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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The cougar effect

Why do older women always end up being dumped by their much-younger spouses?

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the televised proceedings of the British House of Commons committee that was grilling Rupert and James Murdoch about the phone-hacking carried out by their newspapers. Remember the most compelling image that emerged from that meeting? Yes, it was the moment when Rupert, the ageing patriarch of the Murdoch clan, was attacked by a man who pushed a ‘foam-pie’ into his face.

But it wasn’t the sight of a powerful media mogul subjected to public ridicule on international television that enthralled us. It was the image of his young wife, Wendi Deng, seated behind her husband, leaping to his defence like a protective tigress and hitting his attacker flush in the face. The look of murderous intent in her eyes said it all: she would kill, if that’s what it took, to protect her man.

In an instant, all those who had scoffed at their December-May pairing when they wed in 1999 – Rupert, 37 years older than Wendy, is now a sprightly 80 to her youthful 43 – were forced to eat their words; or should that be humble (foam) pie? This was no gold digger out to make her fortune by marrying a rich old man. This was a woman who loved her husband and would do anything to defend him – yes, even use her powerful right hook.

Now contrast this with another portrait of a marriage. Demi Moore was 41 when she fell in love the 25 year old Ashton Kutcher. They married a couple of years later despite their 15-year age difference. Predictably, the sceptics scoffed and prophesied that the union would not last. But Demi and Ashton seemed determined to prove them wrong, with their endless public displays of affection, and avowals of eternal love. Demi went by Mrskutcher on twitter and Mr Kutcher did such playful things as snap her white-bikinied bottom as she ironed his shirt (ah, the joys of domesticity!) and post the picture on Twitter as if to prove what a fit wife he had.

Fast forward to their sixth wedding anniversary and what do we see. Demi’s husband is far away in San Diego, cavorting in a hot tub with a bunch of 20-something, near-naked girls, one of whom he ends up in bed with (apparently, after having failed to persuade her friend to join them for a threesome). Not surprisingly, Demi announced that she was filing for divorce soon after.

Not that Demi is the first older woman – or cougar as we are told to call them these days – to be publically humiliated by her much younger husband. Even the ageless Madonna had to suffer the same ignominy when Guy Ritchie celebrated his impending divorce by telling his friends that his wife was so skinny that sleeping with her was like ‘cuddling a piece of gristle’ (charming man, right?). And then he did one better by running off with a much younger model and having a baby with her (that’s one in the face for the much-menopausal Madonna, then).

Courtney Cox hasn’t had much joy out of her marriage to a younger man, David Arquette, either (though she did manage to have a daughter, Coco, after years of trying). Arquette has been in and out of rehab throughout their 11-year marriage. And no sooner had they separated than he was calling in at shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show to announce that he had sex with a bartender/actress while still married and how Courtney (sob!) just didn’t fancy him anymore. And then, like most men fresh out of a relationship he moved on to another girlfriend with the speed of light (or should that be neutrino?)

Perhaps the only celebrity older woman whose marriage with a much-younger man seems to have remained on track is Joan Collins who is now 78 to her husband Percy Gibson’s 46 (yes, you read that right). The pair still appear devoted to one another and when asked about the huge age gap between them, Collins famously declared: “Well, if he dies, he dies.”

Other than Collins, I think of a single famous woman who has managed to live happily ever after with a much younger man. Sooner or later, she ends up being cheated on, publicly humiliated, and then traded in for a younger model. Rich men, on the other hand, have no problem holding on to much younger wives. And some of them, like Murdoch, are lucky enough to inspire absolute devotion in their much younger spouses.

Why should this be so? Why is it that older men are more successful at this younger spouse gig than older women?

Well, if you ask me, it all comes down to these ladies choosing to marry little boys – and here I am referring to their mental as well as their chronological one – perhaps in an attempt to re-capture their own youth. But then these boys refuse to grow up – and the problems begin. As Courtney Cox famously declared to David on their 11th anniversary: “I don’t want to be your mother any more”. Well, in that case, Courtney, you should not have married a child.

