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Quaint category, or a right to be?

4 April 2008
Posted in: Social issues | 11 Comments

Which is worse — being openly prejudiced and shouting your opinion from the rooftops, or being so insensitive as to subtly but inexorably grind a knife in and not realize it?

Virgin Mobile have recently come up with a series of ads that encourage you to ‘think hatke’ (differently). In one of these, a young woman tricks her parents into getting permission to go on a trip with her (presumably) boyfriend by first pretending to be gay. It puts the parents into such a tizzy that they insist she must go to Goa with a certain Tensing, including the logic, ‘He’s a boy, must be good.’

Most people find this ad hilariously funny, not realizing how it subtly reinforces some dangerous stereotypes. It’s not funny if all of us are not laughing. Some of us can’t.

I have been accused of over-analysing the ad, but the very fact that someone immediately assumed I’d have an objection to it even before I brought it up suggests that there probably is an objectionable aspect to it. (Interestingly, some of the reactions I got were similar to the way a lot of men get defensive when unable to see or admit to a feminist viewpoint.) And why should we not analyse it? We seem to analyse nothing in our society — not corruption, not the irresponsible media, not even our irresponsible selves… A particular characteristic of our way of life is our ‘chalta hai’ attitude, which loosely translates into ‘anything goes’. Mostly we care little about all that concerns society at large; we are too apathetic to take a stand against anything that doesn’t affect us directly.

Back to the subject at hand, someone also pointed out that it actually makes fun of homophobia itself, as the girl uses her parents’ fears to get her own way. But it is the reason that makes something like this funny that I have a problem with.

As a society, we have far too many other problems for LGBT activism to have ever been centre stage. Because of which far too much ignorance exists on the matter. Sexuality is not a lifestyle choice. And how ever much one wishes to have lived in the 51st century when, according to science fiction at least, ‘straight’, ‘gay’, ‘bi’, etc. are just ‘quaint categories’, it doesn’t make reality go away.

Somebody mentioned that I should just let it go. Why highlight it? After all, we know the media has sold its soul and not even a veneer of responsiblity exists any longer. Well, my understanding is, why ever not? This is a case where ignorance isn’t bliss and certainly not forgiveable either. Generations of LGBT activists have fought for the basic dignity of being acknowledged as human beings living, working, and contributing to the same society; of having the same wants and desires, the same fears, the same needs, and one little joke raked up all those prejudices that we are all supposed to be putting behind us. Would Virgin Mobile have joked about race or religion?

Of course, we live in the land of Section 377, which as Sanjay Kumar of the activist-feminist Pandies theatre group so succinctly put, ‘could punish us for having sex with ourselves’. The term ‘hetero-normative’ takes on a whole new meaning when applied to Indian society. The right and wrong of what is socially acceptable is so deeply hammered into us that most of us live our lives without being able to imagine there could be valid alternatives.

And what of the very age group the ad targets? Those men and women trying to come to terms with being ‘different’ through no fault of their own, yet being reminded by a social structure and a very rigid cultural conditioning system that they are somehow not ‘normal’ at worst, and less acceptable at best? All right, this might be going into the over-analytical zone (and, after all, anything we don’t like about ourselves can be blamed on parents, right, as Phillip Larkin said?), but here’s a basic concept of communication defied, one of the first lessons we learn, in fact — when you are reaching out, do not actively alienate any group.

Funnily enough, I had initially misinterpreted the ad, thinking that Tensing was a woman, and she had manipulated her parents into an outing with her girlfriend (which might actually be true, though unlikely). Even though that would still make the ad homophobic, it was a pleasant surprise to find an acknowledgement of LGBT space in the mainstream media. Yes, there’s such a thing as too much optimism!

This was especially interesting to juxtapose against a very hard-hitting and emotional play put on by the Pandies group at IIT Kanpur on 30 March about a lesbian working-class couple, and the prejudice and abuse they suffered for no other reason than having loved each other. Scripted and directed by Sanjay Kumar, it was one of a three-play performance that is usually performed under the title ‘Danger Zones’, and was based on a year-long research conducted on lesbian couples in the slums of Delhi.

Each act started with the words, ‘Yeh meri kahani hai. Ek prem kahani hai. Main Nafisa se bahut pyar karti hoon’ (This is my story. This is a love story. I love Nafisa very much [feminine verb]). It sent a chill down one’s spine as one waited for the moment when it would slip into past tense.

It was disturbingly forthright in its telling, and left most of the audience near tears. The language was brutally hard, the portrayal pulled no punches, held nothing back, depicting in stark realism the prejudice, ridicule and abuse that stalked the couple for decades. To quote from the Alfaaz website, the play explored:

the travails of the couple from childhood to middle-age facing the onslaughts of patriarchy (its tools of marriage and family) and right-wing hatred… castigated, ridiculed, even raped for being different; to be rejected by patriarchy (society) for being unable to conform.

Even though the lovers suffered a break-up of sorts, when one of the women’s husband was killed and she was left destitute (remember, we are talking of slums and extreme poverty here), her former lover returned to help. A specially telling remark was whena local bhais (rowdies, as they call them here) threatened to have them booked under Section 377, one of the women remarked, ‘Mil kar kamate hain, baant kar khaate hain’ (We earn together, and eat together). They were poor, but they were productive, contributing members of society, bringing up two children in a household that was perhaps more egalitarian and free of prejudice that most of us in the safety of our middle-class cocoons, strutting our labels of being ‘educated’, could ever hope to provide our children.

So while Virgin Mobile may in its narrow world-view have subtly but surely undermined some of the understanding and acceptance many of my gay, lesbian and bisexual friends had begun to garner in a very warped society, one hopes that activist groups like Pandies theatre will do far more to sensitize us to all that lies under our noses but we refuse to see.

~PD

11 Responses

  1. Marie says:

    Heh, guess which phone service I use?

    Actually, some of their Christmas commercials a few years ago had gotten some bad press (not a lot, and rather limited) because some had assumed it was insulting religion(s). In retrospect, I can see how maybe they would think that: they were being overly politically correct in a way to avoid being accused of being discriminatory to one religion over another, and at the same time making fun of the notion of political correctness.

    Personally, I think they did a good job of it. However, such moves can be dangerous and I think the company on a whole tends to lean towards being a little too “edgy”.

    This ad campaign you speak of, I can see how they wanted it to be funny, but I can also see your point. When trying to mock a culture you have to be careful how you do it, otherwise you only end up reinforcing it.

    My question would be: why did she have to use *that* method to trick her parents? Such an act implies there is something wrong with being a lesbian. Jokes that make fun of a race or sex can be “funny” but that doesn’t mean a company should use them. Same goes for slights against a group such as LGBT or others like them.

  2. Niklas says:

    Niklas have actually had advanced thoughts lately about a similar subject! :O It is true. He has wondered if there can ever be a standard that defines how much one should respect other people.

    Too much might be bad because then to do something, you’d have to ok it with everyone in the whole world… And too little might make everyone in the whole world upset at you. Niklas could not come to a clever conclution though because he was busy watching anime. He’ll have to get back on that later… he might throw in world peace and a cure for aids while he’s at it.

    Anyhow, I fear the comercial was a succes with Buggling, as long as you spelled the name of the company right. No publicity is bad publicity *pets*

  3. Anonymous says:

    I admit that I found the Virgin Mobile ad funny too. However, this does not take away from the fact that the media and market are using homophobia to sell their product. That they have to be made aware of their social responsibility – not just vis-a-vis sexuality, but also gender, caste and what have you – is stating the obvious, and any efforts towards doing so must be encouraged and appreciated.

