Books

Queen the movie, Lean In

I hope Queen the movie triumphs in the box office, because it is a rare Bollywood film with the heroine as the lead. Also produced and written by Kangana Ranaut.

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FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, APR 12 2014. 12 07 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
The line joining Sheryl Sandberg and Rani
Every study about glass ceilings and Harvard Business School dropouts shows that women have a long way to go in the workspace
Shoba Narayan Mail Me

The line joining Sheryl Sandberg and Rani
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(From left) Rani’s character is about determination and Sheryl Sandberg’s book has come in for a backlash. Sandberg’s photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

If there is one movie you must watch this month, make it Queen. Not because it is funny, which it is—in spades. Not because it makes an important point—which it does, about resilience and grit; and how to lift yourself by the bootstraps when life kicks you in the teeth; about embracing the world instead of hiding from it; and about moving on from an entitled jerk with grace. No, the reason you should watch Queen is for its central character—Rani Mehra—essayed with electrifying understatement by Kangana Ranaut. Rani is believable; she is not over-the-top; she doesn’t save the world or sashay into hearts; she has doubts about life and her place in it; she is Indian, not in the clichéd larger-than-life way that the Khans portray, but in a much more nuanced way that captures a milieu, a world and a character.
I am a big fan of Ranaut. I think it is because she has curly hair and I associate curly hair with great creativity—self-serving, I know, but there you have it. I had no idea what Queen was about. My daughters had heard about it from their friends and for a while, I thought it was yet another tired biopic about queen Elizabeth; or at least a drag queen—the one who is standing for the Lok Sabha election.
The next decade is going to be about women’s empowerment. In India, it is going to be about inducting women into the boardroom. It is going to be about self-searching and suggestions about a woman’s place in the world. Kicking the whole thing off was Lean In: Women, Work, And the Will to Lead by Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Now the backlash has begun.
There have been a spate of articles dissing Sandberg’s book and philosophy. One article questions the thesis; another urges readers to “recline”, not lean in. Some of it has to do with form rather than content. Let me explain. Writing essays is all about finding a new angle; a fresh way of saying things. The simplest way to do this is to detract or disagree with a prevailing point of view. So if someone says, “Lean In”, you find a way to say that they are wrong.
Of course, in defence of the aforementioned detractors (and a detractor of the detractors, a.k.a me), you have to actually experience an opposing point of view in order to articulate it convincingly. You have to, at the very least, do the eyeroll, as I did after reading the latest Sandberg-bashing essay. Eyeroll followed by a muttered, “Come on, you can’t be serious.”
For the record, I am a fan of Sandberg. I also have a love-hate relationship with the company she runs. I think it is an addictive time-sink. In other words, I have no agenda or connection with Sandberg or Facebook. I just happen to think that she is right. Sure, the trajectory of her career smacks of opportunism, but the feminist in me questions whether I would even ask this question if Sandberg fast-tracked to the top and was a Charlie instead of a Sheryl. Sure, she seems too earnest for my taste and indeed, it is this earnestness without a hint of levity that has prompted some of the knee-jerk negative reactions to her prose. But as messages go, hers is spot on.
She is writing for a targeted audience: women, particularly young women. She is unequivocal in her message—none of the Hillary Clintonesque bitterness about baking cookies; or the mixed messages served up by legions of powerful women (Nita Ambani offering that she knew the price of a kilo of tomatoes with pride instead of saying that she focuses on her schools and not the grocery list. Would a man offer the price of tomatoes as an attempt at self-deprecation?) Sandberg is more like German chancellor Angela Merkel in her clarity of stance and clearness of message—one that deserves to be heard, without being made fun of.
Here’s why.
u We don’t need articles that tell women to pull back; to “recline” as it were. We are biologically built for moderation; for compromise; for balancing the needs of our children with that of our work. It comes naturally to us. We need messages that urge us to stay the course; to focus; to be aggressive; and to do all that unaided by the natural push of testosterone.
u Second-guessing comes naturally to women too. We don’t need a slew of articles questioning the clarity of one powerful message: Lean in. Girls who are brilliant lean back in high school. They hide their smarts for fear of appearing unattractive to boys. Is the solution then to bolster the fragile self-esteem of these young boys or to tell young girls to appear easy-going?
u Shoot the messenger, not the message. I can see why many of us women are intimidated by Sandberg. I am too. I didn’t lean in. I compromised. I opted for balance rather than focus. And on occasion, I regret it. I would like women younger than I to hear the message that our mothers didn’t give to us: that focusing on a career is okay; that because you go after your work goals doesn’t mean that you are a bad person or a bad mother—and don’t tell me that you don’t hear these voices of guilt in your head.
So go ahead, make fun of Sandberg. Take her down. Perhaps she deserves that. I think it is mostly her coiffed hair that gets our goat. You need time and money to get that look. Through her hair, Sandberg has shown us less wealthy women exactly what money can buy (great hair in spite of a punishing schedule); and it rankles. So we make fun of her. What else can you do? As for her message, don’t simply diss it. Every study about glass ceilings and Harvard Business School dropouts shows that women have a long way to go in the workspace. Isn’t it about time that we support this message? Make it cool rather than making fun of it?
Shoba Narayan is trying to lean in. She is the author of two books, and is trying—very hard and without much success—to write a third. The Good Life will return on 7 June.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Comment E-mail Print 2 First Published: Sat, Apr 12 2014. 12 07 AM IST

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