In fact, that’s probably a salutary lesson for all older women out there. If you don’t want to play Mummy, ladies, then don’t marry little boys – or men who behave like little boys. Pick someone your own age instead. You’ll probably be much happier in the long run.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The medium is the mess

But if an ‘advisory’ is the answer, then here’s my very own...

So, the press is everyone’s favourite whipping boy these days; or should I say the media, given that TV channels get as much – if not more – flak than newspapers. Journalists are accused of everything from venality and corruption to plain stupidity. We are told that we are neither well-educated nor well-read; that our priorities are all wrong; that we can’t tell the wood from the trees. And that given a choice we would rather focus on cricket and Shah Rukh Khan than on farmers’ suicides or the maternal mortality rate.

To be fair – and despite being part of that much-maligned breed, a journalist, I do try to be fair – there is certainly something to this criticism. Yes, we do tend to go overboard when India wins the cricket World Cup. We attain a near-hysterical pitch when Saif Ali Khan starts dating Kareena Kapoor. We have turned the phrase ‘Breaking News’ into a running gag on television by splashing it randomly across the board to any news items that comes through on the wire services. And we have made the term ‘Exclusive’ meaningless by applying it to interviews granted to every media outlet.

So, yes, the media have a lot to answer for. But I don’t think that the answer lies in issuing risible ‘advisories’ on how the media should – and should not – cover the birth of Baby B, the first-born child of Abhishek and Aishwarya (helpful pointers included: don’t position OB vans outside the hospital; don’t run astrology shows about the date of the baby’s birth; don’t run ‘Breaking News’ tags on the item; don’t reveal the sex of the baby – okay, I made the last one up, but just barely). Quite apart from the fact that this was hardly a seminal event in the history of the nation which warranted an ‘advisory’ (how about one on the Manipur blockade, guys, or even the children’s death from encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh?), it was also singularly pointless because there wasn’t a hope in hell that the habitual offenders would pay the slightest attention to it.

But inspired by this example and in keeping with the same spirit, I thought I would issue an ‘advisory’ of my own: a list of dos and don’ts for when you are dealing with the media.

1) Don’t open the door to any place you don’t want the media to go. Because once you allow entry there is no getting rid of them. So, if you agree to dish the dirt on your love life, your marriage or your divorce while you are promoting a book/movie/music album, then consider yourself warned. From then on, it will be open season on you. And you won’t really be in a position to object, given that you opened the door to that line of questioning in the first place. So, if you had no compunctions giving lovey-dovey joint interviews with your girlfriend when you were in the first throes of love, then don’t throw a hissy fit if the media go mad with speculative stories when you split up or when you are caught cheating on her. You made that bed; now they will report who lies in it.

2) If you don’t like the way a particular television channel conducts its prime-time news debates, then don’t agree to appear on it. It’s really not that hard to do. When the guest coordinator calls to ask if you are free to appear on such-and-such show, take a deep breath, say a polite thank you for the invitation, and say no. Keep saying no every time they call. In a couple of weeks, the invitations will dry up of their own accord. And you can spend the evenings at home, sipping your whiskey/wine and relaxing on that well-worn couch.

It beats the hell out of the alternative: driving miles out to some god-forsaken studio, shouting to be heard over the five other people on the panel, being lectured to by some self-righteous anchor, losing your temper or worse still, losing it on national television, and threatening to walk out. And then making an absolute fool of yourself by turning up on the show the very next night, to be slapped around all over again.

Honestly, why subject yourself to this daily humiliation? Do yourself a favour. Stay at home. And if you must get your blood pressure elevated, do so in the privacy of your own drawing room, while shouting invective at the TV screen. I do it every evening. And believe me, it works like a charm.

3) Let’s assume that you have no choice but to engage with the media despite all your reservations about it. Stick to the policy perfected by American politicians over the decades. Decide before you go on what message you want to get across to the watching masses. And then stick to that message no matter what the anchor or reporter asks. Remember, it’s not the questions that will stay with the viewers; it’s your answers that will stick.

Or better still, avoid mainstream news outlets altogether and rely on social media to get your message across. Given how obsessed mainstream media is with Twitter and the like, you’ll get the same amount of coverage anyway – and without having to go through the middleman, as it were.

And thus ends my own little ‘advisory’. (Follow at your own peril.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What’s the good word?

