2022 was full of surprises and revelations. However, the lesson I hold closest to my heart was unlearning my internalised misogyny. I realised I looked down upon women I perceived as pick-me girls or not like other girls. While many people who engage in this behaviour enable sexism, it is more helpful to view internalised misogyny as a response or a reaction to patriarchy. As several cultural critics have started pointing out, even the hurling of labels such as pick-me or trad-wife tends to blur the lines between calling out misogyny and reinforcing it. I have been a pick-me several times in the past, and I understand how difficult it can be to change, as it challenged fundamental parts of my identity. My behaviour was driven by severe insecurity about my worth in society. It was a survival mechanism and the only way I knew to establish myself as a human worth taking seriously. It wasn’t until my exposure to feminist literature, did I realise how deep the rot of misogyny was. And I am still learning.

During these reflections, something very curious and unexpected happened. I had suddenly developed great compassion toward poorly written women characters. Not because they are good depictions or representations but because somewhere, I really understood what it felt like to be a part of someone else’s vision, usually a man. And I also understood how it was the vision that controlled the characters.

If you are familiar with Doctor Who, you probably must have heard of the acclaimed companions. The doctor and the companions go across the universe doing extraordinary adventures, saving lives, and all that jazz. While most companions are cherished and loved characters, a few get a lot of hate from the fandom, especially Clara Oswald. Clara’s character has been called a Mary Sue- a flawless character that becomes the moral compass of the show and a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl-  a cheerful, quirky, superficial female character that serves as an accessory to the male protagonists’ self-actualisation. The criticism is fair. The episodes featuring Clara rarely developed her as a person. She was conveniently easy to hate in some episodes, almost like she was an instrument for the creators to spoon-feed the audience what the director thinks they ought to be feeling.

Nonetheless, I feel very protective of Clara, even though I concur that she was poorly written, simply because her character deserves more. I generally have a very soft spot for MPD characters1, and somewhere I view her as a real person (which is weird, I know). It may have stemmed from how much I judged women. And my disdain for female characters written by men reinforced that. 

Similarly (mild spoilers), Rene in Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargirathu (2022) was not a woman but a device for the film to anchor itself to an ideology. The way she was written felt like she had no agency within Ranjith’s vision, which frustrated me to no end! Her reaction to harassment and casteist abuse by trusted and unknown men became teaching moments for the audience in forgiveness and healing. As a GBV survivor myself, it was triggering to watch. I have spent three years attempting to wash away memories and I am still dealing with the rage, grief, and shame that arose from the incidents. And it makes me rather sad that even today, it is considered okay for a female character to be written only for her trauma to become a larger metaphor for the director or the male protagonist. 

As a film student, I once acted in a friend’s film where my character, a student, was trying to contemplate whether to get an abortion or not. Throughout the run-time, the character is infantilised by her best friend, who is trying to talk her into abortion. While answering questions such as: “You are so young. How will you manage?” “Who will support you?” my character was relegated to irrational sentimentality. I fought with the director multiple times during the shoot because it felt like my character existed only as a substance-less manifestation of a contrarian perspective.

After acknowledging that these women have been poorly written, I extend compassion toward them. I turn towards them with curiosity and wonder what they would be like outside the prison of the author’s imagination. And in a way, it has made me better equipped to talk, not only with myself but also with other women struggling to fit in a world that constantly attempts to deprive them of agency. While it isn’t possible to change the minds or even the harmful behaviour of everyone engaging in misogyny, understanding where or why they behave seems like the most practical and human way of taking a shot at it. 


But how did we get here? The story starts at a workshop I attended at a prestigious institute in India.

Unequal Standards

The workshop brought together talented young scholars from computer science, social sciences and humanities. I met many women my age studying media, politics, economics, etc. During the workshop, I realised that the women in the batch didn’t get the same benefit of the doubt as the men.

Two women, in particular, always enriched the discussions with their contributions but weren’t taken as seriously as our male counterparts or me. They were perceived as loud, abrasive, and typical. Having figured out that to be taken seriously in an academic space full of men, I tended to avoid emotions and appear unaffected, cool and detached in discussions. I had mastered this to a certain extent. Still, the impact of that performance showed up in my private moments when I’d break down because of how horrible it felt, especially when the discussion was political.

The women mentioned above didn’t do that. They were inconvenient. They laughed loudly, shrilly. One of them casually dabbled in astrology. They were too much. Of course, this happened outside the professional spaces, where people were expected to unwind. Clearly, they weren’t unwinding professionally enough because I’d hear a colleague complain about them every day. 

Now the thing about many social scientists is that they may be good at statistics, but they can also suck at math, especially the ones who do qualitative research. With its desperation to be considered a natural science, economics is an exception. So one day, my female friends were complaining about maths because the workshop had quite a bit of it. They went up to the CS folks, asking them for help. My male colleagues saw this as a perfect opportunity to create an attention-seeking narrative: “Bro, how are they not even good at math? They are just doing this for attention. Anyone can learn Math.” 

It led to an eventual argument between an engineer-turned-economist friend and me, where I forgot to perform. I was in tears as I questioned his comments, where he discredited my women friends, even when they clearly knew and understood their subject of expertise. I also explained that maths can be challenging to many people who choose social sciences, and economics is an exception. Of course, I got the traditional responses: “You are overreacting. Don’t use words such as sexism. Maths is not even that difficult. They just don’t want to work hard”. Only when the friend spoke to a CSS professor, who later echoed my sentiments, did he realise that he had messed up. He later apologised to me. My perspective had to be legitimised by a person in power for it to be taken seriously, but better late than never, right?

But why did it take over a week for me to confront my friend? Simply because somewhere, I was also looking down on women. Not because I didn’t think they were brilliant but because I was really insecure. Growing up unfeminine and ugly (as my bullies in school lovingly called me), I had learned that to get acknowledged, I had to be not like other girls. It didn’t help that my school enabled this behaviour.

And so when a woman would turn up to be just as good, or even better at what I did, like reviewing films or playing basketball, I’d feel threatened. It was like I had been programmed to ensure I differentiated myself as a product to be treated as a valuable person.

I didn’t speak up earlier because I felt inferior to my women colleagues. They were a lot like me. Some of them were way more talented and articulate than I was! I was terrified of that. So I enabled the misogyny by staying quiet. 

After my meltdown and reflection, I realised that I no longer wanted to perform to be taken seriously. I am more pragmatic these days, but I no longer shy away from talking emotionally because… surprise surprise, you can have rational discussions in good faith AND honour your needs. I went back to all the people I had distanced over the years because I felt insecure. I apologised to them. Some ties couldn’t be mended, but fortunately, many of these folks are now terrific friends.

I have yet to completely unlearn this competitive instinct. I still freeze when I see women or non-binary people kick ass at what I do. But these days, instead of seething in envy, I turn towards curiosity and look inwards. How can I learn from you? What is it that I am reacting to? How can I acknowledge my insecurity without externalising it towards you?

  1. Here is a list of films that do the MPD trope well. ↩︎