Yes, the Vogue Empowerment video was definitely skewed, it only spoke of sexual choices, in relationship, outside of relationship, with respect to consent, judgment of women on the basis of her choice of sex. Yes, it was largely about issues related to sex, her presence within a relationship and even about the misconstrued idea about fidelity and extra-marital affair. Yes, she does not for once talk of a woman’s identity in terms of her professional choices and the sexism and bias she has to face in every such professional endeavor. Her choice to be part of something she believes in, or her choice to not coerce to the hegemonic decisions imposed on her. Her choice to follow a field or belief of her choice, and how choices are created or exercised, (but then the video was a 'short' film) The fact that the video is commissioned by Vogue makes it even more suspect. A magazine that only speaks to rich women of a particular class, a magazine that is abominably responsible for creating impossible beauty standards and then naturalizing them as desired. For airbrushing women and photoshopping their airbrushed skins to remove any speck of reality from it, and then making women aspire to these ‘models’ of beauty, perfection and ideal. And basically creating beauty and presentation as the only relevant qualities to possess in life for any women, that which defines their worth and respect in society. What is also extremely problematic is this extremely niched and ideologically and even ethically misguided magazine appropriating images of tribal or poor women in their video, only through their photographs taken in various other magazines, never once bothering to engage with them more personally. There are unarguably several problems in this video, and the video makers, Homi Adjania, and its participants who have otherwise come out strongly to talk about women’s issues so long as pertaining to them, have to be informed of the people that might have been offended by their apparent “goodwill” message in the video. Yes, they have to evolve, develop their stunted knowledge and advised to move beyond this arrested rhetoric of sexual choice. But to call it sick, I personally feel is highly discouraging, condescending and even mean. Their perceptions are limited, misconstrued and ill understood, however, I also believe at the same time that the intention per se is not worth admonishing and dismissed. It is playing the intellectual card, discriminating on the grounds of understanding the subtle nuances better than the others and then instead of helping them to understand it through constructive criticism downrightly berating them for what it was seeking to stand for.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not in favor of Vogue and the kind of lifestyle and thinking it endorses. I think it is ethically callous and irresponsible for them to create unreal standards of beauty and direct all their content space towards exploring the means and methods for women to become prettier, attractive and be more presentable in world, and constantly reiterate through such limited approach of the paramount importance of these categories. But there are arguably such people too who might buy Vogue not to get ambushed by its obscenely impossible beauty standards but to take tips of fashion from it or maybe get the right kind of makeup or hairstyle. Now would you also tell me, that these women who invest their energies in only trying to look great, and define their lives around that, have to be berated, bullied, and reprimanded for having interest in things that are more superficial, or would you rather instead try to convince and educate them? When we speak of Feminism, we often forget that there are several women who refuse to even acknowledge this term, and we often give a simplistic argument for them being stupid for not understanding the political implication of the term, and therefore being too naïve to understand their own complicity in patriarchy. We often overlook the fact that they might have felt doubly bullied, if at all they tried to appropriate feminism and side with its politics without completely understanding it, both from the men who wrongly interpret the cause and action of feminism and in fact by the better informed and educated feminists themselves who are more readily given to condescension that is available to them through the power of knowledge and information. “Knowledge is power” Foucault has famously quoted, and power is toxic, it is the bane of human existence. While we always wish to locate the negative exploits of power in the ‘other’ we often overlook our own implication in this power game: in our own exploits of power to assert an ego, an identity that sometimes is also limited to self-fulfilling agenda for identity and image formation. Feminism is definitely not merely an intellectual movement, and if it remains to be, it will surely be a defeat of its very founding purpose. But before we go ahead to convince men to understand it, we, who consider ourselves intellectually more nuanced, who have understood the political nature of the power of knowledge and knowledge making, who have sisters, mothers, aunts and friends who don’t understand their own subjugation in several relationships with the men in their lives and have consented to this subjugated status are to be taken together to see the fruition of feminism in its principal. Political movements such as these should be inclusive and cannot be formed with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ categorization. What we are resorting to then is another kind of parochialism, an intellectual parochialism, which might not be seemingly threatening enough yet because it is in its nascent form of development.