Let’s not trivialise sexual harassment by coyly calling it ‘eve-teasing’

Of all the words that seek to hide a grim reality behind innocuous euphemisms – honour killings, collateral damage, dowry deaths – the most ludicrous has to be ‘eve-teasing’. And of late we have been getting an overdose of this word in our media because of the horrific murders of two Mumbai boys, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez.

These two young men were out with friends one evening when some ‘eve-teasers’ started misbehaving with the girls in the group. Keenan and Reuben objected to their behaviour and got into an altercation. The miscreants left, only to return with a gang of rowdies. A fight ensured, in the course of which the goons stabbed both Keenan and Reuben. (I wonder, does that make them ‘knife-wielders’ rather than murderers?) Keenan died on the spot. Reuben passed away a week later in hospital. And we were told that the boys had paid the ultimate price for standing up against the menace of ‘eve-teasing’.

Funny old word, isn’t it? Eve-teasing. It evokes pictures of bashful young girls being playfully ‘teased’ by mischievous young men who are just looking for a lark and some laughs. It brings to mind bucolic images of a beautiful Garden of Eden in which nubile young girls (the Eves in eve-teasing) are gently joshed with by well-meaning, witty men. Yes, it sounds nice and soft, all romantic and wonderful, doesn’t it?

The reality, of course, is quite different. What ‘eve-teasing’ means in real terms is the incessant, unremitting sexual harassment of women by men who take a perverted pleasure in tormenting them. There’s the boy whistling loudly at a girl as she walks down the street. There’s the man passing lewd comments on the physical attributes of the woman who works with him in office. There’s the boy who brushes up against a bunch of teenagers in the mall. There’s the man who pinches the bum of the woman nearest to him in a crowded bus. And much, much worse.

Yes, sexual harassment can take many forms. But not one of them qualifies to be coyly termed ‘eve-teasing’, with its connotations of playful joshing and the sense of how ‘boys will be boys, yaar’. And yet, we are constantly being bombarded with the subliminal message that these ‘eve-teasers’, those naughty boys, are just out for some innocent fun and a few laughs. And honestly, we shouldn’t take it so seriously.

At one level, this laid-back attitude to the sexual harassment of women is a by-product of our patriarchal culture in which men are allowed to get away with murder (sometimes quite literally). Their bad behaviour is excused or explained away on one pretext or the other; their various misdemeanours treated with indulgence. And never more so than when their victims are female.

But if you ask me, our popular culture is just as culpable. In India, of course, that translates into the movies. And our cinema hasn’t exactly helped by elevating ‘eve-teasing’ to an art form. Remember those Sixties movies that made Shammi Kapoor a star? In which he chased his heroines relentlessly through the first hour after which they obligingly fell in love with him? The same formula has been repeated in every decade after with everyone from Rajesh Khanna to Govinda, from Salman and Shah Rukh to Imran Khan following this peculiarly Hindi-movie style of courtship that is more harassment than romance.

There is a word for a man who follows you around, insists that you give in to his advances, won’t take no for an answer, and continues to believe that you are in love with him despite all evidence to the contrary. In the real world he is called a stalker. In Hindi movies, he is the hero. And somehow, the heroine always obediently falls in love with him in the course of the second song sequence.

As a consequence, all the men who grow up watching their heroes indulge in what is coyly described as ‘chhed-chhad’, come to believe that this sort of harassment is completely acceptable behaviour. It’s all about breaking down her defences. It’s all about brow-beating her into submission. And then there’s that old chestnut: she may say no, but she actually means yes. You just have to keep at it until she says ‘yes’ as well.

In other words, these men begin to see stalking as courtship.

But real life is not the movies. And real-life women have this irritating way of not falling in love with their harassers unlike Hindi film heroines. Unfortunately, the men can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and the movies and continue to act as if harassment is actually a legitimate form of interaction with the opposite sex. And as a society, we are implicit in trivialising this sexual harassment when we refer to it as ‘eve-teasing’.

I think the tragic deaths of Keenan and Reuben should serve as a wake-up call in this regard. These two fine young men didn’t die because they were objecting to ‘eve-teasing’. They died because they took a stand against the sexual harassment of women. And the fact that nobody stood up for them as they were being stabbed to death shows us just how de-sensitised we have become as a society.

