For my Father

Feeling much gratitude for my father today, as he steps in to help us out of a bind. There is something about his quiet presence that makes me feel like I can accomplish anything. So in his honor, I would like to share an essay I wrote last Father’s Day (originally posted at Wordydoodles)…

My parents, c. 1973

This Father’s Day I am very lucky – not only is Jaspret celebrating his second year of double fatherhood, but my parents have been staying with us this week, and so I’ll be able to toast my own dad in person rather than over the phone! The kids have been excited all week at the prospect of taking Nana to their school’s Father’s Day Breakfast, and Noons even asked her teachers if she could make a special drawing for him: her rendition of her beloved grandfather’s face with a caption that reads “I love my Nana because… sometimes he gives me water.”

This is particularly hilarious because in fact, Noons’s Nana does EVERYTHING for her and her brother (above and beyond keeping them hydrated). When we wanted to take Noons to the zoo for the first time, it was Nana who volunteered to stay with Nickles so she could enjoy herself without the distraction of an adorable, but rather moody brother in full throes of the “terrible twos.” When the babes started school a few months ago, it was their Nana who came down to stay for two weeks to ease the transition, who took them to school on their first day, and who sat with Noons while she completed her first homework assignment. And when Nickles was very young and couldn’t fall asleep, it was Nana who walked him around for hours in his arms until his eyes finally closed.

And I wouldn’t expect anything less from him! My dad did all the same things for me and my brother, Sameer. My memories of childhood are replete with little moments that have added up to the constant undercurrent of unconditional love, support, and groundedness that my father has provided for both of us. I don’t think I could have survived these first years of new parenting, with all its emotional ebbs and flows, fatigue, and sacrifices, if I didn’t have my father’s example to inspire me, his advice to guide me, and his infallible confidence in the values and ethics he and my mother have instilled in us to anchor me.

As a culture, we seem to always be debating, discussing, dissecting, and representing motherhood. The recent brouhaha over Amy Chua’s memoir, Tiger Mother, is a good case in point. The internet and airwaves were ablaze with analysis of the types of mothering we have collectively seen, experienced, benefited (and in some cases had to therapeutically recover) from. While the crux of the debate was the (false) dichotomy between Eastern and Western styles of mothering, there was at least some room for more nuanced analysis of the multitudinous forms mothering can come in. What is also interesting to note is that throughout mothering served as the metonym for all types of parenting, and that in fact, a critical discussion of fathering never really ensued. Chua’s husband, when mentioned at all, came to stand in for a lax, emotive, “Western” style of parenting, and Asian/ Asian-American fathers fell out of the picture completely.

But in a way, that’s not really surprising at all. Certainly, representations of Asian mothers are still plagued by caricatures (hello, “Tiger Mother”??) and an Orientalist paradigm of tradition versus modernity, but as I mentioned, we’re beginning to see more richly textured portrayals of mothers and mothering, particularly in the diaspora. I don’t know if the same can be said for representations of Asian fathers. Speaking specifically about representations of Indian fathers in Bollywood, Hollywood, and diasporic films and literature, besides a few notable exceptions (a big shout out here to Geeta Malik’s film, Troublemaker, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, which in very different ways provide us with touching, complex, and very real portraits of South Asian men) I would argue that we’re still locked into a polarized vision of Indian fatherhood. On one hand, you have the glorified patriarch of Bollywood films (i.e. every Amitabh Bhachan film since his comeback), the imposing figure whose wisdom guides his ever extending family through the dangers and hurdles of a rapidly changing world. On the other, of course, is the “Desi dad villian,” the traditional father whose inability to deal with the shifting economic and social realities of migration and liberalization leave him emotionally bereft and often violently protective of whatever shreds of patriarchal power he still imagines himself to hold.

Yes, without a doubt, stories do need to be told about the kinds of violence that exist in our community. But stories also need to be told about all the various avatars fathers come in as well, about all the other creative ways men deal with the exigencies of migration and modernity. I always felt that my own dad was missing from the repertoire of representations I would see and read. He grew up in Halol, a small town in Gujarat, the eldest of six siblings. As the eldest, he helped his mother with nearly all the household tasks – bringing fruits and vegetables, getting them ready for dinner, taking care of his brothers and sisters. His village did not have electricity until he was in high school, but this was no reason not to excel, coming first to Baroda for higher education, and then Bombay, Utah (BYU), and eventually Toronto, where he and my mother settled after their marriage.

