This is SUCH a good episode! Really well-done and smart and not giving any easy answers to an issue. Feels like this is the episode where they really are saying what they want to say and the others were just marking time. Really, if the first two episodes don’t grab you, keep watching until this one before you give up. (index of all Mentalhood reviews here)
The first two episodes were maybe 2/3rds establishing character conflicts and setting, and 1/3rd the Topic of the Week. Now, finally, the characters are established enough that their issues can just go on in the background while the Topic of the Week can come to the fore and help us see those character issues in a new light.
And it is such a good topic! Especially for parenting. Gender, where does it come from, how do you handle it as a parent? The biggest answer, as a parent, is to just look at your child as a person and do what feels right for them case by case. At least, that’s where the show lands. There is no big simple answer given, because there is no big simple answer, it depends on the child and the parent.
Karisma, our innocent from the small town, is the first to make a miss-step when she gives a toy cooking set to a little girl for a birthday present. The mother returns the gift with an explanation that they only want gender neutral toys. Karisma has never thought about this before, just thought it was a fun present. She is confused, but runs into Dino Morea at the toy store who suggests maybe it wasn’t a “girl” present after all. Maybe Karisma was right, sort of, in that she simply gave a fun gift, it was the mother who decided it was a “girl” present because cooking means girls. Dino buys himself a sparkly pink backpack because he likes it, and talks about how his little boy takes his favorite doll with him everywhere. Karisma has no instinctive judgement of either of those things, maybe she hasn’t internalized gender roles at all, maybe she is just doing things without thinking and now that she is thinking about it, she realizes she has no issues with gender bending.
This small issue for Karisma gets bigger when her daughter is spotted using the boy’s bathroom at school. Karisma asks her about it, and she bursts out that she hates being a girl and wishes she was a boy, which puzzles Karisma. For a second there, I thought we were going in the direction of Karisma’s daughter actually being a boy on the inside. And that Karisma was surprisingly un-understanding and blind to what she was saying. I was also a little irritated, if the show as going in that direction, since the daughter had no indications of a “boy” identity until this episode, it really came out of nowhere.
But instead, it went somewhere so much better! Karisma may not know a lot about big gender issues, but she knows her own daughter. She knew there was something going on, but it wasn’t acting out, or a political statement. Finally at the end of the episode, after her daughter had gone so far as to remove the gender signs on the bathroom doors, she confronts her and insists on talking and finding out what is happening. She was embarrassed, because the girls in the girls bathroom teased her about her breasts coming in. She didn’t want other girls to see her, she wanted to be like a boy who doesn’t have anything embarrassing about their body. And Karisma gives her the perfect answer, tells her honestly that a lot more is going to happen to her body, and a lot happens to boys’ bodies too, and it is kind of funny while it is happening, but at the end of it all she will be a grown woman. And then they buy training bras. Karisma, and the show, did something interesting by making it not a Big Unusual Statement, but instead a usual one. Girls don’t like it when their bodies change, they get embarrassed. Gender is a construct, but Sex is physical and it is something every child and every parent has to figure out how to deal with.
Karisma’s story is the biggest and most complex storyline, the one that introduces the theme. But there are interesting other small storylines too. Sanjay Suri, Karisma’s husband, has two gender issues to deal with. First, he and Karisma push and pull about childcare. Karisma goes out for the night and he offers to “babysit” and she calls him on that, that they are his children too. Sanjay accepts it, this will be part of a continuing conversation, and he is a decent co-parent, but they need to think about how gender roles influence they way they split childcare duties. And Sanjay wants his son to play soccer, like Sanjay did. Karisma isn’t sure, because she thinks their particular child won’t like soccer even if other boys do. Sanjay insists, Karisma backs down (another small gender moment, Karisma giving in because it is a father-son issue), but then Sanjay sees his son playing soccer and hating it and pulls him from the team. He learns and understands that his particular child is not meant for soccer.
Shruti Seth still isn’t fully filled in, but is getting there. She lets her little boy wear dresses and pretty clips. The other mothers question her, but she stands by her decision, she wants her son to be happy however he wants to be. This is tied into her slow brewing larger storyline, custody issues with her ex. The other woman warn her that letting her son wear a dress might effect her custody. We also learn in this episode that Shruti is fairly recently divorced and got the house in the divorce and now feels uncomfortable living alone, but the other women reassure her that they are there for support.
Sandhya is off by herself after being the center of the past couple episodes. It’s a good adjustment, she isn’t the main antagonist this time, she is just part of the group of friends. They tease her about her Perfect Mom status and she lets it go. I think/hope the caricature we saw in the first couple episodes of the Demon Mother is now gone and the sniping between the central 5 will be loving and friendly, them versus the world. Sandhya’s only storyline of her own is a confrontation with her mother-in-law over her affair. The mother-in-law has no issues with her cheating, just doesn’t want it to be so obvious.
Tillotama gets only a few small scenes, but the reverberate perfectly with the theme. Her husband is teaching her boys toxic masculinity and she is trying to counter it, to make cupcakes with them, and teach them to be loving and thoughtful and kind. But how much can she do, when they are surrounded with messages of rudeness and privilage? The episode ends with hope, her boys finished making the cupcakes after she left and saved her one, maybe they can still be made sweet after all.
Shruti Shukla really has nothing to do, her plot is just treading water so far. Clearly her daughter is adopted, and her biological mother is calling and making threats. But the threats aren’t blackmail yet or anything substantial, and it’s been 3 episodes now with no progress. I’m ready for something to HAPPEN here!
And then there’s Dino! Lots of movement there! This is the Gender episode, so seeing him as a sensitive open caring single parent already breaks gender roles. The more complex question is about Dino and Karisma interacting as co-parents. So far, their conversations are no different from how Karisma talks to the other mothers. Intimate, because it is about their children and deep questions of childrearing. But is it okay for Karisma to treat Dino like any other primary parent if he is a man and she is a woman? Is she sending the wrong signal to him and he to her, somehow? Is Sanjay right to look slightly cross-eyed about this?
And their conversations are intimate! He asks her to talk to his daughter when his daughter asks why her brother has a penis and she doesn’t. And that leads to her asking his advice about if her son should play soccer or not. Again, no lines crossed just yet, but Karisma is asking him about a parenting issue between herself and her husband. And Dino is asking Karisma’s help to be the woman in his daughter’s life. Hmmm.
So yeah! First two episodes, blah blah, rich people school, Mommy wars, Boring! This episode, open-minded varied discussion of gender issues in childrearing, woman talking as friends not enemies, and the openings of potential marriage problems with our Perfect heroine. This is the show I want to watch!