Manju and the Mommy Wars: Why should women conform to 'ideal mother' stereotype?

Being maternal is now an official position with a thousand people doing your performance appraisal.
Manju and the Mommy Wars: Why should women conform to 'ideal mother' stereotype?
Manju and the Mommy Wars: Why should women conform to 'ideal mother' stereotype?
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I’m an unabashed Manju Warrier fan and was saddened when she disappeared from films after she got married. I was a schoolgirl when this happened and marriage seemed to be a black-hole into which my favourite female actors disappeared, never to be seen in a movie again. Lissy, Parvati…to name a few.

Manju was such a versatile performer: She could do comedy, she could do tragedy, she could do seduction (remember Kannuezhuthi Pottum Thottu which won her a special jury award at the National Film Awards?). She was a favourite with most Malayalam movie fans of that time. When her wedding with Dileep happened, I remember my grandmother saying, ‘Anganey aah kadha kazhinju.’ Meaning, Manju’s story is now finished.

But Manju was far from finished. Years later, she rose again like the mythical phoenix, putting the breakdown of her marriage behind her and charming us once again on the big screen. How Old Are You? knocked the socks off everyone. It even led to another female actor – Jyothika - who’d disappeared into the marriage black-hole staging her comeback in a remake. Everyone was happy…except the misogynistic trolls who couldn’t fathom how and why a woman without a husband should have a life. And worse, Manju’s daughter chose not to live with her after the divorce! Oh my Guruvayoorappa! How could this woman still smile and don her make-up?

In the land of mere-paas-ma-hai, this display of individualism was simply unacceptable. Ideally, Manju should have gone into depression and checked herself into the loonybin while wearing the yellow stars of Bad Wife and Bad Mother pinned to her uniform. That would have satisfied the folks (I’d have said ‘jobless’ folks but apparently, even people with important jobs… like being a policeman… indulge in this activity) who see themselves as the custodians of the nation’s moral fabric.

And frankly, it’s not about just Manju. Many women are asked, “Why are you not motherly?”

We’re 16 years into the 21st century and still, a woman has to constantly define herself in terms of her role within the family – especially if she’s single and a public figure - to find acceptance. Amma, Behenji, Didi – the monikers are necessary for these tough female politicians to survive in public life. And if a woman is married or is a mother, her worth is calculated by how well she does in these jobs. Remember Rajnikanth’s advice to his daughter Soundarya in a public forum to stop making films and make babies instead? He said it only once but we women have heard it a hundred times already!

As a culture, we’ve been fed with so many eulogies about motherhood and its accompanying glories that when a woman chooses not to walk down that path, people look upon her as a freak. We also have set ideas on what a mother ought to be like – and the biggest of these is the idea of self-sacrifice. You send your child to day-care so you can continue to work? You give your child formula? You use diapers? You don’t hand-wash your child’s clothes? You have a nanny? You let your child play with a gadget so you can preserve your sanity? You don’t buy organic oranges? You choose to be happy when your child has decided not to live with you? You want to lean in and not lean back?

The Mommy Wars are never-ending. It’s everyone who judges, the men and the women. Being maternal is now an official position with a thousand people doing your performance appraisal. The fathers, on the other hand, are either excused for not lifting a finger (boys will be boys, after all) or inordinately praised for changing a diaper.

But there is reason to cheer. There are more outspoken women in public life these days and they are daring to speak up about the prejudice and abuse that they face, much to the shock of the troll troops. Manju embracing life instead of renouncing it is one such example. I drank in Rani Padmini frame by frame – a lovely film about two women meeting life head on and Manju, as usual, was brilliant in it. Indeed, Manju’s story isn’t finished…she’s only begun inspiring many more to rewrite their own.

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