The conversation floated from the efficacy of gender neutral pronouns to Amitabh Bachchan’s misogyny to rape and the visual medium and then it halted at sindoor, Farah Khan’s ek chutki sindoor. My friend wondered whether given the deeply patriarchal connotations of this symbol of married bliss, and given her feminist orientations, would it be expected of her that she should not apply sindoor after marriage. But what if she wants to don it just as she highlights her eyelashes or applies kohl? What if the vermillion augments the bright red of her dupatta? Why can’t she wear it, solely for its aesthetic appeal?
And that’s the crux of this new “progressive” market. Can we view sindoor in isolation, shorn of its history, of its ideological implications? Can it be neatly compartmentalized into fashion and subjugation? Does anything ever exist in vacuum? Imagine a time when sindoor is advertised on TV with a catchline like, “Enhance your sex appeal with a hint or a tint of red!” How cool is that?
Now, this kind of a commercial may seem a tad far fetched in a country where the sultry seductress, post interval, becomes lovelorn and commits suicide failing to enter the gates of marital paradise in a critically acclaimed blockbuster or where a woman’s honour depends on the ideal “Mard” (sorry Farhan Akhtar, you continue to disappoint with your easy answers for everything from rock bands to manhood). But we are surely getting there. The market of social awareness, the market of openness, the market that breaks taboos, the market that makes you Move On, on the fast lane.
A pink cupboard shudders with a yellow telephone as witness. And then walks out a girl, adjusting her skirt and disheveled hair. Pink bag. Violet shoes. Fair and pretty. Demure. Then walks out another girl, buttoning her denim shorts. Hair made up. Made up eyes. Leather. Boots. Blue bag. Fair and Pretty. Edgy and assertive. Daft Punk’s catchy lyrics in the background:
“It might not be the right time
I might not be the right one
But there’s something about us I want to say
Cause there’s something between us anyway”
And then the catchline, “Out of the closet”. “Fastrack, Move on.”
Snappy, sexy, crisp. 23 seconds and a taboo broken.
The LGBT forums and activists have gone gaga about the commercial. One of the most popular youth brands of the nation has designed a campaign around homosexuality. What can be more progressive than that? They have shown that they are not merely a brand, but a socially aware brand. What could be a better mainstream recognition than that?
A smart and aesthetically shot commercial, almost a short film, celebrating female sexuality is indeed a step forward. More so because male homosexuality is still openly talked (or sometimes ridiculed) about in Bollywood and the media but there is a near complete silence on lesbianism (with an odd exception like Fire or the regressive Girlfriend). So what’s the problem?
The problem is when a TV commercial is touted as a harbinger of a sexual revolution. The problem is with the all encompassing market and the seamless way in which it coopts emotions, histories, peoples, movements and struggles. To put it specifically, an urban youth brand, a high end brand tapping into an upcoming market is not a problem simply because that’s what a market is meant to do. But the moment that function is couched in social responsibility, it takes a sinister bend because it creates hierarchies within a movement, it creates the marginalized within the marginalized, the ones who will assimilate into the market and consume its goodies and the ones who will question such instant mixes of revolutions and easy solutions and hence who will have to try even harder to be heard.
““Look, we are lesbians and out and have the guts to live life king size and we are an inspiration.” The implication: If you are not out, then you are to be trashed.”
More on the commercial. What if one of the girls wore a kurti? Or she was dark or without make-up and her hair was tied in a bun? And the phone was like any other landline in a middleclass house? The answer is easy. Such everyday, mundane images don’t sit well with a luxury youth brand. So the image has to be such that it appeals to the tab wielding, urbane youth. So any revolution there? Just plain business logic! Add to that, the fact that thanks to the Delhi High Court judgment and constant media attention, sexuality is much more openly discussed in cities than say, a decade back. Successful professionals coming out and living their lives. Shopping, going for vacations, eating out at high end restaurants. So, if that’s not a potential market, what is? Pink pound, pink dollars are terms of some reckoning already. For instance, the total purchasing power of the US adult lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population was projected at $790 billion last year. You have night clubs, apparel stores, tourism sites specifically catering to the lesbians and gay community. Such spaces have started coming up in India as well. Just look at the number of tourism agencies that have sprung up in the last few years, targeting this new market. In a largely homophobic world, there is need for such spaces. True that. Economic independence is crucial to assert one’s identity too. But what about the problematic question of these spaces being urban and elitist? That’s the hierarchy the market is creating within the Queer Movement. Just a list of the ones left out of this mainstream trajectory, and the vacuity of the claims of social responsibility will be clear.
