I’m sure you’ve all heard of this thing called “the mother-daughter test”, right? The way it works is that you take a given set of circumstances and try to imagine someone dear to you in that scenario to check whether you’d be inclined to let it stand. It’s been applied to everything from MF Hussain’s paintings to IPL cheerleaders – as in, would you be okay with Hussain using your mother as a model or your daughter working as a cheerleader for an IPL match?
The general idea behind this little trick is to help you understand where the other person is coming from when they object to something, which is a goal I generally support. The way I look at it, a little bit of empathy is always a good idea. It’s fun to look at the other person and say, “Wow, you suck” but that doesn’t actually solve anything. And sometimes, a solution is called for because we’re all stuck on this one planet together and space is limited in a way people’s belief in the power of violence is not.
However, the more I think about the mother-daughter test, the more I’m bothered by it.
To be honest, it was a slender chance to begin with that I would have been in favor of something called a “mother-daughter” test because it strikes me as horribly proprietorial and feudalistic (I’m trying really hard not to rant about patriarchy here but the connections are kind of in-your-face). But leaving aside my issues with terminology, I’m not convinced this is a test that works in any meaningful way.
Take my mother, for instance, and the MF Hussain paintings. If Ma came up to me tomorrow and said she was going to model for the most controversial Hussain painting ever, would I be cool with it? Well, yes.
For one thing, it would be her choice and she is not merely my mother, she is an adult in her own right who’s been alive a lot longer than I have and if she wants to do something, then I have no right to impose my decisions on her. Secondly, if she made up her mind to do a certain thing and I had a problem with it, I could very well register my complaint (in a civil manner or she’d kick my ass) but I couldn’t force her to comply with my wishes because I simply don’t have that kind of power. Well, I suppose I could try emotional blackmail but as it turns out I love my mother and want her to have the same freedom that she has always sought to grant me – often in direct opposition to her own deeply held beliefs.
And that’s the point, right there – what do any of these fevered imaginings signify when I know for damn sure that my mother is a deeply conservative South Indian lady who’d sooner take to jumping out of airplanes with faulty parachutes than let go of her Kancheepuram pallu?
To make the case clearer, say you ask me what my reaction would be if my mother suddenly stood up tomorrow and said she was off to marry her lesbian girlfriend. Would I be happy that my parents’ 35+ year marriage was thus coming to an end? No. But would I rather my mom was happy with someone she loved and my dad had a chance to find someone who didn’t think of him as an unwanted obligation? Yes.
And I can say this knowing full well that my parents can’t stand living apart no matter how much they may fight and roll their eyes at each other when they’re together. (Also, I don’t think my mother knows what a lesbian is. She keeps asking me why Ellen DeGeneres doesn’t dress prettier – draw your own conclusions. )
Do you see what I mean? I could build all the theoretical castles in the air I wanted and probably live a rich emotional life off it, but none of it would matter a rat’s ass unless there was a chance that I would actually be faced with that situation in real life. So all the mother-daughter test did was cement my previously held convictions. In my case they’re what you would call liberal but it could work the other way around too. Sure, I can see why other people wouldn’t want to see their moms au naturel in an art gallery but I could have appreciated that point without picturing my mother in that situation and forcing my mores and choices on to her.
Which leads me to my second issue with this test: you could apply this to pretty much anything and come up with a result of some kind that amounts to absolutely nothing in real world terms.
Take my father, for instance. And let’s take someone admirable – like John F. Kennedy. And let us suppose that I have it in my power to decide whether or not I would like to see my father as John F. Kennedy. The answer? A resounding no.
I don’t care how handsome he would have been or what lovely speeches he’d have made or how much of an icon he’d have been. And it’s not like I have anything against JFK – I even had a Camelot fascination for a couple of months in my teens. But this is my dad we’re talking about and I don’t want a dad who’d publicly, legendarily, cheat on my mom with multiple women before getting assassinated in my childhood.
Yes, my focus is that narrow – because I’m not thinking of what my father would like or whether the world would benefit, any more than any of the people who’re conducting the mother-daughter test are considering what their mothers or daughters would like themselves: I’m simply thinking of what I would like. And I would like a dad just like the one I grew up with, who might not have made it into the history books but was around to read me comics when I was a toddler, talk when I was a teen and be a good husband to my mom.
If you want to empathize, why can’t you do it on your own time and in your own skin – why drag other people into it?