Is the new Jabong ad the revolutionary concept we need for gender equality?
In a world where young girls are starving themselves to fit into the “ideal” body type, and boys are committing suicide for being called “faggot” because they don’t match up to the ‘rules’ of masculinity, the latest advertisement by jabong.com, an online fashion brand, was maybe just what we required to break the binary construct of gender to achieve equality.
Many fashion advertisements have in the past tried to convey the message of ‘being true to yourself’, but most of these ads have either failed miserably or like a comet burned brightly only to fade away just as quickly. But this particular one refuses to fade. It confronts the audience with bold new ideas of acceptance, breaking codes and above all accepting oneself, no matter what.
Now, it is not without faults but the direct and explicit approach it takes towards the issue is something that deserves a mention. It opens with a striking image of a man wearing a traditional bridal nose ring and red eye shadow as he glares through the camera at us. This still is of key importance, not just because it breaks the masculine code of dressing but because of what it makes the audience feel, an idea prominently discussed by social anthropologist Erving Goffman. Looking at this particular still, if you were shocked or surprised at what the man is doing in front of a national audience, then you need to ask yourself why you reacted that way.
Because of what the society has taught you about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’?
This brings us to the difference between sex and gender: two terms which have been incorrectly used interchangeably, even though their meanings are quite different. While sex is biological (i.e. genitals, hormones, chromosomes) gender is social and cultural (i.e., based on practices and institutions). A key example of gender being a construct is how the notions of the two binaries, i.e., ‘male’ and ‘female’ have changed over time. From high heels being popular and accepted for men in Europe in the 17th century to pink being a colour that came to be associated with women and homosexuals in the early 20th century. These gender-specific ideas changed as different movements and ideologies influenced societies around the world, but they did establish that gender is a political and cultural construct.
Developments in the sciences have highlighted the biomedical indeterminacy and instability of sex. Sexual characteristics are not always aligned with one’s body. That is to say that a person may have female sexual characteristics and male chromosomes or the other way round. And hence, the idea that all bodies can be defined as ‘male’ or ‘female’ is questioned. A key example is that of African athlete Caster Semenya, who was questioned about her rights to compete as a ‘woman’.
While ‘Sex’ is biological, ‘Gender’ is performative because of its manifestation as a social ritual. Judith Butler (an American Gender theorist) understands gender as a series of performances or enactments which over time take on the appearance of being natural. By acting like a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, we become a man or a woman, as Butler says, gender is a ‘doing’. It becomes normalised through the constant repetition of gender performances. This is not to deny the fact that there are a lot of differences within the body but to question why certain differences come to matter while some don’t. The way ‘bodies’ are ascribed social functions and meaning have no biological basis. There is no way to define one’s ‘gender’ biologically and hence decide the ‘practices’ each gender is ‘allowed’ to perform, for example, men wearing nose rings or women wearing pants.
In a historic move to promote gender equality, New York City now gives an option to its citizen to choose from 31 different genders by allowing citizens the options to decide their performative role. It is by challenging this performative role of gender in an Indian context that the new Jabong ad becomes important. Men in nose rings, high heels, and eye shadow, women in a strikingly dominant position as they defiantly stare back while the lines “Your mom won’t find me suitable” plays in the background. Voluptuous women flaunting their bodies confidently while lean men (not the ‘ideal’ muscular) pose.
Now, the argument is not that the ad will smash the age-old constructs of the society. The ad is not without its share of faults and massive ones at that. The sheer aestheticizing and objectification of the bodies (both male and female) to send out the message is a major negative point, but it can be countered by the fact that it is, after all, a clothing brand looking to sell. The fact that besides one woman all the others have toned and lean bodies. Even though the ad relies on its message “You don’t have to call me pretty, you don’t get to call me ugly… I am just me” it still has models who conform to conventional ideas of beauty parading the clothes. There is a blatant commodification of the whole concept of ‘gender equality’. But even though it has all these (and more) faults, one has to recognise the fact that it is a positive step in the direction of gender equality.
It also gives a break on the issue of ‘body image’. Gender constructs in the society are firmly rooted in such visual representations. How a ‘female’ or a ‘male’ is supposed to look to be considered healthy or even normal. The physical manifestations of the norms in the form of a six pack or a size zero waist are destroying lives. As women diet to death, and young men take hazardous steroids to achieve a toned look, it is becoming increasingly imperative that we do away with the notion of a ‘perfect’ body image altogether because there is no such thing. While we blame the food we eat and media for inducing these ideas, we forget that the roots from where our media is getting these concepts are from the society itself. Being thin does not mean being healthy and having muscles is not a symbol of your masculinity, but these are ideas that we have grown up with.
But this ad breaks the code we associate with different aspects of our body and hence introduces the idea of positive change. Just as Erving Goffman says “Only when the code is broken does it become visible in other contexts.” And maybe, this ‘visibility’ is just what we need for a change.
In case you haven’t watched the ad, you can check it here: