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Conde Nast's Priyanka Chopra Cover Is More A Product Of Ignorance Than Insensitivity

Something went awry between intent and execution.

12/10/2016 3:48 PM IST | Updated 12/10/2016 7:34 PM IST
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Screenshots of the controversial Time magazine and Conde Nast Traveller covers.

In May 2012, a particular cover of Time magazine created a storm online and offline with its provocative imagery. It showed an attractive blonde, white Mom breastfeeding her toddler child. What seemed somewhat odd visually were two things: one, the rather stricken, direct stare of the child at the camera lens, and the fact that they were both standing upright, he on a chair to reach her bosom. The headline screamed 'Are you Mom Enough?' and the fine print, which almost no one looked at, questioned the growing trend of attachment parenting.

The cover went viral online, was debated, panned, and defended on TV shows and columns. Feminists made it clear that the cover, while representing an article which purported to critique attachment parenting, actually ended up promoting it. Puritans exclaimed that it made them think of child molestation. Breastfeeding moms wrote in that now they would have an even worse time trying to breastfeed their babies in public spaces. Most of this happened in the US, of course — after all, this was the cover of the magazine's US edition but the ripples were felt throughout the online world. The saga reached an ungainly closure when the mom on the cover bitterly complained about the way she and her child had been presented to the world by Time magazine.

Two days ago when I saw the Conde Nast Traveller (CNT) cover with Priyanka Chopra in wet-hair magnificence and a white vest with the following words crossed out in red: 'refugee', 'immigrant', 'outsider' followed by one uncrossed-out word, 'traveller', I was more than a little discomfited by it. Something had gone entirely awry in the journey between intent and execution. I looked inside to see what the story was about and found PC doing all manner of things that rich celebrities do when they travel. In the CNT interview with PC, she is asked if she likes boat trips. She responds, "Love! For my 30th birthday, I did one in the south of France — Nice, Monaco, Porto Fino — over 10 days with six friends. It was amazing. I think I want to own an island one day."

I looked inside to see what the story was about and found PC doing all manner of things that rich celebrities do when they travel.

On looking at the cover again, my sense of being mystified with it turned to anger. Were the magazine and the celebrity both this insensitive? I tweeted, "The refugee crisis is the worst place to be right now, what were these people thinking?" A number of people wrote in reminding me that after all, Conde Nast is an elitist travel mag. Others said that PC wasn't known for her PCness, anyway. But the cover really rankled. There were of course others, loyal fans of PC, who wrote in to remind me of her philanthropic work.

But that wasn't the point, I tried telling them. At a time when the Syrian refugee crisis is one of the major talking points in every possible forum, the cover seemed insulting to them, to say the least. In our times, these words, 'refugee', 'immigrant', they matter. They are important markers of many identities which the wearer of that label is not willing to eschew for something as privileged, as generic as 'traveller'.

After all, a refugee almost always travels under compulsion. And a migrant or immigrant, too, might feel compelled to travel because of conflict or financial woes. The lack of choice in removing one's home and hearth from the familiar to the alien is one fraught with heartbreak and the feeling of being cornered. Very different from picking out the next attractive destination on your bucket list, and surfing through Airbnb for that perfect place to park oneself. And I am not even talking about celebrity travel here!

They are important markers of many identities which the wearer of that label is not willing to eschew for something as privileged, as generic as 'traveller'.

After a day of tweeting back and forth with people who seemed eager to engage with me about the cover, I was forwarded a sort-of statement that had been put out by Conde Nast explaining that the article had meant to talk about breaking down walls so people can travel more easily. It was then that I was reminded of the 2012 Time article.

I realised then that this is the outcome of a privileged view of a global issue that does not touch the holder of the view in the least, but is perceived as something which ought to feature in their narrative because it is so 'topical'. My first instinct had been right after all. The magazine and the celebrity were not insensitive as much as they were uninformed, lacking in nuance. And something had gone terribly awry between intent and execution.

Like the Mom on the Time cover who seems to be breastfeeding her three-and-a-half year old toddler even in the rather uncomfortable standing-up position, PC wears a t-shirt emblazoned with words that hold deep meaning for a global community which is increasingly visible in their suffering, and then, shock and horror, they are crossed out in red.

I realised then that this is the outcome of a privileged view of a global issue that does not touch the holder of the view in the least, but is perceived as something which ought to feature in their narrative because it is so 'topical'.

An article that purportedly champions free movement across the world ends up sending out the message with its cover that 'only travellers need travel', just like the one that questions attachment parenting, although its cover seems to be saying 'attachment parenting under all circumstances'!

To me, ultimately, it is part of the larger miasma of a lack of connections being made despite all the technical finesse at our fingertips to help us connect the dots. No matter how much the world turns into a village, it will remain a sphere of distant, unbridgeable lands, where bodies of little refugee boys wash up ashore from time to time.

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