Friday, September 13, 2013

Abused Goddesses, Orientalism, and the Glamorization of Gender-Based Violence

The Abused Goddesses of India. The advertisements, created by Mumbai-based ad firm Taproot India, have been making the rounds – not only of my Facebook friends’ walls, but of many a feminist and progressive site including Bust, Ultraviolet, V-Day and MediaWatch, usually along with reactions like “powerful” and “heartbreaking.”

The images are unusual in their aesthetic appeal. After all, it’s not every day that you see the Hindu Goddesses Laxshmi, Saraswati or Durga made to appear as if they have been subject to gender-based violence – with tear stained faces, open cuts and battered cheekbones. But even despite (or because of?) the bruising around those divine eyes, the images are breathtaking – recreations of ancient Hindu paintings accurate to their last bejeweled crown and luscious lotus leaf.
I’ll admit it, I too was entranced by these ads when I first saw them. Having grown up in the heart of the American Midwest at a time when no one in the media looked even remotely like brown-skinned and dark haired me, I have a particular soft spot for images of glamorous Indian women. After childhood and teenage years believing that no one who wasn’t a blonde, blue-eyed Christie Brinkley look-alike could be deemed ‘beautiful,’ I’m still a complete sucker for images of traditional Indian beauty.

Yet, no matter how appealing, these ads are also deeply problematic. The reasons are multiple:

(1) Violence isn’t glamorous
The problem of glamorizing gender-based violence isn’t new. American popular culture is rife with images that glamorize violence against women and girls: from fashion spreads to music videos to television programs. Media critics like Jean Kilbourne have shown, time and again, how such media images create a cultural acceptance of violence – a rape culture– against women and girls in real life.
And so, despite the ostensible difference in message, the adoption of this sort of aesthetic point of view (of so-called ‘broken beauty’) by anti-violence campaigns is deeply troubling. In a recent workshop I conducted with Praxis International’s Advocacy Learning Center, I explored trends in some U.S., European, and Asian anti-violence campaigns. A predominant one is the graphic portrayal of passive, bruised and battered women’s images – made to somehow look simultaneously beautiful. Like fashion ads and music videos which glamorize violence, anti-violence ads – no matter where they are produced — also often border on the shock-vertising and voyeuristic, portraying images of morose and bruised women, women in the process of being abused or beaten, or even famous women re-enacting scenes of battering. The question is if such images might actually re-traumatize women who have experienced violence, while playing into the self-same patriarchal constructions of feminine passivity which enable such violence to happen in the first place.

(2) Female passivity/victimhood is too often valorized (and fetishized)
Part of the glamorization of violence in the media is our fascination with female victimhood, and this campaign is no different. Certainly, the name doesn’t help. Indeed, the ‘Abused Goddess’ posters are affiliated with the organization Save Our Sisters, a branch of Save the Children India. As one of the posters reads,

“Pray that we never see this day. Today, more than 68% of women in India are victims of domestic violence. Tomorrow, it seems like no woman shall be spared. Not even the ones we pray to.”

Um, really, folks? Whatever anyone’s personal spiritual beliefs may be, I really don’t think that prayer is a sufficient actionable solution to violence in and of itself – at least not for any progressive or feminist community. Forget ‘saving’ our sisters; how about ‘empowering’ our sisters, ‘standing with’ our sisters, or ‘watching out’ because our sisters are really angry and fed up of being victimized?

(3) Seeing suffering without a course of action kills empathy
Unlike the human rights organization Breakthrough’s Bell Bajao campaign, which suggests an on-the-ground action that can be taken by a bystander overhearing domestic violence in a neighbor’s home (to ring the bell, and bring on community censure), I’m not sure if there is any concrete action suggested by the Abuse Goddess campaign (beyond prayer). Rather, these images are sent into our cultural consciousness without an answer to the question, ‘what am I to do about this?’

Granted, there is a phone number for ‘reporting abuse’ to Save Our Sisters. Yet, what sort of abuse to report is unclear, as one of the posters mentions domestic violence and another trafficking, and the organization seems primarily an anti-trafficking group. What happens after this ‘reporting’ remains another question altogether. (For instance, police violence and community censure against women who report sexual or domestic abuse is not uncommon in many countries, including India)
Yet, despite the phone number, the ad doesn’t seem to be made with the actual women experiencing violence in mind. Rather, like many anti-violence campaigns, the Abused Goddesses series seems to be created in order to convince the ‘general public’ that violence against women and girls ‘really happens’. I’m not sure who this unbelieving general public is, precisely, but I’m not 100% convinced that ‘they’ need to be catered to. More importantly, appealing to ‘their’ sense of shock or outrage without giving them a concrete (and useful) avenue of action can actually be more dangerous than useful.

In her Regarding the Suffering of Others, Susan Sontag writes about the dangers posed by images of ‘distant suffering’:

Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic

(4) The images play into the idea that Indian/Brown women are particularly oppressed and in need of ‘saving’

To read the rest of this essay, please visit The Feminist Wire

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