For instance, what is the opinion of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton about those LGBT people who think that Julian Assange is not a terrorist or that Palestine has every right to a nation state? Why are the big LGBT NGOs that form a sizeable constituency for Obama (read fundraisers) not protesting against the torture of Private Bradley Manning who is gay too. The same Obama who talks of gay marriage and civil union is also the same Obama who strips Manning in torture chambers. But then Manning is not the “good” gay American. He has exposed America’s terror machine in Iraq, Afghanistan, America’s involvement with the coup in Honduras that continues to kill homosexuals. However, why bother so long as the funding for the next Pink Ball or the pride march keeps rolling? Be the patriotic law abiding citizen, support war on terror, join the army and then walk into the middle class fold of your family where your partner is waiting for you with the pug in tow and then have a gala church wedding and top it up with an exotic vacation. The happy and gay family. But what about those who choose not to marry or who have certain political affiliations… what about them? So they remain out of the social security net that the state provides? They don’t need insurance, health benefits! Not within the range of the market?
To think that the Stonewall riots were a protest headed by a group of queens and transgendered people. To think of Harvey Milk… where would they fit in this new market of homonationalism?
Judith Butler says that she cannot see her queer identity in isolation from her identity as a feminist or Jew or American. Did the Queer Movement or even the LGBT movement grow for a few city bred to come out of the closet and marry and establish their economic might or was it about dismantling patriarchy and chauvinistic and upper class notions of the nation state? To qualify the question of class, one is not against an emerging market which is an indicator of growing acceptance of the community but that is only one part of the story. The larger part is the one that remains unmapped and that is grappling with a myriad issues of identity politcs.
Cutting back home. The April 15th issue of Outlook has been celebrated by large sections of the LGBT community in India. It purports to celebrate women in love on its cover. Let’s look at the profiles of those featured on the cover. With one customary sentence on the difficulty of spotting women in rural areas in lesbian relationships, the story profiles 5 lesbian couples in the metros (Single lesbian women don’t make good copies!). All successful professionals, living in their own apartments, whose pastimes include shopping and eating at plush restaurants. And each couple fits the prototype of a notion that’s popular in the mainstream psyche. That one half of the couple is butch (the ‘man’ in the relation) and the other is femme (the ‘woman’). So adjectives like ‘sturdy’ for the butch and ‘introvert’ for the femme.
The story even has a box highlighting a day in the life of a Kolkata couple. The butch sleeps till 10 am and the femme wakes up at 8am and cooks. The femme buys the groceries while the butch pays off the bills. What new norms are we setting by uprooting existing norms? How well does this internalization of heteropatriarchy sit with the Queer Movement? Or, is all good because you now wield authority in the market? To make matters more literal, this same Kolkata couple (who love to be called LGBT activists and run a forum that is visible only at parties and marches) posts photos of Karwa Chauth on their facebook profile, complete with the femme touching the feet of the butch after the ceremony is over, and files defamation suits against activists who question their credentials as community spokespersons. And they also put up photos of branded wrist watches and costume kits which they keep gifting each other. Now, one might say it’s their life, their personal choice. Why is all that being talked about here? Simply, because the photos are on a social networking site, up for public consumption. And not just that, each photo is part of a larger project that is highlighted through captions and status updates. “Look, we are lesbians and out and have the guts to live life king size and we are an inspiration.” The implication: If you are not out, then you are to be trashed. If you cannot afford brands, you are not worth reckoning. That may be one individual story in one city but tie the commercials, the economy, the State policies and it all adds up to one grand market, another market.
The months of the Delhi High Court ruling and the Stonewall riots are round the corner. There will be high powered marches in several cities across the world and the US consulates will throw pink bashes in five star hotels in these cities, yet again.
Isn’t it ironical that it is time to queer the Queer movement before the market coopts it completely?