At the Golden Globe awards in January, Hollywood’s favourite Meryl Streep accepted a lifetime achievement award, and had about five or six minutes to give an acceptance speech. She used that time to make some pointed remarks against then US President-elect Donald Trump, especially for his cruel mockery of a disabled New York Times reporter, Serge F Kovaleski, who suffers from arthrogryposis.
There was nothing wrong in anything she had said in her speech, but she faced a huge amount of criticism for it. People pointed out that it was hypocritical of Streep to denounce Donald Trump when she had once given film director Roman Polanski (accused of drugging and performing sexual acts on a 14-year-old girl) a standing ovation at the Academy Awards. Others pointed out that she wasn’t actually the voice of liberals in the world, because in 2015, she had co-signed a letter urging Amnesty International not to endorse the decriminalisation of sex work, a move that sex workers unions across the globe actually support.
Reactions to Streep’s speech speak of something we see all around the world: a need for a kind of political purity that has to check every single one of our ideological and emotional and spiritual and linguistic boxes if we’re to accept these beliefs or heroines as our own. Most recently, India saw this desire for absolute correctness and purity in the reactions to the #NotInMyName protests that swept that country, with armies of liberals taking to the internet to spell out how every word and symbol of the protest didn’t fit in perfectly with their myriad beliefs.
Of course, you can’t help but notice how the standards are set for men and women; it feels almost impossible to think of a heroine who stands the rigorous test of scrutiny of all her beliefs and actions and statements, while men with the most problematic of criminal records still dominate our movie screens and political theatres. Remember the Rohtak sisters who were filmed belting their harassers on a bus, and were immediately accused of lying, subject to lie-detector tests and questioned about whether they had boyfriends? Or when the supremely outspoken Kangana Ranaut was called a witch and black-magic practitioner for speaking about Hrithik Roshan’s infidelity? It feels like we’re not allowed to have women heroes, because as soon as they say or do something laudable or meaningful, there’s a hundred people out to prove they were evil once on a Friday in 1998.
It’s reactions like these that are the emblematic, occupational hazards of having your life, beliefs and politics in the public eye for people to remember, thread together and hold up against the other things you do. Never mind if it’s fair or not, it’s what people do.
And it’s exactly this lack of background information that sets Internet heroines-of-the-moment apart from activists who have their lives and careers in the spotlight.
The last week of June brought us two viral everyday online heroines: one from Bulandshahr, Uttar Pradesh, and the other from Mangalore, Karnataka. The first was a video of a UP policewoman named Shrestha Thakur standing down a group of rowdy BJP party workers. She smiled calmly when they started shouting political slogans to intimidate her, challenged them to get a letter from the Chief Minister saying police have no authority, pointed out that one of them was the type to start communal problems between Hindus and Muslims, and basically scolded them till they tucked their tails between their legs and slinked away (only to go crying to their masters and successfully get her transferred to the Nepal border, but that’s another story).
The other was a (now-deleted) Facebook post published by a student named Rashmi Shetty, who lashed out at a man who followed her on a scooter down a long, busy road and catcalled her repeatedly. In the post, she asked him what exactly he expected to achieve with all his catcalling, reminded him repeatedly that she wasn’t scared of him at all and would have slapped his face with her heels if he’d approached her physically. She also stripped away the illusion of anonymity and impunity that he had by posting his license plate along with the post, which ended up in him being identified by the helpful friendlies of the interwebs.
There’s something so very satisfying and complete about both these exchanges. The quality of who they are and how effortlessly and impressively they reacted in the face of everyday sexist aggression makes it kind of impossible not to fall in love with them for their sheer badassery and the good feelings they give the people who get to watch. Women like them feel like part of a trend of internet heroines who continually give us the inspiration we so badly need to make it through the day: like the story of the Punjabi-origin UK shopkeeper who informed an armed robber that she would deal with him after she finished her cup of tea, or the woman filmed soundly scolding a creepy uncle who molested her repeatedly on an IndiGo flight, or the picture of Birmingham resident Saffiyah Khan laughing defiantly in the face of an anti-immigration protester who was yelling at a Muslim woman. Part of the reason why these videos offer themselves up to us as heroic is because the women in them never intended to be.
The other part could be that they exist, to us, in a sort of unique moment created by that interaction alone: we know nothing else about them, and need nothing else to fall in love. In fact, you get the feeling that in most cases, the less you know about them, the better. In times when we’re so sorely lacking inspirations and heroines, do we really want to know whether these women support the decriminalisation of sex work, or whether they voted for the BJP, or if they believe the moon landings are real or not? Isn’t it satisfying to just have them as they are? Don’t we need all the heroines we can get?
Even the video of the policewoman Thakur gives you that feeling in a few minutes. By the end of the video, you hear one of the rowdy party workers accusing her (or her police force) of raising their hand against a civilian the previous day, to which Thakur immediately responds that they did indeed raise their hands against them, and they’ll do it again tomorrow also (kyun nahi uthaenge? Haath uthaya hain, kal bhi uthaenge).
But I’m okay with this, I think. Not all heroes wear capes, and many of them have really shitty politics. If everything and everybody has their purpose, perhaps internet heroines are meant to just get us through the day.