The deviant girl and feel-good feminism: Channeling Margaret Mead in Bangalore

In my field site of Bangalore, south India, I found support among young female professionals for feel-good feminism—that is, messages of female empowerment in pop culture that do not seek to shift the status quo much. This kind of feminism is often used by advertisers to appeal to female customers, as in this much-talked-about detergent ad in which a father belatedly realizes the bad example he set for his daughter by not helping with housework, or this recent Nike ad featuring female athleticism in India, where few women participate in sports. The idea here seems to be that a general female empowerment can allow (middle and upper-class) women to push the boundaries of gender norms ever so slightly.

But how much deviance from gender norms is really possible? Deviance is a word not used in contemporary anthropology very much anymore. It suggests a rigid norm that can be identified and described with a certainty few anthropologists would agree with now. It is also a term loaded with stigma. Who are the deviants? The word brings to my mind figures from my adolescence, a group I counted myself among for a time, associated with a defiant attitude and an angry, if vague, rejection of mainstream culture. In this sense, deviance means the youthful impulse to be different, to act out, and to perform discontent.

Yet the term deviant, as Margaret Mead used it in Coming of Age in Samoa, meant something both more structured and more flexible, and is useful especially for understanding women who do not conform to social norms. For Mead, deviance could
mean a “deviant in a downward direction, or the delinquent” (95), or it could mean an “upward” deviance, or “those who demanded a different or improved environment, who rejected the traditional choices” (94). This is judgmental and seemingly neocolonial terminology, placing girls who strove to be more Western through missionary education and career ambitions in the “upward” trajectory, while those who were rejected by their peers in the “downward” camp. Even so, Mead’s idea of deviance refers to a woman who wanted different life choices, whatever those choices may be.

But is there room for different life choices in practice? Mead argues that deviant girls in Samoa were doing something more radical than nudging gender norms—they were “following a plan of life which would not lead to marriage and children” (96). This held true for the women pursuing “upward” deviance through education and work, and “downward” deviance through their own personality defects. In Bangalore, I found that women who did not follow this script were thought of as deviant in a negative sense—that is, I did not find the flexibility of Mead’s deviance, which seems to allow for different choices. The “career woman” or “modern woman” was talked about in my fieldwork as so focused on her career, or on partying, or both, that she was risking her chance to be a wife and mother (see the Hindi movie “Turning 30!!!” for an example of the worst-case scenario for a modern woman in Mumbai, or—as one of my friends put it—“any Bollywood movie ever”). For the young technology workers in Bangalore with whom I worked, for men as well as women, being married was important to their future status within their families and society more generally, including the workplace. Marriage was a constant worry for my female friends, especially as they reached their late twenties, and was a background worry for men as well, but without the same time pressure. Becoming a mother seemed secondary to the concern of whom and when to marry.

A few of my female friends in Bangalore were not interested in getting married. For example, one woman I know is twenty-seven and single partly because she chooses not to fit the “traditional” wife mold. Her large personality often intimidates people—especially men. She finds her job in tech stressful, saying she would like to quit and start her own business or NGO. She has many friends and has dated but not very seriously. She feels disappointed with men and admits to me that she may enjoy her life more overall if she stays single, but knows that in her family and in India generally, it is not acceptable to be a single woman over the age of thirty. However, she does not think she wants to get married—it would mean giving up a lot of her freedom and probably her job. She is a “deviant” in that she is not willing to compromise in the ways she imagines she would have to if she marries. She wants different life choices than the ones she feels are on offer.

What about women who want other life choices, whether they are married or not? In terms of career, many—not all, but many—of the female technology workers in Bangalore with whom I spoke said they wanted to keep working and get promoted after marriage and children, instead of acting as temporary and cheap labor. This desire was even more precarious because of their subordinate position in global outsourcing, making their labor both outsourced and “pinksourced.” They also wanted different career choices, as they had followed the expected engineering track and now wanted a bit more creativity. In terms of personal life, many wanted more emotional connection in their relationships than they thought their parents had. They also wanted close friends of the same and opposite sex, as support for new aspirations and a way to share their feelings. For women who identified as bisexual or lesbian, the stakes of avoiding marriage were that much higher—as those I knew were not out to their families, different life choices were more restricted and all the more necessary. Fianlly, older women also resisted expectations, forming friendships that allowed them to travel without their husbands or start new businesses.

Mead applied the term to the young women she researched, and thus brought attention to the way the concept of deviance is gendered. What is deviant for a man versus a woman differs in terms of place, time, and social position, yet it always differs. In my work, I came to understand that women risk being considered deviant if they resist the work of marriage and child rearing, and can signal this in many ways even if they are married and/or have children. All of the women I have mentioned above—from women who never want to marry to those who have grandchildren—could be signaling their deviance. However, what makes a deviant man? Perhaps lawbreakers, but in Bangalore a bachelor may be unusual but not deviant, nor is a married man with no children. When considering the seeming embrace of a popular feel-good feminism in parts of India, the idea of the “deviant girl” reminds me how gender norms resist change even when pop culture might indicate otherwise.


Mead, Margaret. 2001 [1930]. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: Perennial Classics.

2 thoughts on “The deviant girl and feel-good feminism: Channeling Margaret Mead in Bangalore

  1. Question, to what extent are gender norms shifting among both men and women in the population you are studying? I am thinking of my daughter and son-in-law. Both were US Naval Academy graduates, both were taking basic flight training at Pensacola. She would become a helicopter pilot, while he became a jet fighter jock. Marine, jet fighter jock, it doesn’t get much more macho than that. But my daughter discovered something else the first night she was serving as her squadron’s duty officer. She arrived at her desk and realized that all of the other duty officers (there were several squadrons) had brought pillows and blankets. They would sleep beside their desks while they waited for the phone to ring. She had brought neither pillow nor blanket. Then, however, the door opened and here came this big guy, with whom she had been on a couple of dates — with a pillow, a blanket, and a homemade, his-made pizza. “Not bad,” she thought. “Not bad at all.”

  2. This is a much bigger problem in a country like India which is entrenched in social norms. People think less about what may be good for them but first and foremost is the question (always) “What would the society think?” We live in times where being a modern woman is synonymous with being fast (and not in a good sense), being competitive and wanting more is considered non worthy characteristics for a future wife. Times have changed and so have a lot of things but perceptions and values are still lagging behind by a few decades.

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