When political ideas are harnessed by the market to sell products, tough questions must follow. Sayan Bhattacharya weighs the conundrums of representation that the Anouk “lesbian ad” raises.
It seems everybody with a liberal worldview on social media has an opinion on all things LGBT. How else does one explain Anouk’s “lesbian ad” going viral, inspiring commentary of all stripes, with every news portal carrying at least two stories about it? (Kindle is late in catching up, but better late than never!)
Before moving on to the ad in question, allow me to set some context. Ever since the Supreme Court refused to follow the lead of the Delhi High Court in reading down Section 377 in a December 2013 judgement, the media, campuses and drawing rooms have been abuzz with discussions about homosexuality. There were co-ordinated protests worldwide, people expressed their solidarity with queer people by kissing (mostly on the cheeks!) same-sex friends (doesn’t that sound so taxonomic?) and posting the photos on Facebook on a page called “Gay for a day!” The international media had found another authentic regressive-third-world story, while many outraged gay men (and some lesbian women)—all upper-caste, upper-class Hindus living in the metros—were pledging on Twitter that they would leave the country for some mythical gay haven in San Francisco!
As this initial buzz began to ebb, there came another Supreme Court verdict in April 2014, which upheld one’s right to gender expression. Although the legal, sociocultural and political implications of such a judgement are yet to be fully fathomed, it was immediately interpreted as a rehabilitation package for hijras, with a music channel even equating ‘hijra’ with ‘transgender’ in an otherwise neat traffic awareness campaign showing hijras, who are often found begging at traffic signals, demonstrating the necessity of seatbelts at those very signals.
Feminist and Left groups have strongly protested against the Supreme Court verdict, protests that were not one-off but sustained, that have a long history of forging solidarity through intense debates, breakups and dialogue.
This was soon followed by the arrest of a techie under Section 377 following the submission of a CD containing “incriminating evidence” by his wife; an announcement by that charlatan who loves cross-dressing (remember that Ramlila episode?) that he could straighten bent people using yoga (no matter how much he would have to bend in the process!); the suicide, following a public testimony, of an AIIMS doctor who was married to a gay man; the private members’ bill ensuring rights for transgenders; India’s first transgender principal of a college; the censoring out the word “lesbian” in a Yash Raj film. The culture wars on the subject rage on. “India’s first lesbian ad”—which it isn’t; Fastrack beat Anouk to that honour a few years ago—has only furthered the coolness quotient of LGBT issues.
The reader would have noted by now that I have been quite selective in my highlights. It was consciously done—these are only the events that have received major coverage in the media. I have left out how feminist and Left groups have strongly protested against the Supreme Court verdict, protests that were not one-off but sustained, that have a long history of forging solidarity through intense debates, breakups and dialogue, giving way to newer groupings and stronger connections across different axes of oppression. How academic spaces have been opening up to variations in genders and sexualities across the country. How one sees a Kancha Illiah taking part in Hyderabad Pride, which is led by Dalit trans women, unlike the corporatised and elitist affairs its Mumbai and Delhi counterparts have become. I am also excluding the instances of electrocution of gay men (including quite a few in West Bengal), the joint suicides of girls in Assam, in Jharkhand, the sexual assault of hundreds of trans women across the country, which are either not reported or salaciously presented when they are. We don’t want to talk about all that, do we? No, cut to the Anouk commercial!
So much has been already written about this commercial—made only for the Internet—by Anouk, an ethnic clothing brand that retails on Myntra, that there is no point in even describing what happens in that little film. In fact, this article is not even so much about the advertisement as it is about its context and the reception it has received.
Queerness is mostly absent in mainstream cinema; when it is dealt with, it is either as a subject of parody or guaranteed to end in tragedy.