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Growing up, my father was always engaged in our lives. He was ready to play the minute he came back from work, and always sat down with us when it was time to do our homework. Wiffle ball, Mille Bornes, Monopoly, algebra, trigonometry, the science fair project where I experimented with exhaust fumes and plant growth (??), you name it, Dad could do it. But it was not just games and homework, my father was the one who helped me pick out fabric to make my first quilt, who comforted me when my homemade prom dress turned out a hot mess and then convinced me to give it another try (the same could be said for boys I suppose), who gave me my first feminist lesson in the unjust and purposeless nature of cheerleading (I ended up joining the basketball team instead). He came to every award ceremony, cheered me through every decision I made in college, and encouraged me when I chose to go to graduate school to obtain my degree in English literature (while other men of his age and background questioned why I needed to get a Ph.D. in English when I already spoke English or condescendingly referred to my profession as a “little job”). He moved me to Michigan and then, without one word of admonishment, moved me back to Irvine when I realized I was perhaps a California girl after all. And still, to this day, he is the one I turn to read my work, to remind my why I got into this field, and to give me hope and, more importantly, perspective, when I feel like my future isn’t what I once thought it would be.

So, this Father’s Day, I celebrate my husband and my father, two men whose incredible devotion to their families and children defy stereotypes and continue to make me strive to be a better woman.
Posted in Diaspora, Parenting | Tagged , | 5 Comments

“Creating Disturbances”: What I Wish I Had Said

You know that nagging feeling you get when you know you should have said something but you didn’t?

The other evening, a few friends and I encountered an affable young man who engaged us in conversation. Somehow we got onto the topic of some popular film or other. I mentioned that I had found it incredibly boring and a good example of Hollywood-style masculine self-indulgence. Apparently this touched a nerve. Getting animated, he declared that *this* was the problem with feminism. For too long feminists had been teaching young men that they had to be ashamed of their masculinity. No more. That is why he now defines himself as a MISOGYNIST.

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I’m not kidding – exact words. “What the WHAT????? Do you even know what a misogynist is? I don’t think you are saying what you think you are saying,” we challenged. And yet he pressed on. He was not going to let a group of “girls” (a good ten years older than him at least) tell him he had completely misconstrued not only feminism but also the meaning of this term he was going to so boldly RE-APPROPRIATE (his words). We went back and forth a bit, but I could feel some tension in the room and backed off, giving one of those “it’s all good, no harm done,” smiles. No one wants to be accused of ruining the mood.

In her book, The Promise of Happiness, and essay “Creating Disturbances,” Sara Ahmed explores the consequences of our cultural obsession with happiness as a marker of life-worth. She brilliantly exposes that way in which the pursuit of happiness becomes an imperative that “demands that others live according to a wish” (“Creating Disturbances,” 31). In other words, when we make the state of happiness the primary goal of our own lives as well as others (particularly children, partners, friends, and those who live in close proximity to us), we push upon them an emotional state this is contingent on the acceptance of socially constructed practices, behaviors, and conditions as if they are universally agreed upon (for example, the cliche that only “true love” can bring happiness). Furthermore, we (often unintentionally) police those who question or choose not to abide by these norms when we attempt to cajole them out of other emotions they may be feeling or admonish them for bringing everyone else down (I realize I do this with my own children, against my best intentions).

Those who choose to feel differently than their communities risk being alienated from them; “we become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience happiness in proximity to objects that are attributed as being good” (34). Feminists have long been the target of this type of social policing and Ahmed remarks on the long history of the figure of the “feminist killjoy.”

