By Debojit Dutta:
On the evening of May 6, roaming around the SDA market, New Delhi, I came across a strange poster adorning Chaayos, a favourite chain café in the city. It is a green poster. If you happen to visit that area today—and make it today because the spectacle is unlikely to last beyond May 8—you can see it standing in front of the door of the café.
The design is minimal enough, to the point, communicating its message. It includes only the elements that are required by the market. There’s the image of a woman who occupies most part of the poster. Superimposed on her image is a hashtag #SingleMomDoubleParent that is driving the campaign. Beneath that there’s a two-line sentence that reads: “This Mother’s Day, come and raise a toast to all the single mothers, for being double the parent.” This is followed by the café’s logo.
This poster ticks all the boxes you would think. A human face to a call for emotions, a hashtag to carry it to the social media using public who share and care, and a message that declares clearly what it is about. But then comes a strange element. Before you realize it has taken over the entire call for people to move away from their computers, and while keeping their eyes glued to their smartphones, take their mothers out for chai at Chaayos because the Day demands it. But this element is the game-changer. The baap of all ideas that will make the Chaayos ad stand apart from the other similar Mother’s Day ads.
When I say baap of all ideas, I actually mean your father. Imagine your father and think about the time he used to sport a moustache. If you are lucky enough and he still sports a moustache just call him to the room and think Jackie Shroff, think Anil Kapoor, think Jeetendra and think of the 80s. Think the Charminar ad where the mooch added so much oomph to Jackie’s brooding looks. They were mards (not just men, but manly men) of faded denims, of terrible movies. Good at heart, passively emotive, capable of love but also capable of catching their love interests by their hair and grounding them when demanded by morality. Obnoxious when you think about them in retrospect, the mooch-ed masculine men symbolized desirability.
If you have been keeping up with the advertisement campaigns recently, you will notice that the moustache has returned. But then you would know that retro fashion has its way of coming back. 80’s movies also did in a self-consciously comic avatar. But what makes the moustache’s return interesting is that its comeback into our social life hasn’t been limited to look catalogues. Moustache has curiously become a symbol of political discourses, particularly related to feminism.
When in 2013, hurt by the inequalities prevalent in our society, Farhan Akthar came out with his MARD (Men Against Rape and Discrimination) campaign, he chose moustache to be the symbol. It summarized the campaign’s motto: the need for men to take part in ending gender discrimination. In that, Akthar completely missed the overbearing masculinity that moustache brings to a campaign like that. A well-meaning guy, Akthar seems completely unaware of patriarchy’s tendency of trying to assimilate and make invisible women from women’s right movements. That capitalism and technology in the hands of patriarchy has always been used to subjugate women, is a history most people are willfully unaware of.
Still, when a campaign chooses an overtly masculine symbol to deliver its message, it becomes obvious what it is driving at. For Akthar’s campaign it is the message of men leading the march of women’s liberation. The moustache signifying who is the MARD of the event. In Chaayos’s case two moustaches—one over the hashtag and one on the women’s face—signify the woman is not just a woman, but also a man. She is a single mother who is also a father. The moustache here fills in the lack. It drives in the message that even though she had to bring up her child alone, she never let her child feel the lack of the father. In a single mother parentage, the campaign assumes, there is a lack. The mother is half a parent. She is a superhuman, a superman, because she also doubles up as the missing man. And this is where the problem is.
Whichever advertising agency is behind the Chaayos campaign, did not just stop at that. To compliment a cringe-worthy poster, they have also come out with a song video that salutes the faulaadi aanchal (part of Indian traditional attire, the implied meaning here being a protective shade made of iron). It eventually goes on to say “Mom, I salute your moustache.”
In one quick stroke the moustache adds the attribute of masculine “strength” to the perceived ‘motherly gentleness’ of the female body. This strength is not a unifier. This single mom body that Chaayos’ ad creates is far from the completeness that it pretends to promote. What it does actually is that it superimposes a macho masculinity on the female body. And the moustache, a tiny vector element functioning as the colonizing force of patriarchy, entirely takes over the femaleness, hijacking and making invisible in the celebration of the symbol the actual event and its however problematic politics.
It is the malleable nature of capitalism, the stooge of patriarchy. It sells whatever is saleable at a particular point of time. If the mood of the season is #WomenEmpowerment, it will give you that. But the token “feminism” will only be its neat packaging. Bubble-wrapped inside multiple layers, at the heart of it is still patriarchy. The women’s body, historically a site of violence, is still just a sales pitch. Be it the infamous Vogue advertisements, the board outside the Delhi restaurant Imperfecto that created a stir, in the name of women’s protection based on misinformed feminism, the market will keep trying to sell what it considers trendy.
These marketers are of course blind to their own sexism. They are also the product of the same patriarchal society where sexism is a norm. Their deviations, they would make you believe, are revolutionary. Examples of radical advertising going against the tide. But the truth is that capitalism never goes against the tide. In place of a #SingleMomDoubleParent, you aren’t soon going to see a #SingleDadDoubleParent on a Father’s Day. The father is sufficient in his fatherliness, his motherliness need not be pronounced. Further, there’s nothing sexy in celebrating a man who is also a woman. It is as shameful as it is risky. A Father’s Day advertisement will never carry an image of a father wearing a bindi.