    “Taking things too seriously” or “being opinionated” are considered to be phrases that have negative connotations, especially among the middle classes. And when it comes to women, these phrases acquire a larger dimension which cuts across class, caste and race. To jolt this segment of society (the middle classes)out of its reverie has always been and will continue to be an uphill task for a long time to come. 🙂

  4. Kat says:

    To Niklas Nik: *fightfight!* 😉 I know you weren’t really complaining about hearing Bug’s complaint, but it reminded me of people who aren’t thinking things out and instead just get annoyed. I think people like to get angry at the squeaky wheel unless that wheel is themselves. But a lot of times they get all caught up in being annoyed, and they don’t look at whether or not the other person has a point. I know I have been guilty of that.

    There is such a thing as bad publicity if people decide not to buy from them anymore because of it!

    @Buggly: I don’t think asking companies not to be discriminatory is too much to ask. I’m with Marie in questioning whether they really meant to offend, but I don’t think it’s too hard to just try to imagine how things might effect the people they are making the slurs against. Is it truly advantageous to isolate a portion of their potential market just to make some people giggle? I’m sure they could think of some other “funny” ways of getting attention.

  5. Payal says:

    Well, that’s the part I find sad — that they probably didn’t mean to offend, and couldn’t see why it could or should offend.

  6. Marie says:

    To be fair, it can be hard to know what will offend. I mean, I know I’ve probably offended people and been too stupid to realize, simply because I’m not a part of their world. In reality, you can’t assume everyone knows what is politically correct to say or do, just because it seems obvious to you.

    The answer, of course, would be to not do anything that could be considered offensive. However, since chances are someone will find something to be offended about, that would lead to a rather boring world. It’s a tricky balance, to be sure, and I think Virgin dropped the ball here, but I don’t think it’s an easy ball to handle at any rate.

    I’m going to have to side with Niklas on the publicity front: there might be people who won’t go with Virgin because of such ads, but there are a whole lot of people who will because it’s “funny” and entertaining. The more press they get, the more chances of getting a new customer.

  7. Swapna says:

    Ah, finally the feed worked.

    And while I know I was the the someone referred to in some of the instances above, and still think that the issue of homophobia needs to be tackled at other levels rather than at these, the point is valid – I think what you’re trying to arrive at is how do you draw a line between the acceptable and not. Fair point – you can’t suddenly switch from being wrong to being right by turning the regulator knob!

    Though to be honest, the way I read that ad is, that we should laugh at ourselves for being guilty of such silliness – bit like how the British poke fun at themselves (although I’ll probably be inviting the comment that the British wouldn’t allow the ad to be screened).

  8. Payal says:

    (Okay, I ended up deleting my earlier comment somehow, so here goes again, if I remember everything!)

    Well, you’re not the only “someone” who said that, but I wasn’t taking names, but now you’ve gone and ID-ed yourself!

    And yeah, I see your point about laughing at ourselves! And also about just laughing at what’s funny. I mean, we laugh at Will and Grace, right? We don’t call it homophobic? The ad is funny, I know that, and it’s only the rigid stupidity in society that makes it so; just that the whole right/wrong aspect rankled.

    Well, there are a lot of things to get hot and bothered about, and I have a few items on my list. Like I said, I rediscovered my activist/feminist streak recently. I know I can’t change the world, I’ll just deal with shifting a few pebbles 😉

  9. purple rain says:

    and i thought i was the only person who found that AD offensive! thank goodness there are others, i was beginning to think that most peopl eare dead in the brain for laughing at that. i don’t think you’re over analysing it at all.

    and i’m glad you liked the performance in Kanpur. I’m part of the group, so it always feels nice to see such that we’re connecting 🙂

  10. Payal says:

    Hi Purple Rain, and thanks for the voice of support. The ones who found the ad offensive are few and far between. Thankfully, it seems to be off air now, so maybe someone’s brain got zapped back into life!

    Were you in the performance at Kanpur? I’m really bad with names, so no point asking that, but which parts did you play?

  11. purple rain says:

    hey payal, yes… i was glad to notice it’s gone too!

    yep, was at kanpur..i’m the production In-charge…and i played the mother in the Mrinalini episode. 🙂

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