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You know, the one who audibly sighs when “Mr. and Mrs. [man’s full name]” is announced at the beginning of a wedding reception, or critiques the rampant Orientalism of The Mummy while you are sitting with her in the movie theater, or points out the man-obsessed through line of every SATC episode, who embarrasses you by staring down “mansplainers” at coffee shops, or who takes the bait of the belligerent uncle when he vociferously declares that Obama is a Muslim? Alright, clearly all those examples are my own, but you get the point. While I may have not been called a “killjoy,” the rolling eyes, and warnings “not go there,” and admonishments after the fact taught me – at a young age – that it’s best to hold your tongue to keep the peace. Ahmed relates much of the same personal story, and then – on a more general level – gives the example of a young bride who is pressured to smile on her wedding day even as she negotiates the irrational and oppressive demands of family members and participates in social rituals that offend her sensibilities, because after all, the happiness and enjoyment of all the guests depends on her emotional state. So she pushes back all the fears, the questions, and the concerns, reapplies her lipstick and smiles.

(I wonder if perhaps there was a similar calculation happening in President Obama’s mind as Governor Romney accused him of pushing the health care bill through Congress in a dictatorial fashion in relation to Romney’s own “glowing” record of bipartisan cooperation. Did he bite his tongue and swallow back “that’s because your party has decided to completely refuse to do the work of governance in a childish bid to take back power at the expense of not only the American people, but your OWN POLICIES?” because he knew that if he forthrightly challenged Romney on that stage he would be labeled an “Angry Black Man” and accused of being divisive?)

One response to the bad rep that feminism has gotten is to propose that the new feminism is “about letting everyone live however they want.” I hear this well-intentioned notion at least once every time I ask “what does feminism mean to you?” at the beginning of introductory courses. While this idea fits nicely into our politically correct culture (it offends no one – how could it?) it also doesn’t really accomplish anything. By making the question into one of personal choice, it sidesteps the issue of structural injustice and allows the status quo to simply maintain. “Oh, you say you’re a misogynist? Well, that’s your prerogative [insert smiley face emoticon]!”

Instead, Ahmed offers a provocative (re)definition of feminism: the introduction of disturbance into this moral and gendered economy (38-9). In other words, what if instead of smiling and moving on at those moments when condescension and offense rear their ugly heads to patrol the borders of someone’s privilege, we reign in our ingrained tendency to smile, nod, and wave it off, and instead get up and shout, “YOU ARE TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR MIND IF YOU THINK I’M GOING TO LET YOU GET AWAY WITH THIS OFFENSIVE BULLSH*T!!!!!”? Maybe it would have ruined the mood. Or maybe it would have led us all to question the normative expectations that have been hoisted upon us. And then maybe if I would be catching up on “Parks and Recreation” rather than writing this post.

Works Cited:

Ahmed, S. (2010). “Creating disturbance: Feminism, happiness and affective differences”. Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences. M. L. a. S. Paasonen. London, Routledge: 31-44.

Posted in Mansplaining | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Little Job

For some reason, this particular conversation has stayed with me. Not because it was the only one of its kind, but because of that phrase: “little job.” It suggested not only that everything I believed in so passionately – teaching, learning, literature – didn’t amount to all that much in terms of real world importance, but moreover, that in the final analysis it was fine that a young woman pursue such a goal because it was only a matter of time before she would have to prioritize caring for her children and household.

“Little Job”:

It must have been early summer in 2000. A welcome breeze surreptitiously entered the crowded room as someone ducked out the door to exit, a drink or two in her hands. The community clubhouse was filled to capacity with heavily perfumed women in saris and men in rumpled shirts, suit jackets having been disposed of by this point in the party. My friends and I were making our way through the group, being embraced by aunties and uncles who had known us nearly all our lives but who we hadn’t seen in the years we were away at college.

“So beta,” one such uncle began, “what are you doing now, after graduation?”

“I’ll be going to graduate school!” I beamed, just having received my coveted acceptance into a Ph.D. program in English.

“Oh, very good. What will you be studying? Medicine? Law?” he trailed off, satisfied perhaps that he had exhausted all possibilities.

“English,” I responded, still glowing with naïve pride at my hard-earned acceptance.

His face changed. “English, huh? We’ll have to watch how we talk around you!” he chuckled.

“Yeah, not grammar, English literature.” And then in an effort to regain his diminishing admiration, “I want to be an English professor.”

And that – as they say – was that. “Oh good, you’ll have a nice little job.” He patted me on the back (need I add patronizingly) and went on his way.

