It's not every day that you see farts breaking the internet. So, when I pitched to write an essay on flatulence a few weeks ago, I did not obviously think that the universe will conspire to give me not one but two news pegs to lead the piece with. Then two weeks ago, a song from the recently released movie, Satyameva Jayate 2, that features Canadian dancer-actor Nora Fatehi, cut one loose on social media with its title, "Kusu Kusu", which incidentally means "fart" in Tamil. Right now, there are over 25,000 Instagram Reels of users dancing to Kusu Kusu.
If that made a section of the Indian internet chortle, internationally, the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker Bowles, was busy broadcasting how POTUS Joe Biden broke wind in her presence at the recently concluded COP26 climate change summit held in Scotland.
Media reports said that Parker Bowles, wife of Prince Charles, couldn't stop talking about it. Meanwhile, I was struggling to break it to my social circle online that much before these events spiked public interest in bottom burps, I was proactively looking up “Is the pandemic making people fart more?" online. And I wasn't really “asking for a friend.”
It's one thing to talk about someone else passing wind, or to use phrases like “brain farts” and "farting around”... but when it comes to the real deal, women don’t really fart and tell, do we?
It’s one of those biological phenomena, like menstruation, that society has historically expected us to keep to ourselves. However, looking at the strides we’ve made in recent times discussing period cramps on the internet, one does wonder why, notable exceptions aside, women talking about passing gas hasn’t had a similar trajectory. It is especially frustrating because flatulence is one of the most natural bodily functions; health researchers say an average person farts about 5 to 15 times a day.
My own reluctance to discuss this on social media led me to re-examine incidents in my farting journey that evoked this hesitation in the first place.
I may have been six or seven when I first came to know of flatulence courtesy of a relative. Sitting on whatever we used to have before the advent of the Nilkamal chairs, they tilted their posterior slightly to let one rip. Based on the reactions of the four people in the room, I gathered this must be something that leaves the farter nonchalant, but everyone around them momentarily awkward.
However, the two times I farted in public after that, which I am painfully aware of, it was I who was made to feel awkward.
The first time, I was 10 and at a friend's house, doing a class project that her elder brother was helping us with. When it happened, they broke into laughter almost immediately; a reaction that left me confused. As their laughter grew louder, my confusion turned into shame. I ended up burying the memory of the incident altogether.
The memory was revived just two years later. This time in a room full of girls getting ready for a performance at the annual function of a school I had just joined. There was only one witness, the school head girl who was also a classmate. She made it a point to whisper about my apparent faux pas into every girl’s ears. Minutes later, I coordinated my steps and smiles with them on stage, while the sound of them sniggering at me from a few moments ago kept playing at the back of my head.
I concluded from these incidents that I had it all wrong. I had not realised until much later that my experience was different, perhaps because I was a girl, whereas my relative, who didn't face any shame, was a guy.
Cinema and content on smaller screens too, locally and globally, reinforce this pattern. If any characters are shown breaking wind, it is mostly men who do not seem to show even an ounce of the embarrassment that I had to undergo on these two occasions. When women are shown passing wind, a rarity to boot, it is met with derisive laughter followed by a highly mortified and apologetic farter (think: Kiara Advani’s character in Good Newwz).
Such scenes reveal the “post-fart power shift” between the farter and the fartee based on gender, says a 2016 article in Flavorwire, a cultural news and critique publication from New York. The article notes how a woman’s accidental fart is often seen as a question mark on her sex appeal. “It shows the hilarious seriousness society can ascribe to a gesture as accidental, frequent, and trivial as the fart — especially when it’s coming from a woman’s butt.”
It is therefore quite liberating to see women, on- and off-screen, take control of this post-fart power shift in recent times.
Since 2018, a YouTube channel, Women Farting, has been collating videos of celebrity women from India and around the world admitting to breaking wind in public places unabashedly.
In an episode of the recently concluded Netflix British comedy-drama, Sex Education, the character of Aimee Gibbs (played by Aimee Lou Wood) preempts in front of a police officer rather matter-of-factly that she tends to fart when nervous. It ensures the officer sees her with compassion instead of accentuating her anxiety during an enquiry.
A 2019 Korean drama called Be Melodramatic has an hour-long episode that addresses the unnecessary attention women’s flatulence gets and how that needs to change. A segment from this episode involves a 30-year-old screenwriter, Lim Jin-joo (played by Chun Woo-hee), nudging her mother to let go of her inhibitions and start farting in front of her husband, Jin-joo’s father. The father, not realising that this is not a sudden development, gently asks Jin-Joo’s mother to do some medical tests saying a friend mocked and ignored his wife’s flatulence that was later found to be one of the symptoms of a fatal disease she succumbed to.
Meanwhile on the internet, women, like Emma Martin of South Carolina in the US, have also emerged as fartfluencers (?) in the last year, to cash in on online users’ fart fetish. According to media reports, Martin, 48, makes about $4,200 a month by selling custom-made videos of her “flatulence camming” on the online content subscription service, OnlyFans.
My favourite fart-shame warrior, though, is Rawsan Hallak, a stand-up comic from Jordan who talks about farts in Arabic, wearing her hijab like a crown. “Every fart has a distinct personality,” she says in her segment on Comedians of the World, a Netflix show from 2019. Her favourite [fart] is the one that usually needs an empty space, and is often accompanied by a weird movement. Its owner lives happily and peacefully, she claims.
During the 30-minute show, she reproduces her own fart sounds, takes control of the post-fart power dynamic, and certainly makes a lot of people around her a wee bit awkward. In pure internetspeak, Hallak is #FartGoals.