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The Vogue Empower Ad Asks But Doesn't Answer

01/04/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Equality! A stylized vector cartoon of a man and a woman being weighed on scales,reminiscent of an old screen print poster and suggesting battle of the sexes, woman's rights, equality, opposites or gender issues,. Man, woman, scales,paper texture and background are on different layers for easy editing. Please note: clipping paths have been used, an eps version is included without the path.

We all know about the Great Internet Cycle of Outrage by now. First comes the event -- in this case Deepika Padukone's #VogueEmpower video -- then the approval ("She speaks for me"), then the backlash ("She represents Bollywood; and Bollywood is not empowering"), and then the backlash to the backlash ("At least she made an effort to speak up, unlike ").

In the last 12 months, Deepika Padukone alone has been through the roller-coaster of this cycle at least twice, and if you include all the other women across the world who dare to go off-script, we seem to live in a perpetual maelstrom of finding a feminist champion and then slowly dismantling her from the pedestal we ourselves put her upon.

But there's more than one side to a story, and this video represents a chance to talk about so many issues at hand (Let's at least give it that!). Here are a few thoughts:

Choices

It is fitting that the video talks about choice, because that, unfortunately, is one thing that women (even the most powerful of Bollywood icons) don't always have. They spend entire careers playing second fiddle and sex objects to much older male actors for a chance to be their own person. Then, just as soon as they turn 30, they are discarded for the next generation of women with little power.

"The video actually displays 99 different faces (of which the only ones we recognise are those with a Bollywood angle). I can see why that's depressing, but the fact is that like every other idea, feminism needs recognisable faces to sell itself."

Deepika Padukone -- along with a select few -- now has the agency to select her roles and co-stars and the clothes she wears in her movies. And it is telling that she has chosen part of this freedom to speak up about issues that matter to her, be it mental health, or a woman's agency over her own body. Just like Aamir Khan's attempts to make a point about our society through Satyamev Jayate, she deserves credit for using the platform of her fame to speak about more than just Cola and Special K. She may not always get everything right, but that doesn't take away from the importance of her message, or her decision to speak up.

Intersectionality

There is a reason feminists harp on the word "intersectionality" -- my experience as an educated heterosexual woman with means is not the same as the experience of India's tribal women; or the experience of women in smaller towns; or the experience of women with disability.

Intersectionality doesn't negate my experience, but it does put it in a perspective that we often forget. When urban feminists argue about wage equality and safety and the right to have children after the age of 35 (as well they should), they often assume they are speaking for the experience of millions of other women who are still struggling for access to health, education and reproductive rights. It is sad that so much of ink and space and glossy production values are spent on our struggle, and not nearly enough on the other issues.

"[W]hile it is ridiculous to expect a viral video to scrap Section 377, say, would it be too much to ask for it to lead to a film that casts Deepika Padukone with an actor five years younger than her, or for Vogue to place Saina Nehwal or Suchi Mukherjee on its May cover?"

Shoot the messenger, not the message

This video comes as a part of Vogue Empower, from a magazine that otherwise continues to peddle the same images of a uniform ideal of beauty and femininity that it contests in this video. On the one hand, kudos to the brand for branching out (Did it really have a "choice"?). On the other hand, would it really kill them to put a woman who "chooses" to be a different body type (forget size 50, even 5 would be a start!) or even a different profession from actress/model on the cover?

It's not just an India/Bollywood thing

Should a Bollywood actress represent Indian feminism? The video actually displays 99 different faces (of which the only ones we recognise are those with a Bollywood angle -- Nimrat Kaur, Adhuna Akhtar and Anupama Chopra). I can see why that's depressing, but the fact is that like every other idea, feminism needs recognisable faces to sell itself. That is why Angelina Jolie gets voted top feminist icon, and young girls start calling themselves feminists after Emma Watson's #HeForShe campaign. One of the things feminism is fighting for is an environment where we could create recognisable women role models outside the world of pop culture. Women need their own Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Sachin Tendulkar. But unfortunately, they continue to be judged primarily for the way they look and the kind of babies they produce. Until that changes, Angelina Jolie and Deepika Padukone will have to do.

Impact

Who is the target for this video? And who has it resonated with it? In large cases, the women who have shared this video, or applauded it, are women who have more agency and freedom than many of their sisters. The video validates their choices, and gives them an easy way to express their displeasure with the world. And while that is not insignificant, it is also not enough.

It is alright to share this video. It is fine to celebrate the inclusion of feminist discourse in Indian pop culture -- even in a preliminary way. But while it is ridiculous to expect a viral video to scrap Section 377, say, would it be too much to ask for it to lead to a film that casts Deepika Padukone with an actor five years younger than her, or for Vogue to place Saina Nehwal or Suchi Mukherjee -- CEO of LimeRoad -- on its May cover?

That is when we know that the video is doing more than just lip service to the idea of choice.

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