For some reason, this particular conversation has stayed with me. Not because it was the only one of its kind, but because of that phrase: “little job.” It suggested not only that everything I believed in so passionately – teaching, learning, literature – didn’t amount to all that much in terms of real world importance, but moreover, that in the final analysis it was fine that a young woman pursue such a goal because it was only a matter of time before she would have to prioritize caring for her children and household.

I had spent much of my life challenging just these kinds of heterosexist assumptions. My default proto-feminist position, crafted, polished, and shined as a defense against the patriarchal ideologies of womanhood I found in all the cultures in which I moved, was to declare that I simply had no interest in marriage or motherhood. Other girls may waste their afternoons fantasizing about dashing Prince Charmings, gyrating Bollywood Heroes, and lavish weddings. Not me! I was spending those same precious moments building elaborate fantasies in which I (looking suspiciously like a browner Anne of Green Gables) ventured off to Nova Scotia to attend Redmond College and later, brilliantly expounded on little known literary texts while wearing perfectly burnished tan leather boots in London.

And then ish got real. In my case, that meant graduating with a Ph.D. in English Literature during the worst economic downturn in recent history. It also meant finding an amazing partner and having two beautiful children. So now, twelve years since that damningly frustrating conversation, I find myself once again deliberating the meaning of having a “little job.”

I began lecturing part-time because of a confluence of factors: the position was only funded part-time despite initial hopes of a full-time visiting professor position and I had a new two-month old baby. Since I explicitly do not want this to be fodder for the superficial “mommy wars,” I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of working versus staying at home as if these are choices that all parents are able to make or that they are diametrically opposed. I am privileged in that, financially, my paltry pay (barely enough to cover child care for the hours I’m at work) is not a radical detriment to my family. However, after four years of teaching as an adjunct, I’ve also come to understand the exploitative nature of part-time academic work, as well as the joys of teaching and being with my children. But what I’m faced with, time and again, is the discomfiting realization that accomplishments in the classroom, hours spent advising brilliant students who are involved in meaningful activism, teaching, and study, and even publications and conference presentations do not matter to administrators nor to many prospective employers who will read the four, five, six-year position of lecturer on my CV as evidence of someone who prioritized her family over academia.

I take what I do as a lecturer very seriously, and I think my evaluations, the emails and messages I receive from students, and the rapport we have in the classroom (whether physical or online) would prove this to be true. I also take parenting very seriously, and I hope the little people we are raising will prove this to be true as well. But every time I’m reminded, “People stop looking at your CV after five years or so,” “Don’t fall into the ‘lecturer trap’!” or told, “You are so much better than this,” by those who really do care about me, not to mention, “It’s nice that you get some time out of the house,” by well-meaning people who have no damn clue what they are talking about, I am forced to confront all my fears of being circumscribed by the life choices I was expected to make and against which I fought so hard.

In the beginning I wondered if I had failed all of those who had invested so much time in my education and growth. I wondered if I had failed to live up to the feminist ideals by which I have navigated my life. How can I stand up in front of my students and talk about the ideology of separate spheres and the necessity of economic security while I am willingly taking a “little job” in order to provide care for my children in a way that is meaningful for me and keep them close to their extended family? But in fact, the other day in my Introduction to Women’s Studies class, as we discussed transfeminist Julia Serano’s call to reclaim femininity, it suddenly became clear to me that while I may have been capably teaching feminist theory all this time, I had been misapplying it to my own case and instead had thoroughly internalized the sexist dismissal of what has traditionally been considered “women’s work” that so infuses our social and economic thinking.

Sure, our society celebrates motherhood: we have a self-proclaimed “Mom-in-chief,” Mother’s Day, hell, even a genre of so-called porn just for us (IT’S SO BAD). But of course the cult of motherhood that has taken over American popular culture is a consumerist fantasy of worth that superficially covers over the reality of economic and social devaluation of caregiving and the simultaneous compulsion of heteronormativity in our culture. Although there have been significant shifts in the public culture, there remains at the root of how we understand ourselves the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. This ideology argued that the social landscape was divided into two spheres, the public and the private. The public sphere was the world of capitalist commerce, of political participation, of government, of war, of travel, of great debates and even more radically world-changing ideas. The private sphere was the much smaller domain of the family, of religious and cultural instruction, of reproductive and domestic labor, of love. Victorians used an array biologically determinist arguments to claim that men properly belonged to the public sphere (at least propertied white men), and women to the private (although of course, large segments of racially Othered and poor white women always worked outside the home). If women ventured out of the private sphere it was for shopping, to cultivate their person, their home, and their children as indicators of the social status of their men.

