Khubchandani's “Between aunties: sexual futures and queer South Asian aunty porn” (2021)
While many South Asian languages have specific titles that differentiate fathers’ and mothers’ sisters, ‘aunty’ can refer to women relatives more broadly and to people who are not related by blood or marriage. Aunties can be neighbours, shopkeepers, relatives, or even frenemies. While aunty generally refers to older women, it is also a ‘role’ that is done, not necessarily something that one is (Cobham-Sander 2021); one can thus have an aunty aesthetic or be read as aunty without necessarily identifying as one.
Thinking with aunties can disrupt South Asian cultural tendencies to hold wife and mother in a sanctimonious light; to think of mothers and wives as aunties reconfigures how we might relate to them, desire them, (dis)like them.
While aunties are desexualized by feminist and queer youngsters who decry their sexual conservativism (Wong 2006, 458), their age and advanced experience can also make them erotically appealing. This sexualization of the aunty is reflected in an extensive body of softcore and hardcore pornography referred to as ‘aunty porn’, in which auntyness is fetishized. In this abundance of film, photograph, cartoon, and written erotica, women are staged as aunties through their association with domestic spaces, age, clothing (sari, nightie, caftan, salwar khameez), and full-figured bodies. This genre of commercial and amateur Indian erotica features fat, ‘dark-skinned, middle-aged, married women’ and encompasses a wide range of social positions; she can be ‘bhabhi [sister-in-law], aunty, didi [older sister], maid, wife, housewife, or even mother’ (Mukhopadhyay 2012, 147).
Despite their ubiquity in South Asian public cultures, aunties are afforded minor importance in South Asian narratives; they appear as interstitial characters landing a joke or criticism before disappearing from the story. The discursive disposability of the aunty, Anmol Nayak (2020; original emphasis) argues, is especially associated with her age, having ‘basically served her purpose of marriage and child bearing, and is hence rendered useless’.1 Aunty porn is exciting in that it teaches us to centre aunties as protagonists, celebrating their sexuality and style. However, this porn largely caters to straight men, and in these narratives aunties commonly facilitate heteronormative futures by initiating younger men into adulthood. In other media, especially feminist and queer narratives and imagery, aunties are often the judgemental villains who orbit young people’s lives. When they do offer queer and feminist possibilities or mentorship to younger people, their own erotic desires are rendered inconsequential.
By placing sex and sensation in continuum with other practices that aunties are known for, such as cooking and gossip, I am insisting that the older women I discuss here are not exceptional to the infamous and unlikeable aunty archetype. The difficult, rigid, and impossible nature of the aunty potentially occludes us from seeing the creativity, sexuality, and play that she reserves for her time with other aunties. I hope this article provokes a conversation about what South Asian culture and criticism could be like if we afforded aunties queerness instead of pinning them to heteronormativity.
Lesbian sex is far from new to Indian pornography (Chatterjee 2017), but representations of Indian lesbians have largely leaned towards light-skinned, thin, feminine, young women (Nair 2008). What might queer sex look like between those accented, older, unassimilated, un-cosmopolitan, backward, stuck-in-their-ways, frankly impossible women, who we just cannot seem to place in the present, let alone afford a future?
[T]hinking ‘between aunties’ potentially returns queerness to the perpetually straightened South Asian mother, placing her in the company of other women rather than only in relation to husband or child.
Queer theorist Gayatri Gopinath (2005) offers us the field-defining formation of ‘impossible desires’ that names the unthinkability of South Asian queer women’s desires. South Asian women and girls, carrying the burden of nation, culture, authenticity, and diasporic futurity, are rarely imagined to have the gender and sexual malleability afforded by queerness. Gopinath challenges this burden, pointing to the epistemic obfuscation of femme desires in South Asian public cultures, and using queerness to make pliable the rigid embodiments of diaspora required by various forms of nationalism. Her book leans on a promiscuous archive that skews towards youthful, thin, light-skinned bodies: Archie Punjabi in East is East, Madhuri Dixit in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun?, Rekha in Utsav. A particular kind of South Asian gender performance, aunty-ness, seems tougher and more recalcitrant to Gopinath’s ‘queer diasporic reading’.
Aunties can assist, facilitate, and inspire queerness but are rarely, if ever, imagined to be queer themselves. Their queer desires are rendered impossible (unimaginable, untenable) because they themselves are impossible (unpleasant, stubborn, backward).
Sexuality in India has long been articulated through English language, particularly because of ‘the purging of sexual terminology from Indian languages that began with British colonialism and gained momentum in national formations of Indian identity’ (Hall 2019, 491). But for these diasporic women, English is also not an ideal language for speaking sex; as Tarampal say about her lack of facility with English, ‘[The English] haven’t made their country or customs friendly to me. Now their language is just as unfriendly’. Using Punjabi words for fruits and vegetables, the widows circumvent the loss of sexual language under colonialism and migration, without having to resort to the unfriendly sounds of English. Gossip’s orality, its spoken quality, engenders intimacy (Adkins 2017, 9), and for this group of widows who do not know how to read and write, orality is that intimate mode of making erotica. As they parse through scandalous and familiar terminologies, they cooperatively develop an accessible vocabulary for speaking sex.
Gossip leads new aunties to the gurdwara, facilitates storywriting, incites discussion about sexual pleasure, and makes room to both recall and dream queerness. Queer porn between bhabhis, scripted between aunties, operates in domestic and religious life, is constituted by gossip, and also incites.
Although aunty gossip is often imagined to police and stigmatize sexual dissidence, here it becomes the means of making naughty stories, inciting aunty sexualities widely, and rousing queer desire between aunties.