An Unseemly Truth?
The latest in a spate of representations of same-sex couples is Myntra’s excellent advert for brightly coloured Anouk ethnic clothing. If the success of an advertisement is measured by how much one wants to wear a kurta and have it blow about in the mostly non-existent breezes of the Indian summer, this one takes the cake. However, like all brightly coloured façades, this one hides a gritty side which rankles of the way in which gay rights are co-opted into a consumer driven society.
The ad’s content is focused on a same-sex intimacy between two women. Its ingenuity lies in the way in which it slowly develops the same-sex relationship from a seemingly innocuous friendship to a homonormative declaration of marital bliss. (Homonormativity, can be loosely explained as the way in which non-normative relationships seem to follow heterosexual patterns of domestic union and monogamous matrimony, and acquire social sanction because of their conformity.) Some people have proclaimed this advertisement as a beautiful step forward for gay rights, and dismissed theoretical interventions like the one I am about to make as “political”.
The gritty underside of positive images like the Anouk ad, which a political intervention needs to point out, is multi-layered. On the surface level, the ad imagines a non-normative relationship in the same tropes as a heterosexual one, leading in to a let’s-meet-the-parents kind of rhetoric. Not only is this rhetoric dangerous (because it is one step shy of let’s-get-married), but more importantly, it highlights the need for social sanction in the form of parental approval for a non-normative relationship. The approval, here, plays the critical role of imposing heterosexual dominance and primacy because it is the heterosexual couple (the parents) that can bless the non-normative one. In itself this is not a problem—who does not want their parents’ blessing? The problem actually arises when we expand the scope of this sanction seeking pandering to authority; this is the same sort of sanction seeking that lead Naz and other L.G.B.T. N.G.O.s to seek a reading down of Section 377 from the very institution that sanctioned state-sponsored discrimination in the first place. The logic of appealing to the state for rights is lost on me, and several legal scholars, including Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan, have belatedly expressed their fears about handing over agency and the right to decide about the legality of one’s way of life to the very institution within which such disenfranchisement is encoded in the first place.
The other more insidious way in which this bright and happy ad is masking the formation of discrimination is directly tied into the consumerist paradigm that it comes from. The location of all this domestic bliss takes place in a fairly generic apartment that the two girls seem to be independently occupying. Access to the privilege of private space is something few in contemporary India afford and fewer non-normative people can access. The privileged portrayal in this advertisement is only reflective of a small segment of society whether normative or otherwise.
The latter point is not so terrible in itself, but the way in which this advert then couples social and parental sanction with financial independence is something that needs to be considered. Perhaps such a coupling is logical and will appeal to many of its viewers. Yet there are pertinent questions that need to be asked: are these realities of the can-afford few what dictate the ways in which cultural imaginaries of non-normative sexualities are constructed? Are these exclusions the same ones that lead to the embroiled discourse on Section 377 where we handed over issues of social sanction and approval, on behalf of a whole range of non-normative sexualities to the courts? Lastly, and most importantly, what about those people who don’t imagine their sexuality or its extensions through relationships (normative or otherwise) in the same way as this brightly garbed seemingly monogamous couple? Are those people then to fall outside these new-norms (whether by choice—the few—or by need and access—the many) that are being imagined and their sexuality be confined as society’s new other?
What’s worse is that this advertisement has been hailed as a step forward and the political arguments it makes for pro-L.G.B.T. marriage discourses and acceptance rest on the idea of first-let’s-at-least-be-this-gay-that-we-can-get-married and then we can figure out how to be more gay! What such a political stand hides is the way in which the homonormative couple then secretly recreates its others — those who don’t conform, can’t afford to conform and are in a way almost forced by the emergence of this new normative structure to the margins of the margins.
The positive images in this advertisement are like the illusory healthy breeze blowing the couple’s curtains about; you can see the wind and almost fancy it in the sultry summer heat, but when you put two and two together you realise that in most places in India, people are not subject to the luxury of cool breezes. The wonderful weather of Bangalore and Pune comes with its share of urban town boom that few have the privilege of affording and for the rest, the curtains, were they able to buy them, are only being blown about by the hot and arid summer blasts that sweep the unsheltered masses of India—normative or otherwise.