It was against this mapping of gender roles onto the social landscape that white, middle-class feminists like Betty Friedan rallied so forcefully in the 1960s. (Middle-class) women were told that they were “angels in the house,” that they were valued so much by their society that they were put upon pedestals to be protected from the increasingly ugly, grueling, dirty, but oh-so-lucrative world of capitalist profit making. They were love embodied, a pure essence to offset earthly greed and ambition. They toiled and labored in the home, they sacrificed their bodies and their minds out of love for their families, to ask for compensation in dollars was crass, a violation of affective ties. But this conception of femininity was a mystique – a myth that served to undergird capital’s ruthless treatment of its workers, to control female reproduction in the interest of reproducing the middle-class social body as the true beneficiaries of the state, and to create new generations of consumers that literally bought into the ideals of the “American Dream.” Educated women should not be languishing at home, declared Friedan. They should be able to pursue the same goals as their male counterparts, to achieve the same level of monetary success and social prestige. In fact, the idea that women should be able to do what the men do still lies at the heart of Caitlin Moran’s definition of feminism in her much lauded  feminist manifesto, How to Be a Woman.

When it is discussed at all, this is what feminism is taken for in our mainstream cultural discourse. But, is that really all it is: trying to get what (middle-class, straight) men have historically had access to? Surely there must be more than that, for as bell hooks reminds us in Feminism is for Everybody, the reason why so many working-class, poor, queer women/of color never took up the mantle of feminism was that it seemed to be about a bunch of middle-class women trying to attain the privileges their men had, at the expense of everyone else, whose labor would still be needed to do all the things that these women were no longer willing to do. Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild talk about the new sexual division in our society as being organized by race and geography. We like to pride ourselves here in the U.S. that we have achieved gender equality, but the reality is that we still organize work in a hierarchical manner, with affective (that is, body-centered, emotional) labor at the bottom and salaried professional labor (mind-centered) at the top. As middle-class women move into salaried jobs, they are still held accountable for what happens at home. In order to fulfill the double responsibilities of home and work, they hire mostly poor, migrant women of color to do the so-called women’s work in the home: caring for children and the elderly, making meals, and cleaning the home.

Let me be clear: I am one of these middle-class women. My partner is equally committed to the responsibilities of the home, but because he works full time, I rely on other women to care for my children when I’m working outside of the home, and to clean the house twice a month so that I can be freed up to lesson plane, grade, and write while at home. I strive to honor and value these women, but as a society we all fail to do so. Domestic workers are among the most invisible and exploited workers in our economy. And just over the weekend, our California governor, Jerry Brown, vetoed a domestic workers bill that would have secured this mostly female labor force with some of the same safety measures afforded other workers.

By and large, says Julia Serano, feminists have accepted those behaviors, practices, and types of labor associated with masculinity as their de facto ideal. She writes with great passion about the trivialization and targeting of transwomen within both feminist and queer circles as well within the society at large for being somehow inauthentic or dupes to patriarchal norms, what she calls “trans-misogeny.”

“It is commonplace for people in the straight mainstream as well as within our queer and feminist circles to presume the feminine gender expression is more frivolous, artificial, impractical, and manipulative than masculine gender expression and those of us who dress or act femininely are likely to be more tame, fragile, dependent, and immature than our masculine or ‘gender-neutral’ counterparts” (“Reclaiming Femininity,” 170).

