A Vogue Empower Rant: Reality Check by Simran Chawla
To appreciate the Vogue Empower video, despite the brickbats - this is my choice.
Amazingly enough, at no point does this now-much-reviled video claim to be the definitive statement on women’s empowerment. It is one take. Yes, a limited take. But never do we hear the makers – or indeed the women in it- say that this will shake the very foundations of patriarchy, or threaten all that is oppressive or patriarchal in India or the world at large.
It takes on small challenges- sexual autonomy, the choice of whether or not to take your husband’s surname, what clothes to wear (umm, did we forget to notice it’s a VOGUE ad?).
No, these are not questions of labour rights, domestic violence, the very structural violence that is the reality of most women’s daily lives. But does this necessarily mean we can never discuss even the small battles? Are they not worth a mention, in the eternal quest for the huge issues?
Whether I like it or not, I represent what many would call ‘elite’ India. I went to a certain type of school, and the best college in the country. I grew up in a comfortable, urban home. I am outraged by the reality of misogyny and patriarchy in my country and so many others. For as long as I can remember, I have fought for the rights of women and girls everywhere. It is my passion, my career, my daily grind, the battle that breaks my spirit and lifts me up again. Not only do I carry the burden of a label like ‘the feminist who fights constantly’, but I ironically also have to listen to petty comments about how I didn’t take on my husband’s surname. I fight every day - every single day- for my choice to not have children. It is a choice I make. A choice I am asked to defend endlessly, by men and women (but mostly women) of every nationality, ethnicity and age. Small battles, but they often define my days.
I’ve also taken on misogynistic, misguided men on the streets of Delhi, Bombay, London and New York. In the backwaters of Kerala and the pristine mountains of Himachal. I’ve fought for the freedom to walk down the street without being forced to hear comments about my legs, my eyes, my hair. I’ve slapped men on buses and shed tears of rage at the realisation of my own impotence in the face of four or five leering men, knowing I could do nothing, These are my battles too. Choices come- as they must- with responsibility, with consequences. We must remind ourselves and teach our children about these privileges and the honour they bring. Of this, there is no doubt.
But we do not reserve the right to trivialise another set of choices- however seemingly minor they may be. A glimpse of a bra strap does not a pornographic lens make. I cannot accept that there is only one ‘correct’ way to depict women’s daily struggles. I will not become the judge of how someone chooses to portray one set of freedoms, simply because it is not the most profound, the most gut-wrenching. Just because they seem superficial in comparison. Let’s keep a sense of balance. This is a fashion magazine. Its job is to sell glamour and to market safe and acceptable notions of beauty. It’s not Unifem, or a Dalit women’s organisation or anyone purporting to tackle the nitty-gritty of women’s issues for their bread and butter- or indeed for their soul. If we place this expectation on them, then we must do the same for all popular literature, every Bollywood film, every ghastly TV serial. (I know many people disagree with this view, expect a higher standard even of Vogue- and I respect that, but I don’t agree.)
That said, these are the faces of real women. Mostly, just their looks. Smiling, cheeky, serious. Windblown and silly sometimes. With a strange and unfortunate juxtaposition of a pregnant silhouette with a mention of a ‘size 15’. Bad taste for sure. But let’s remember who this video is an advertisement for. Fashion mags today are doing the most damage to body image everywhere- and it’s no coincidence that Deepika Padukone- a gloriously slim and glamorous actress was chosen for this piece. Why not Sonakshi Sinha?
So let’s keep a sense of perspective, please. Vogue made this. Let’s not expect it to make earth-shattering statements on women’s empowerment- it never claimed to do that. Could they have done better? Of course. Was it lazily scripted? Hell yeah. And God only knows what was going on with those snowflakes and their snowfall.
But equally, let’s not miss the wood for the trees – they may be small and insignificant ‘choices’, but choices they are. They may not define many of our worlds, but that’s ok. And we do not get to be the moral guardians of anyone’s sexuality or who they choose to have sex with- within their marriage, or outside it.
In all this, the one thing I do feel was entirely missing, was a tone of respect. “Remember- I am your choice, you are not my privilege…” No. Every relationship is a privilege. The appropriate response to years of patriarchy is not disrespect. Not condescension towards the opposite (or even the same) sex. The road to reclaiming your sense of self is not to develop such an inflated sense of ‘I’ that you becoming disparaging of ‘you’. Whoever that You might be.
I don’t believe in reducing people to their labels, or to the functions society ascribes to them. I feel actors have every right to hold - and express - political views, just like the rest of us. As do sports people or anyone else. But a sense of balance must prevail. And there’s no point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
If this video had been made by an organisation or people dedicated to women’s rights, to their cause, to those hardest of battles, I would not be writing this.
And that’s when I would be seriously worried.