“Once we give up on the idea that only heterosexuality is normal and that all human bodies are clearly either male or female, more and more kinds of bodies and desires will come into view. Perhaps also, one body may, in one lifetime, move through many identities and desires. The use of, queer then, is a deliberate political move, which underscores the fluidity (potential and actual) of sexual identity and sexual desire. The term suggests that all kinds of sexual desire and identifications are possible, and all these have socio-cultural and historical coordinates.”
― Nivedita Menon
Gender is an amorphous concept, a social construct carefully designed to ensure a system of dominance, reproduction and structure, often at odds with the psyche. Sex and gender are used so synonymously that we often forget that they don’t always align. As Judith Butler states, “gender is always a doing” and it is this performance that we must continue playing.
Sex is biological, but it cannot be completely absolute, as proposed by many physicians. There is so much more than the XX and XY chromosomes when a child is born, and to categorise the newborn into neat compartments of a ‘boy’ and a ‘girl’ becomes a task. Here begins the performance. Our gender is ascertained by the way we act, talk, sit, stand and perform. By continually acting like men and women, we become men and women.
When we see an advertisement for women’s cosmetics, it is always based on delicacy, poise and even infantilising – with women often represented in groups as young girls chuckling and laughing.The ritualisation of subordination by representing the body as a text, to convey subjugation, for example showcasing the woman pining for support or control from the man and licensed withdrawal like the woman going off to a dreamy world is seen. These actions and representations thus reinforce masculine codes of conduct. These concepts, further elucidated by Sir Erving Goffman, show us how presenting a problematic image, over and over again, becomes normative and sells in the name of creative advertising.
An example of the portrayal of women with unrealistic beauty standards was when Priyanka Chopra, a global icon was seen completely dazed, with photo-shopped armpits. Twitterati greeted this advertisement with a lot of criticism. Furthermore, national dailies laughing off feisty women in the Indian parliament as “Aunty National” goes a long way in exacerbating the patriarchal question. The online vitriol against women is nothing new to the ear.
In Indian television soaps, the vamp is mostly in sexy black sarees and a red pout, while the sublime epitome of beauty, the angelic daughter-in-law prefers nude makeup and lighter shades. What we see is what we become – and in a vicious cycle of operant conditioning, we come to associate people’s character with their choice of makeup and clothes.
Representations of the queer community have been symbolically annihilated, with not even one story of lesbian relationships coming to the forefront. Hijras have been intrinsic to the Indian community and were worshipped next to God since times immemorial. But today, the community (that of hijras) is considered to be a disgrace, from whom we hide our morally upright faces. Rarely are they portrayed as successful and educated people. In stark contrast, Apsara Reddy, India’s first trans woman journalist with a soaring career, is one among many who prove that such stereotypes are baseless and formed only to validate the norm. What we often forget is that, what’s normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.
To understand the role of media in cultural appropriation and slander, we need to open the epistemological fractures of third world feminism. Any narrative based on the plight of the third world, oppressed, hijab wearing woman or the Indian housewife runs the risk of ghettoisation. Is third world feminism a gift to the ‘lesser’ world from able-bodied white women? Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism comes into play here. Our knowledge about people from other cultures comes mainly to us through representations in popular culture, and this knowledge is anything but innocent. It’s neatly packaged and formulated through the lens of the West, to reaffirm the latter’s superiority.
Why is it that we almost always see the thobe and kufeya wearing Arab man with a rifle cast in the role of a terrorist, and not a CIA agent? Sut Jhally’s documentary, Reel Bad Arab dwells into this question of the missing realistic representation of the ‘other’ communities in the arts. A woman from the East is always monstrous, exotic and sensuous. The same idea was sold to us by Beyonce in “A Hymn For the Weekend”, that portrays India essentially as a land of mystery. India in the 21st century is way more than snake charmers and funambulists – it is educated, metropolitan and a global magnet with its large consumer-based economy.
The representation of a ‘timeless Orient’, (one that is miles away from development, remains between tepid waters of tradition and indoctrination) in contrast to the ‘American Dream’ (wherein a utopian world that gives you what you work for). Be it the stifling and intoxicating energy of a typical New York octogenarian running marathons or the successful, young and independent working woman – there is always a stereotype to portray the West as hegemonic and superior – very often, distancing itself from the reality and the anguish of the ‘American Dream’.
Today, witnessing or encountering other cultures has now very little to do with geographical movement. It is available to us at the click of a button. But, it is up to us not to swallow everything we are fed with without investigating.
This post is a part of my series #PoliticalIsPersonal on Youth Ki Awaaz that explores how an innocuous act like opening your house gates to someone has immense political echoes across the system. I plan on understanding the link between political thought and personal liberty and how the two almost always are at loggerheads.