We can see this so easily in society: why is it that we applaud little girls who would rather play sports than play with dolls, but reprimand boys who would rather dress up in high heels and makeup than play rough and tumble outside? Femininity continues to be the denigrated, whether through the dismissal of “femme skills,” like makeup application and stylizing as trivial and unauthentic (as explained in a brilliant post by Marianne), or the dismissal of caregiving in the home by parents of any gender as mindless, easy, or “not really working.” What if we took up Serano and Marianne’s call to rethink how we understand femininity? Not as tied to particular bodies defined by sex and gender but rather by traits, affinities, pleasures, and practices? Julia Serano is writing specifically about the particular history, positioning, and exclusion of transwomen within mainstream society as well as feminism, and I am concerned about co-opting her theorization for the purposes of working through my own heteronormative, middle-class issues. But I firmly believe that the type of feminism that I aspire to has much to gain from reading radical black feminists like hooks along with transfeminists like Serano, and that more selfishly, I have a lot to learn about how I value the various kinds of labor in which I am engaged.

Can I come to realize that many of my misgivings about the choices I have made to engage in part-time work while raising my young children are a product of socialization to value what a patriarchal, capitalist society has told us we should value (ambition, financially profit, and intellectual labor), at the expense of all of those practices we intuitively know make a lasting impact in peoples’ lives (listening, teaching, learning from, caring, loving, nurturing, feeding, playing)? How we prove that value as a society (through monetary compensation, through governmental benefits, through a re-energized social safety net?) is something we need to work on, immediately. How I prove the value of my “little job(s)” to myself is something that’s going to take me a while to figure out. In fact, by the end of this post, I’m questioning it all over again…

Dedicated to Jennifer Terry and Laura Kang who understood all of this long before I did.

Works Cited:

Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy,” Globalization: The Transformation of Social Worlds, Eds. D. Stanley Eitzen and Maxine Baca Zinn (Wadsworth Publishing, 3d edition, 2011): 188.

bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: A Passionate Politics (MA: Southend Press, 2000).

Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman (Harper Collins, 2012).

Julia Serano, “Reclaiming Femininity,” Transfeminist Perspectives: In and Beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, ed. Anne Enke (Temple UP, 2012): 170-83.

Marianne, “I’m Tired of Apologizing for Liking Girl Stuff (i.e. Femme Skills),” XO Jane (Feb. 27, 2012): http://www.xojane.com/issues/why-i-talk-about-makeup.

Posted in Academia, Parenting, Pedagogy | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

The Most Beautiful Woman in the World

“The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” published in Little India Magazine. An essay about mothers and daughters, glamour, and growing up Indian American.

Posted in Diaspora, Fashion and Style | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Creating an online learning environment

Last semester I taught online for the first time. Online learning is clearly one of the biggest trends in higher education. While it does not present itself as the optimum medium for the kinds of hands on teaching and learning we do in the Humanities classroom, there are many ways you can use platforms like Moodle to create a classroom environment that is dynamic and collaborative. Check out this short introduction to my award-winning “Gender and Globalization” course currently featured on CSUF’s Online Academic Strategies and Instructional Support website!

Titanium Tutorial

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Diva Orientalism: It’s All about You!

The other day I was standing in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s when this caught my eye:

 
Card designed by Rachel Newcomb
At first glance I thought that TJ’s, perhaps realizing a niche market, had crafted a card to celebrate Diwali (a little early sure, but for only $.99)! Looking closer, I realized that the card was actually celebrating a birthday, and that the “you” who “it’s all about” was in fact a slinky strawberry blond. Perched in a gold palanquin atop a bedecked elephant, our heroine (the “Diva of the Day”) holds up a luscious piece of layered chocolate cake while Indian servants and harem dancers form a train of revelers below, strewing the ground with rose petals, fanning our be-jeaned beauty lest she sweat in the hot sun, and carrying what we may presume to be a sultan’s treasure trove of presents behind her.

Now clearly, strawberry blonds, like every other consumer niche, deserve birthday cards too (in fact, I have a few recipients in mind already!). What is striking however, is the choice of scene and the details of her special birthday celebration. Is it simply that the Indian-inflected motifs make for a pleasing, eye-catching aesthetic? I would argue that when we take into consideration the prevalence of this scene in popular culture, particularly fashion photography and film, and then, when we look at the long history of this scene (stretching back to the late eighteenth century!), we are talking about something that has sustained cultural currency – that is telling us something about how the relationship between West and East, between the white woman in the palanquin and the Indian people on the ground below is understood.