Adichie’s novel, Americanah is reflective of this age of heightened intellectualism, that instead of including everyone into a shared dialogue of political issues such as gender, race and class are engaging in exclusivist opinion forming. The dedication to these causes is rather zealous and often times encroaches the territory of one category over another, by imposing the vocabulary of one over the other, often confusing the pragmatic and essential difference between the two and thereby problematizing the politics of both the categories. Her protagonist, Ifemelu is in fact disillusioned to the armchair activism practiced by her boyfriend Blaine, his friend and his sister, who are supporters of the larger cause of racism, but are individuals are mean to Ifemelu and dismissive of her opinions funnily enough about her own experience of racism in the country. She discusses race in her blog, while Adichie discusses gender in the narrative surrounding Ifemelu, trying to understand it through its interactions with the overlapping category of race. Americanah beseeches its readers to extend their perceptive and interpretative capacities to allow a holistic overview of a situation and stock taking before making hasty judgments and commitments to an issue without much deliberation. In this age of heightened political awareness and a social rewarding and positive reinforcement of appreciation for having a politically “correct” and “proper” opinion has further caused for a non-committal hypocrisy to emerge, that is far more corrosive to any political movement than outwardly and visible opposition.
There is in fact overabundance of opinions, an excess of political stances, and at the same time a dearth in willingness to listen, to converse and to form a dialogue. What such an environment then creates is a confusion of excess information with an ever decreasing compassion for those who do not understand the nuances of certain political subtleties that are so imposingly naturalized into us as a norm that we often don’t even consider it abnormal or out of the ordinary to consider for a deeper intellectual engagement. It is also an age of heightened ego formations, with social media platforms such as facebook and twitter being the narratives of our stories, the stories of our lives, opinions and perceptions. We have friends who are often not really friends, acquaintances from different caste, class, creed, gender, race, religion, etc, relatives, both younger and older to us, our teachers and our students, and this forms a very diverse and intellectually varying salad bowl. And while I strongly believe it is a medium of empowerment, I also believe it is one of the most rapidly actualized social revolution. Democratization of information and opinion formation has inarguably given space to people of a certain class with access to internet, and with this newfound platform they should exploit their rights to voice their opinions. But what we also should have learnt with this freedom of intellectual articulation is compassion, and the age old wisdom and virtue of listening. What the blitzing speed of internet does is rush us up to make a response in time enough for it to be heard and acknowledged. And this divests it with critical understanding that comes with involved engagement with it.
What we all must remind ourselves is the simplicity of the principle that infuriates and agitates us: the denial of individuality, subjectivity, agency of self-articulation and even compassion towards difference. This is common across our tirade against issues related to sexism, classicism, racism, caste-ism and other isms. The separate identity markers of class, race, caste are always in a palimpsest with the issue of gender, simultaneously working, and therefore calling for a differential model of understanding, instead a strait jacketed approach; but the basic and the simplest kernel of the matter remains to be the same: lack of understanding and compassion and a disavowal of the voice of this ‘other’, as also imposition of one ideal of thought over another. I am often asked what makes academics useful in the world, what can a few writers who are spatially, temporally, geographically, socially and culturally separated from their readers might have to offer in contemporary times? Do the conferences we hold, the seminars we attend and the papers we present and publish have a bearing in the larger cause of a contribution to humanity by virtue of which it might be deemed as a legitimate payable profession? I say yes, because of the only reason that we have an access to a wider knowledge base than the others, that through our readings we might have equipped ourselves to make more informed opinions if not always more correct. It might not be the duty of an academician to give answers to society’s problems, nor would s/he like to assume such a self-aggrandizing role of being the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’ as Shelley quoted in his Defense of Poetry, and credit might be given to them to get over this self-assuming authority over opinion formation or even legislation. But it is certainly the expectation from an academician, by the very virtue of the essential purpose of the field itself, for a pluralization of opinions to exist and converse with each other in a dialogue to allow new ideas and approaches to emerge. And in this light the response of a few academics to the mistakes made by the filmmakers of the Vogue Empowerment video or the ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary earlier this month has been rather disappointing.
I am very certain that the voices we are so readily eager to dismiss as naïve and incompetent, often do not want to remain so, if sufficiently and compassionately directed (that is if one really wishes to do so, and also allow them a chance), they might consider an alteration in their approach, a more nuanced and a more informed manner of looking at things and being conscious of it in the future. It might not materialize, they might not listen, but then, to have a constructive dialogue is to allow for change to be conceivable. But to deem them irremediable is a defeat of the very purpose of raising awareness. While voicing resentment is absolutely necessary, this resentment should not become exclusivist and solipsistic. If we wish to mobilize on issues such as feminism, we might just do disservice to the frail attempts by movies as the one made by Vogue, or the documentary about Nirbhaya that was similarly vehemently criticized earlier. While the information reservoir of both these filmmakers might be limited, and their commissioning authorities extremely suspect and cringe-worthy, I am merely thrilled for them to at least start to begin making the noise with the platform given to them. We as literary and social critics can in fact make for these misguided and flawed attempts more pruned, and self-conscious. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ parochialism then based on the relative access to intellect and information of one group over another has to be given up in the favor of extending the boundaries of the ‘us’ to include as many people as possible for social change to be possible.