? The obsession with fearlessness is a feature of toxic masculinity. While bravery is commendable, having fear is normal and it should not be judged as ‘feminine’ or ‘weak’. It is a defence mechanism. The lack of fear is not an attribute but rather a symptom of a genetic disorder called the Urbach-Wiethe disease.
This sort of stereotyping can also be seen in the race to solve women’s problems for them. Much like how ‘big strong men’ solve the problems of the Disney princesses, women are expected to wait for their ‘knight-in-shining’ armour. The natural state of a woman is ‘damsel-in-distress’. Protect women, save women!
You may think, “does this mean that men should walk away from a woman in trouble?” No, they shouldn’t. What they should do is treat each woman as an independent person and not attribute one woman’s circumstance to gender in general.
Scientifically, female human beings seem physically weaker than males. However, take a look at nature. Are female animals any less fierce? Do you see lionesses cowering in dens waiting for lions to bring them sustenance? If being ‘naturally weak’ is an adequate reason to limit women, why don’t all the animals in the world collectively protect their females the way patriarchy ‘protects’ women? It may be because they understand that protection should not mean repression. Unfortunately, repression is what passes for protection in our culture. I shouldn’t have to elaborate why it is harmful: It leads to regressive customs such as, ‘Pita rakshati koumare, Pati rakshati youvane, Puthro rakshathi vardakye’-up to here is kind of alright, but here comes the ruiner-‘Na sthree swathanthryam arhati’. Women do not deserve independence. Women are weak, the world is dangerous. Women are not brave. Women should stay at home. Women are property. Women don’t need rights. This is the end result of a regressive culture. Take a look around, women without rights isn’t an uncommon situation in the world. What do you think normalised such situations?
‘Aaninte thantedam olla’ Aleena is the representative of this toxic culture. Men are brave, yes. Women are brave too. Bravery or independence isn’t something that has a gender. Through Aleena, the makers probably wanted to show a strong woman and changing norms for what a woman is. Perhaps there is a little something redeemable in Amma Ariyathe in the character of Ambadi, the male lead who does not solve Aleena’s problems with his might or try to ‘tame’ her but rather supports Aleena in solving her problems. Yet the serial is a failure in representing strong women and equality because they do it in a frame heavily tinted with sexism. It isn’t a compliment to say women are as brave as men. It is sexism, just a little more benevolent.