A couple of days ago, I chanced upon this interview of Estee Adoram, who is a successful comic show booker in the United States carried by the Lenny Magazine. The subject and the highlight of the piece was her refusal to be identified as a feminist. While in her long career in the comic show business, as one could imagine, she would have had to overcome many challenges to reach where she is today, her iron-clad self refuses to acknowledge any. While this approach may work for her, it is rather disappointing to see her fail to reach out to women who deal with misogyny and discriminatory treatment at workplace.
I invited a dear friend- Gargi Mishra to give us her opinion on this interview piece. To me Gargi is an avid reader, thinker and a critique. I am often brought up to speed on raging debates through her stimulating emails. Her view on feminism is also complemented by her work in the arena with the Women’s Rights Initiative at Lawyers Collective.
Here is what she had to say:
I grew up in India in a middle-class family, and my parents valued academic success above all else. They never made me feel that I was intellectually inferior to my male peers. I had the same opportunities as boys of my socio-economic background, and I worked hard and did well in school. It was easy for me to slip into the belief that only personal talents and qualities mattered in life. But while I didn’t have any fetters placed on my academic or professional ambitions, I soon found out how stifling and dangerous our culture can be for girls. I could not dress in a certain way, I could not talk to boys on the phone (“what sort of a girl has guy friends? Certainly not one from a decent family!”- my parents would ask accusingly), I could not even whistle in the house or in the street (“That’s not what girls do!”). I found myself shrinking from the openly lecherous glances of men on the street, I had to fight back tears when anonymous hands grabbed my breasts in the milling crowds in Delhi’s biggest metro station and I hated myself for years because I did not fit into societal standards of female beauty. But I did not see this as a part of a wider, structural problem. Yes, many of my female school and college friends too had been sexually harassed on the streets, and reading the papers everyday brought one face to face with the reality of rapes and domestic violence. But I had somehow accepted it as the natural order of things. Bad things happened in the wider world, girls were vulnerable in the public sphere and so one had to take certain precautions to be safe.
It is feminism that opened my eyes to the reality, that provided me with a startling perspective on things. I learned about patriarchy, the prison of gender, the underlying factors behind violence and discrimination against women, the corrosive beauty standards imposed on women. Feminism was a lens through which disparate things like beauty, violence, love, history were brought together and made coherent. It taught me to think in ways that made truth accessible and knowable and it was wholly empowering. It also taught me about privilege and power.
I was born into a upper-caste family in India, and I too benefited from centuries of advantage and entitlements granted to my caste. My father was in stable employment and he saw the value of educating me in the best schools in Delhi. Being in Delhi, having access to books and the internet and caring teachers, I was exposed to an expansive world view and had the opportunity to pursue a career of my choice. And feminism helped me to see that these circumstances were really a privilege granted to me by reason of my class and caste. I learned to see the deeply entrenched structural disadvantages facing poor, “low”-caste men and women and the staggering barriers that disabled people or LGBT persons fought against.
Feminism encouraged an ethic of empathy, of learning to see the world beyond the narrow confines of my own identity. And that is perhaps what Estee Adoran and women like her should also learn.
In a short interview by Lena Dunham, Estee Adoran, the charismatic doyenne of New York’s stand-up comedy club the Comedy Cellar, takes care to stress that she is not a feminist. As a white, Jewish woman in America, she has risen to the top managerial position in the celebrated club that hosts such comedy greats like Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. She is a friend and a mentor to many comics and Dunham notes Adoran’s magnetic personality and the warm regard and frank admiration that she enjoys from famous artists.
Adoran says that she joined the club as a hostess and rose to her current position as “Every time someone left or died, I got a part of their job“. She attributes her success to her ambition to be the person in charge. She says that, “I was in charge. I have pictures to show, to prove it. There is something in my character, I guess, that makes it happen. I never felt: “I am not allowed to do that because I’m a woman.” Feminism would step in and say, this is a blockage here. I never felt that. I worked, I worked hard, and I always was recognized for the job.”
This exposes a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism- feminism is not an ideology for inventing excuses and barriers to progress and success! It is also unfortunately a very common misunderstanding. Perhaps it’s encouraged by the particularly American myth of hard work and grit being the only factors responsible for success. Adoran, being white and Jewish (Hollywood and American media have a significant number of Jewish people in positions of power), has benefited from the advantages of her race. Saying this is not a way to diminish her talents and her hard work. Her success and fame is admirable and laudatory but it does call for an acknowledgment of her privilege and attendant responsibility. She is in a position to help young, struggling female comediennes to navigate a hostile, male-dominated entertainment industry. She recognizes that there may be a problem of unequal pay, but chooses to limit her observation to the fact that yes, she would like to make more money but “it’s not an issue” for her.
Her decision to not identify as a feminist is an unfortunate cop-out, an evasion of the debt that she owes to feminists that made it possible for women like her to be equal citizens in America, to be independent and respected business-owners and managers. Since the struggle for equal rights is still not over, not by a long shot, powerful and successful women like her can do their bit to advance the cause. But it requires a willingness to look beyond oneself, to recognize one’s responsibility and power.