When is a woman's grief 'good' enough? Reactions to a celebrity death highlight gendered social expectations

Social media platforms act as sites wherein death, loss, and mourning are increasingly encountered and negotiated. With the online omnipresence of grieving, it becomes a constant challenge for women, especially those bereaved, to perform ‘good grief’.

Shivangi Deshwal and Sumati Thusoo July 26, 2020 15:40:31 IST
When is a woman's grief 'good' enough? Reactions to a celebrity death highlight gendered social expectations

The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has stirred many debates in and outside of Bollywood. Apart from industry-related issues like the prevalence of nepotism and favouritism to equal pay for behind-the-scene stakeholders, there was a parallel discourse regarding media and its practices pertaining to celebrity deaths/suicides.

While these debates continue to make for primetime debates, last week marked the one month anniversary of the actor’s death. His former partner (Ankita Lokhande) as well as his partner at the time of his death (Rhea Chakraborty), who are also public figures, started trending on Twitter. This trend was a result of them posting for the first time about the late actor on their social media profiles in the ways that they deemed fit. While Ankita posted a picture of a diya in her temple with a brief caption, Rhea posted a heartfelt message about losing her intimate partner.

This social media activity of both women was covered by many media outlets, who termed it as ‘breaking their silence’ — as if grieving silently was an aberration from the prescribed behaviour of online mourning. This sentiment was also echoed by the Sanon sisters Kriti and Nupur; Kriti had been linked with the actor by the media at one time. There was a collective expectation from these women (who had been romantically associated with him) to perform their grief in a socially acceptable way. Their conformity, or the lack of it, to this unspoken norm of grief performance, was eventually labelled as per the good girl-bad girl dichotomy (the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy).

Rhea’s social media activity, in particular, has become a battleground for self-appointed #JusticeForSushant warriors to further exaggerate the 'bad girl' narrative wherein female sexuality is the vice, looked at as both dangerous and untrustworthy.

Social media platforms, the “new social spaces”, act as sites wherein death, loss, and mourning are increasingly encountered and negotiated. The empirical evidence on social media mourning suggests that the two basic ways of mourning are either engaging in mourning practices online or being confronted with other people’s mourning. This then leaves an individual to either visibly react towards the displayed practices or dismiss them because everything on social media is being watched so there is rarely any chance for a reaction that is not picked up by others. But what happens when a person refuses to facilitate the expected (semi) public expression of emotions?

With such online omnipresence of grieving, it becomes a constant challenge for women, especially those bereaved, to perform ‘good grief’. The term ‘good grief’ is the one accompanied with a proper or correct way to grieve a loss and to restore the capacity for joy and satisfaction. This finds its roots way back in the Victorian era where the norms surrounding grief and mourning were adopted in solidarity with the Queen who indefinitely mourned the loss of her husband and performed elaborate rituals of marking herself in all-black garb and secluding herself. Closer home in India, the wearing of white clothes, breaking of bangles, hysterical removal of sindoor, and tonsuring of the widow were some of the practices followed after the death of the husband.  The gaze of the voyeuristic onlooker is persistent in bringing forth stigma and distinctions of good grief relative to bad grief.

There is a strong cultural and gendered notion of displaying overt grief which is similar to the gendered division of labour, wherein women are disproportionately expected to do the emotional labour. Therefore, the expectation is that true femininity requires sensitivity and emotional expressiveness, in contrast to true masculinity which is equated to rationality and emotional control. This emotional division of labour coupled with the binary of good and bad women prescribes the correct way of grieving by the ‘right’ woman.

Patriarchal notions and restrictions on woman’s behaviour and prescribing a good standard of performing gender is what defines the reactions of the ‘audience’ in this day and time. Visibility of emotions thus becomes an integral part of grieving for a female intimate partner of the bereaved. In a country where grieving has undertones of gender, and caste, where grieving is turned into a commodity and mourning is labour, the question to be asked is whether grief can then be separated from performance and gaze, both of which have gendered undertones.

Is a woman’s grief good enough grief only if accompanied by a Rudaali-Esque wailing, especially when it is being consumed by millions of faceless people online?

Shivangi Deshwal is a gender-based violence prevention interventionist and feminist researcher. Sumati Thusoo is a research author at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala.

— Featured illustration © Namaah K for Firstpost

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