The entire media coverage and discussions around Anouk can be sharply divided into two groups. On the one hand are those extolling the advertisement as that rare piece of filmmaking that affirms non-normative sexualities without pandering to stereotypes, that rare representation that does not end in tragedy, one that is identifiable and beautiful in its quotidian nature. On the other is the coverage that sniffs capitalist conspiracy, the co-option of emotions by the market, the commoditisation of lives and desires, the branding of ways of living as desirable lifestyles and a disturbing trend of attempts at normativisation. But what happens when you agree as well as disagree with both sides? What I am going to present are a few conundrums of representation that Anouk brings to the forefront.
First, there is no denying that Anouk does steer clear of some stereotypes. The lesbian love does not end in tragedy or any kind of high-octane drama. Queerness is mostly absent in mainstream cinema; when it is dealt with, it is either as a subject of parody or guaranteed to end in tragedy. So it is refreshing to see these two girls having a regular conversation that reflects their love for each other in a quiet, matter-of-fact way. When you are already invisible in the collective imaginary, every single attempt to register presence or to look for presence in representation is a politically urgent subject. Queer theorists have long read queerness into Bollywood songs and iconic characters (Jai-Veeru in Sholay, Hema Malini and Parveen Babi in Razia Sultana and so on) and such works are important in voicing the invisible. Surely, in that regard, Anouk is important.
Moreover, these are characters that most of us who use the Internet, who shop online—Anouk’s target group—have seen. We know NGO offices and home spaces with similar décor. We know gender and sexuality rights activists, working professionals, friends who dress like these characters, women who dress only in cotton and ethnic fabric, who only wear silver and burnt clay, who cut their hair a particular way, who only wear certain shades of clothes and nail polish, in other words, women whose sense of aesthetics is Anouk-approved. Some of us—I am definitely speaking about myself here—even know women who have been living in, whose parents come and meet them over the weekend or the other way around.
But when has representation been so simple? When did sexuality exist on a rarefied realm?
But when has representation been so simple? When did sexuality exist on a rarefied realm? A while back, Padma Iyer, mother of activist Harish Iyer, posted a matrimonial ad seeking a groom for her son. Prospective candidates should be vegetarian, she wrote, animal lovers, and preferably an Iyer. So even as a gay man was trying to break into the stranglehold of marriage, that gigantic force that perpetuates the hetero-patriarchal state, the ad was a telling comment on how caste remains that bedrock of oppression, so deeply entrenched in us that we fail to dismantle it. This was further proven when Harish and many queer rights activists attempted to airbrush the Iyer preference as a personal choice, which some found rather cute. (Meanwhile, Harish has found his Iyer would-be, who happily sings Carnatic songs for his grandmother!)
When did caste or race become a “personal preference”? There was a barrage of criticism from within the queer movement, and rightly so. Many queer activists were appalled, so much so that on online groups, admins has to step in from time to time to keep tempers from flaring. It seemed this was a great moment for intersectionality.
This is where Anouk comes in, because it calls the bluff of intersectionality. Poor Harish had been foolish to out his casteism, but why is nobody talking about what could be the caste profiles of the two lovers in the Anouk ad? Do they not have castes? Their language, the architecture of their home, their clothing all spell out privilege with a capital P, but the makers do not give out surnames, much like the “abstract” citizen of the modern economy who is touted as “modern” and “liberated”—or in this case, “bold”, since Anouk’s tagline is “Bold is beautiful”—but what remains unmarked is that this citizen is mostly an upper-caste, upper-class Hindu, one who partakes of the fruits of development on the foundation of their knowledge and cultural capital. This goes uninterrogated also because in this age of political correctness, one rarely finds someone baring their prejudices. When the Iyers out themselves, we flog them with angry emails and status updates, but does that absolve us of the power structures we are implicated in, complicit with, and which we keep reproducing? That no one took up the caste aspect of Anouk, when so many cried themselves hoarse about a matrimonial ad, calls the bluff of our blitheness.