Edward Said famously coined the term “Orientalism” in 1979 to demonstrate the manner by which an idea of the “Orient” (variously North Africa, Middle East, and South Asia) was consolidated in the nineteenth century as European colonial expansion in these areas ramped up. A confluence of historical, literary, medical, and juridical discourse, along with other popular cultural forms like drama, music, and art interwoven with one another through citation, plagiarism, and references produced tropes and stereotypes of a despotic, oppressed, static, traditional, sexually depraved monoculture that served to justify colonialism. Clearly, this version of the Orient had little to do with realities on the ground, and had much more to do with European ideas, hopes, and fears about itself, as well as the need to rationalize European notions of its own superiority and the atrocities being committed in the name of empire. One of the most abiding Orientalist myths is the notion that the West’s treatment of its women marks it as the vanguard of progress and civilization, while the East’s “universal oppression” of its women (symbolized most powerfully by the harem and later the veil) indicated its lack of progress, civilization, and modernity.

In his later works, Said calls our attention to the continuance of Orientalism in post World War II United States. Since 9/11 in particular, feminist scholars have powerfully challenged the new brand of Orientalism that sought to justify U.S. actions in Afghanistan by making a very similar argument. But what of the types of seemingly less politically minded images seen in pop art, fashion photography, and film? Gwen Sharpe and Lisa Wade do an excellent job exposing the stakes of this kind of imagery in fashion photography, the kind you see quite often in the pages of VogueElle, and the Anthropology catalog (all frequent offenders):

“Indian Summer,” Vogue UK, September 2007

Sharpe and Wade point out the way in which these images use Indian people interchangeably with Indian architecture or natural life to place emphasis on the white model who represents the modern consumer accessing “exotic” locales while never quite succumbing to them. The behind-the-scenes video of the shoot on Vogue’s website demonstrated ample evidence of busy modern life in India’s booming metropolises, but as Sharpe argues, the photos themselves are edited to present India as stuck endlessly in a pre-modern mode of existence (how Hegelian!).

Anthropologie Catalog, May 2010

I would also add that the “clean, rich, white woman” (to use Wade’s phrase) is made exceptional not just by somatic contrast or by her contemporary clothing, but (in that the white model is an idealized stand-in for the magazine or catalog’s intended viewers/shoppers) by her status as a savvy consumer of fashion. The viewer/shopper’s decisions to purchase tasteful, stylish clothing, and her ability to incorporate “ethnic” styles into a modern wardrobe identify her as a discriminating and cosmopolitan consumer. The Indian men, women, and children, whose labor may very well be expended and exploited to make the clothing worn in the shoots are made effectively invisible as subjects to the same degree the model emerges as an idealized global citizen, their labor hidden by the smiles on their faces.

Sex and the City 2 (2010)

Let’s look at another representation of this “Oriental scene.” This one comes from Sex and the City 2 (2010). In it, Carrie et. al. make their way through the “Arabian Desert,” dressed in avant garde couture that incorporates all manner of “Oriental” motifs (turban, embroidered and mirrored chiffon sleeves, layers of colorful, patterned textiles), perched atop elaborately decorated camels led by native servants. “Arabian” music plays in the background. As in the Vogue and Anthropology shoots, the setting serves to highlight the women’s cosmopolitanism and status as savvy consumers. Furthermore, it identifies them as “divas” – women whose empowerment and self-styled importance comes as a result of their consumption practices and power over a retinue of service workers (stylists, assistants, housekeepers, chauffeurs, personal cooks, even camel trainers!). And although the card, and most popular cultural examples portray white women as their heroines, I would argue that access to the status of diva has perhaps more to do with class and economic security than race necessarily (how this might change the power dynamics or narratives at play is something worth more consideration).

This brand of “Diva Orientalism” is representative, I think, of the postfeminism we’re being sold by popular culture today. It traffics in a particular and limited brand of female empowerment through consumer choices, and reduces the complexities of globalization – the inequalities between women of different classes, races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities produced and reified by changing labor patterns, liberalization and the rise of multinational corporations, shifting national borders, and increased militarism, to name just a few transnational trends – to the question of the personal taste, glamour, and financial acquisition of a relatively limited number of privileged women. Like the card says, “it’s all about you!”

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