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Here’s Why We Seek The ‘Exotic’ In Our Pop Culture

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Every year, Disney comes up with one or more of its animated films. Although these films are directed towards children and their parents, Disney gets its fair share of viewership from adults. Just like children, adults are captivated by the colors and the creative storylines. But have you noticed that Disney has the tendency to seek exotic locations to set their stories in? Disney stories are not just based in American/European locations, many of their films are based in ‘other’ most often ‘exotic’ locations. Films such as these not only cater to the thirst for viewing exotic and different locations in films but also opens up the possibility of a larger market when people from these locations get interested in watching how their place and culture has been represented. Pretty much the same way films such as “Slum Dog Millionaire” and “Lion” made the Indian population very keen on watching them.

Disney’s quest to show the ‘exotic’ has propelled it to produce many such films based in unique locations – a Pacific island, Brazil, Medieval China, Medieval Scotland, Colonial America. As Guy Debord (1967) said – our life has become an accumulation of spectacles. Doesn’t Austen’s women make a spectacle of themselves or the women of Man Men? As Debord wrote in his Society as Spectacle (1967), “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” Doesn’t it pique our interest to see women’s limiting ways and opportunities in the past? Most commonly, do we not like watching serial killers and the visual details of their horrendous murders? People revel in watching what they have never watched before. Did “Kung Fu Panda” only become successful at the box office because of its star dubbers and storyline? Did its success have nothing to do with setting the story in Medieval China?

People talk of “orientalism” and how Hollywood and American media exoticize the Islamic and Asian cultures. Most popular examples given are Disney’s “Aladdin”, Julia Robert starrer “Eat Pray Love”, Cardi B’s song “Bodak Yellow”, Katy Perry’s song “Dark Horse”, Coldplay’s “Hymn for the Weekend”. American media has been accused of injecting enduring stereotypical images into the imagination of Americans about Arabs, Indians, and other Asians. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images,” Debord wrote. Stereotypical depictions make the very impressionable viewers vulnerable to as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie aptly says, “The danger of a single story”.

Some argue that our quest for seeking the ‘exotic’ is rooted in our tendency for escapism. Science fiction and fantasy films are often considered as relief for its escapist viewers, offering us alternate realities and luring us to the purposeful suspension of disbelief. I say it’s more than that. For even depictions of unreality are governed by some rules of reality. Contents of science fiction and fantasy aren’t entirely bereft of the themes or sub-themes of forces which define our reality — be it universal human emotions, inevitable conflicts or the binary of good and evil.

When I watched Pixar’s “Coco” (2017), its lovely animation with splendid spectacles of colours enchanted me. It interested me to know about the culture and a festival – of a non-American/British country. We are bombarded with images from the American and British media. Our thirst for the unknown makes us crave for those “images” which are not our own or those that we don’t most often come across. I view Bollywood’s obsession of introducing Bengali characters (among others) in movies, as one such example.

Why are Indians so keen on Hollywood over Bollywood? Isn’t it similar to few people’s preference of Pink Floyd over Bollywood songs? Or preferring Premier League over Indian Super League? We crave for the unfamiliar. We as Indians are powered by xenocentrism. People prefer things which are popular, caused by our mimetic desires as expounded by Rene Girard. After all, we are all very impressionable and it’s being “hip” and “cool” to like Pink Floyd, and to root for Chelsea.

I think our Indian film industry has a bigger scope of exploring the much diverse and complex social reality of India. When I watch Hollywood films – their content appears predictable – people’s lifestyles are pretty similar within different segments of the society (and there aren’t many segments). The Indian film industry has the potential to come up with complex and unpredictable stories, as our pool of inspiration is mammoth. So what if our CGI is lightyears behind their’s, our stories can be different – they need not compete in the domain dominated by them but instead produce stories unique in themselves. We can find the “exotic” in our own diverse socio-politico-economic reality itself.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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