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The One Show That Goes Beyond ‘Fetishizing’ Lesbian Relationships, Seen It Yet?

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By Vaagisha Das

If asked about the ultimate TV shows that portray female friendships at their finest, one would undoubtedly start with the obvious- Sex and the City, Pretty Little Liars, and Desperate Housewives, to name a few. But in a world that has embraced the anti-hero but continues to pit woman against woman, Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) is a refreshing take on the different kinds of female relationships, albeit in an unconventional setting- that of a women’s prison. What sets it apart from the traditional shows, apart from its decidedly non-cookie cutter background, is how it manages to understand the nuances and the specificity of female friendship in ways that make the women and their relationships meaningful, no matter their circumstances.

orange-is-the_new_black_

 

The characters are layered and three dimensional and their friendships are constantly evolving- from Pennsatucky asking Big Boo about ‘the gay agenda’ to the latter offering toothpaste advice in the last season, and hence their gradually becoming allies. The show does have underlying themes of colour discrimination, yet in this relationship, it chooses to focus instead on two white characters having grown up completely different- yet, as one character says, they’re “still both in prison“.

Each friendship in OITNB is different in its own way, rarely following a template. The bases for these differ, from reasons of convenience and safety to genuine affection- these are anything but the clichés seen on television. Perhaps the best example would be the friendship between fan favourites Poussey and Taystee, played by Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks respectively. Their friendship started out as a result of their similar sense of humour and electric camaraderie- their witty banter as their rich white alter egos, Amanda and Mackenzie (accompanied with the highbrow airs), being a prime example. It evolved when Poussey admitted to having romantic feelings towards Taystee that the latter did not share, and weathered manipulation and jealousy brought about by the involvement of others- though not always of the romantic kind. Rather than playing it off as a gag, the show used the circumstances to explore the depth of their relationship in a wide arc.

Complex female relationships are hard to come by, or else there wouldn’t be a Bechdel Test. The show does a wonderful job in exploring such friendships, where even the most subtle ones are portrayed wonderfully- that of Sophia and Sister Ingalls being one such relationship. A trans woman and a nun, both are outliers in a system that tends to immediately size people up and ‘group them on arrival’. Hence we have a lunch table system reminiscent of the high school movies of the 90s- and the two have nowhere to sit. They’re completely different, yet seem to bond over God in moments of vulnerability – and their sudden humour and wry wit seem to make them an odd, but pretty compatible duo.

The show would be incomplete without the typical boss ladies of prison-and one such lady would be the strong willed Russian inmate, Red. Considered a ‘prison mother’ by most of the inmates, the non-trope trope of the fiercely protective mafia mom is clearly evident in her relationship with Nicky- a former drug addict. Nicky was a neglected child, and her lack of a mother figure and her trying to develop other female relationships dysfunctionally, or functionally, such as with Red, explores how those like her try to form a reparative relationship with somebody else that can replace a parent figure. Red’s desperation as Nicky was taken away in the second season (“I could’ve helped you- why didn’t you come to me?“), showcases this beautifully.

Coming to the much talked topic of lesbian representation in the show – the relationship between Piper and Alex, Nicky and Morello, and many others. Instead of fetishizing lesbian relationships, the show instead seeks to question heteronormativity and present vastly different, real romantic relationships between vastly different people- AND give us gorgeous queer characters like Ruby Rose to look at. Such representation is rare in mainstream media, and the audience celebrated when a real life gender fluid person playing the character took the third season by storm.

Relatable relationships between the diverse cast of women offer a refreshing respite from the overused cliches- the time has come when strong, vibrant women characters on TV get their share of overdue attention, and the show seems to be on exactly the right track.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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