The Anouk ad has also been praised because it supposedly doesn’t give in to butch-femme stereotypes. Some did ask why one of the girls sported a crew cut, but the fact that she wore nail polish, wanted to make coffee and wore a kurti seems to have mitigated that charge. But when we say that butch-femme is a replication of heteronormativity, what we are assuming is a position of origin (male/female) that is then copied. But where did the origin originate? At a time when gender and intersex rights activists in the realm of sports are painstakingly showing how sex itself is a construct, how meaning is imposed on body parts by deciding one’s gender—on a literal level, doctors and parents often designate a gender for a baby born with intersex variation, surgically reconstructing the genitalia accordingly; on a deeper level, how does one tease out nature from culture and vice versa?—such a simplistic understanding of heteronormativity doesn’t take gender rights discourse forward in a meaningful way.
Moreover, don’t effeminate men and masculine women exist? They do not have the privilege of passing off as “straight”, which leaves them all the more vulnerable to abuse. Their gender often becomes the topic of heated discussions in public spaces. Historically, they are the ones who have been at the forefront of queer articulations—from the dyke bars in New York to the drag queens at Stonewall to transgenders and kotis being the prominent faces of queer marches and protests. How do we ensure that while breaking stereotypes, we are not creating another hierarchy of “proper” and “improper” subjects? How do we ensure we are not driving people underground?
Now, a few words on the market. The market brings freedom. It brings agency and autonomy. The upper-class, upper-caste working woman might get some leisure in the evening after she comes back from work because the washing machine, mixer-grinder and vacuum cleaner give her some free time. While these gadgets do not break the sexual division of labour, how can we deny that the market allows these women some breathing space? How can we deny that it is this market that has produced an affirmative representation of a type of lesbian life?
How do we ensure that while breaking stereotypes, we are not creating another hierarchy of “proper” and “improper” subjects? How do we ensure we are not driving people underground?
Anouk knows its client profile and has accordingly produced its “Bold is beautiful” campaign. The “lesbian ad” is only the third of a three-part campaign. The first part was about a woman drinking alone at a pub and how she combats unwanted male attention. The second was about a single mother drawing inquisitive stares and nasty comments as she moved with her daughter into a new housing society. All three ads drive home the point about confidence and boldness, but it is interesting to note how the “lesbian ad” is being viewed and celebrated in isolation. It begs the question: are single mothers and drinking women commonplace now, or are they still so radical that they should not be celebrated, unlike the girls in love who, like nice girls should, want their parents’ blessings (as opposed to the Fastrack ad, where the girls emerge out of a closet after making out and “Move On”)?
On another level, the complete absence of discussions around the first two parts of the campaign within queer forums goes on to show how we like to think of ourselves in terms of watertight compartments. No wonder that “unnatural sex” as per Section 377 remains only about homosexuals, while not enough noise is made about commonalities with the politics of live-in relationships or married people refusing to procreate. Be it the right to public spaces, single parenting or choosing one’s partner, these are all feminist issues and very identifiable.
When extremely political ideas are harnessed by the market to sell products, some tough questions must follow. Tough, because we are so enmeshed in the market that the real challenge is keeping the politics alive. So, even as appropriation becomes inevitable, how do we ensure that that challenge remains inevitable? How seriously do we take these blatantly consumerist campaigns?
Homosexuality is not politics for everybody. One does not automatically become a radical by being gay or lesbian. A lesbian woman can also be casteist; a gay man might be sexist to the core.
Homosexuality is not politics for everybody. One does not automatically become a radical by being gay or lesbian. A lesbian woman can also be casteist; a gay man might be sexist to the core. In fact, romanticising homosexuality as some radical utopia is itself veiled homophobia. Life is messy, complex and full of contradictions. Sexuality is not outside of that. The choice of sexual partner or love is as intensely a private aspect of life as it is public.
So while the Anouk girls “boldly” face their parents, it must also be noted that their privileges aid this boldness. Besides class and caste, their privilege is also of gender, which allows them to guard their private in the public, unlike the stone butch or the effeminate man. It is these people, who don’t have the privilege of guarding their privacy or flaunting their boldness in a market-friendly way, who need movements, not those who Anouk represents. But the question remains: how representative are our movements?