The Santos and Fernandez families will never get their men back. But let’s not besmirch their memory by our constant references to ‘eve-teasing’. They didn’t die because they didn’t have a sense of humour. They died because they had a sense of honour. Let’s at least respect that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

From rags to riches

Reality television can change your life; so long as it was pretty gritty to begin with

Poverty tourism in India may be passé these days, what with droves of high-rollers flying in their private jets to invade our palace hotels and luxury resorts, but hard-luck stories have found fertile ground elsewhere: on Indian television shows. No matter which channel you turn to or which programme you watch, the song remains the same: the participants vie with one another to tell viewers just how badly off they are, and how this stint on TV has the potential to change their lives for the better.

On Masterchef India, we have already met two ‘single mothers’ who are living away from their children – cue quivering chins and discreet tears followed by brave smiles – and hope to reunite with them if they do well on this show. No, I can’t work out either how these two events are related but the ladies bring up their domestic troubles whenever the opportunity presents itself and the judges look suitably sympathetic. Does this make the food they cook taste any better? No clue. Should their sad lives make a difference to their scores when the results are tabulated? Of course not. And yet these ‘personal problems’ crop up ever so often.

Meanwhile Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) has recast itself as a show for India’s Less Fortunate. The catch-line of the show says it all: ‘Koi bhi aadmi chhota nahin hota’. The promise is clear: this is the show that ‘Aam aadmi ko khaas bana deta hai’. In keeping with the theme, participants roll on to tell their stories of woe to the greatest superstar of them all, Amitabh Bachchan, and confess how they are looking to transform their lives by a big win. This one hopes to pay off his debts with the prize money; the other wants to buy a house for his parents. This one wants to complete her studies; the other wants to send his kids abroad to study. So far, so heart-breaking.

Take the lucky chap from a small Bihar village who won the Rs 5 crore pay-off (and was promptly – if somewhat predictably – nicknamed Slumdog Millionaire). Sushil Kumat grew up in a mud house with a leaking roof, didn’t even own a TV set and had to watch the earlier seasons of KBC at a neighbour’s house. A government clerk, he taught at a local institute to supplement his income while he studied to crack the Civil Services exam so that he could fulfil his dream of becoming an IAS officer. But now, with the KBC prize money, he could buy a new house for his family, give enough money to his brothers to set up businesses of their own, and sit and home to prepare for the Civil Services exam rather than working two jobs.

Kumar’s was the typical rags-to-riches story that makes the stuff of television TRPs these days, an arc that goes effortlessly from deep deprivation to fame and money, taking in a teary TV appearance along the way. Clearly, to make it in reality television – or game shows, for that matter – these days, your reality has to be more gritty than glossy.

And by allowing the participants to tell their stories, these shows tap into our love of the underdog. The back-stories also help to humanise the participants on these shows, to make them flesh-and-blood creatures that we care about. And that makes it easier to evoke sympathy and a certain fellow-feeling (otherwise just how badly would we react to somebody else walking away with a Rs 5 crore prize while we lolled about on our sofas?) for the participants of these shows. The subliminal message is clear: if they can transform their lives, maybe we are in with a chance as well.

Small wonder then that the format of using hard-luck stories as a magnet has been adopted by reality shows across the board. India’s Got Talent could just as well have been titled India’s Got All Teary as the sob stories piled on. The winners of the last season, the Prince dance troupe from Orissa, were sold as the under-dogs of the competition, impoverished performers from one of the more impoverished states of the Indian Union. This, despite the fact that they were so talented that they would have won on sheer merit. And yet, their back-story was told and re-told...and then told yet again for good measure.

There is no mistaking the message: television can change lives; it can make fortunes; it can transform destinies. It can take a poor man who lives in a mud hut in a Bihar village and turn him into a crorepati. It can unearth unknown talents in the depths of rural India and make them national superstars.

In other words, reality television has the potential to change your reality. There’s just one caveat: don’t bother to apply if you are middle-class and middle-income. Unless you have a hard luck story to tell – and sell – you simply don’t stand a chance.