There is a particularly disturbing trope that has spanned through Malayalam films and serials since the beginning of their conception: slapping a woman to “teach her a lesson” or to “make her behave”. This trope often manifests in Malayalam media as a man slapping his wife, sister, daughter, love interest (or even in some cases, a woman he barely knows) when she doesn’t fall in line with what he wants.
Malayalee communities are still heavily patriarchal, where the alpha male (whether that be the father, the son, or even grandson) is “head” of the household. Although this obviously isn’t the case for every single family, it happens more often than not that this can translate to the man of the house being able to dictate the lives of his female family members simply because he is male.
In Malayalam media, when a woman steps out of line in some way – she could be flirting with the neighbour’s son, talking to boys at college, behaving like a “Western girl” (more on this in a future post), or arguing with her father or husband – it isn’t questioned when her father or brother steps forward to “slap some sense” into her. In fact, characters and viewers alike will often agree that “she deserved it”.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to counter this idea – sometimes the sin she’s being slapped for isn’t that she was going around with her father’s enemy’s son, but instead that she’s the villain of the story who destroys someone’s marriage on purpose, or is found engaging in criminal activity (Malayalam movies can be dramatic, yo). Some punitive measure is necessary in these cases (although that’s what the justice system is meant to be for); but the problem here lies in the idea that “one hard slap from a man” will be all a woman needs to regain reason and a sense of dignity and/or morality. This is a horrible concept for numerous reasons.
Firstly, slapping someone is not going to magically give them sense – it is a means by which to exert dominance and power over the person being slapped by making them experience pain and fear. Secondly, the idea that women cannot be rational beings without a man’s intervention is a terrifying notion that has dictated how women have been mistreated, marginalised and excluded from positions of authority for centuries. Thirdly, allowing yourself to believe that slapping a woman is justified is allowing yourself to believe that man-on-woman violence is acceptable under certain conditions. That opens a shady window: under what conditions is it acceptable to perpetuate this violence? That leads to even further questions: Does the severity of the violence depend on the severity of the crime? How severe is too severe? Is there such a thing as too severe if the woman has done something terrible? Who defines terrible? What is the man’s subjective definition of terrible? Is he justified in escalating his violence based on how wronged he feels?
It’s a slippery slope.
Furthermore, although slapping is the most common action, this trope does not limit itself to just that. Depending on how enraged and entitled the male character teaching the woman a lesson feels, the violence can range from anywhere between a slap to a full-on beating. Please note how this mindset is more than capable of leading into domestic violence nightmares.
Domestic violence is not where it ends. I’ve outlined how making violence against women an acceptable manner of “discipline” allows men to think they are entitled to do as they like with women’s bodies. Copy this over into real life, and you get people saying that a woman’s husband should “beat her” for not listening to him. You get women talking about how other women “had it coming” because she didn’t respect her husband.
Why do these justifications all sound familiar? They sound like the victim-blaming that is rife when someone is sexually assaulted or raped. Because so often, we hear about men* who rape to “teach women lessons”.
Men who rape to teach a woman that she need to stay at home instead of going out by herself. Who rape to teach her that she needs to stay away from boys. That she needs to be heterosexual. That she needs to behave, that she is not the boss of herself.
Oftentimes, the men we see beating up rapists in movies are the same men who will go home and slap their wives/daughters/sisters for not behaving as they want, without realising that they themselves are enabling a pro-sexual violence agenda at the grassroots level.
This trope is not present in every single film, obviously: there are films (both new and old) with progressive characters who abhor violence in every way. However, the trope has a ubiquitous enough influence that it continues to make itself present in both media and real life today. Women have enough trouble as it is without film tropes encouraging harmful and casual misogynistic mindsets.
Violence is never okay. Nobody “deserves” it.
*I have deliberately used man and woman instead of gender-neutral (pro)nouns here because the primary discourse in this post is centered around man-on-woman violence.