Beauty, Femininity and the Politics of ‘Desire’


Noel Mariam George

noel mariamThe recent crowning of a biracial black woman as Miss World made news as it made full circle with four other wins by biracial black and black women in the biggest beauty pageant. Not many understand beauty pageants as political; however what can be more political than a contest in which nations compete with each other by localising their nationhood onto the bodies of their women to claim the title of ‘most beautiful/desirable’[1]? Beauty pageants have become a new site of the ‘political’ understood in terms of aesthetics and black women are now claiming their space in these contests as sites of representation and even empowerment. Arguments made in favour of these pageant wins, claim that feminine representation of black women as desirable are subversive and hence political, as black women have historically been denied the freedom to express their femininity and have been deemed ‘undesirable’ in contrast to white women[2] (this is not to shy away from the monopoly of control, both monetarily and items of discourse of the beauty, pop and other culture industries).

Representations of black women have been until now, within the binary stereotype of the ‘jezebel’ (as an overtly sexual representation) or the opposite, as the ‘nanny’; (as the desexualised slave/matriarch). Black women claim aesthetics as political in beauty pageants as it enables rupture, a partition of the sensible that has historically masculinised or overtly sexualised black women. This is in light of newer understandings of gender as performative; where the masculine and feminine attributes are seen not in any essential way within the binary of oppressed/ oppressor; but rather as ‘performative’, where the play of masculine and feminine produces desire. Is the production of desire political? If so, how do we locate the politics of desire within frameworks that go beyond early feminist articulation that was averse to the cultivation of ‘beauty’ to locate race, caste, colour and even gender[3]? Can politics be re-imagined in terms of the hierarchisation of desire?

As an Indian woman it’s best to start with the victory of Miss World- Toni Ann Singh; to locate my arguments within the Indian discourse on beauty. Miss Singh is the daughter of an Indian Caribbean and a Black Caribbean parent-yet , there was no buzz in Indian media about her win, no claim to her ‘Indianess’ as much as black people claimed her victory to be a black victory. Why do Indians not claim the ‘Indianess’ of biracial Black Indians? Are we as guilty of using the ‘one drop rule[4]’as much as we articulate against white supremacy? (More so, the one drop rule has its own version in India in the idea of the purity of Brahmin blood).

Anti-blackness in South Asian communities might be a result of colonialism; however the construction of ‘desire’ and femininity in India has a much more complex history that has caste very central to it. How do we see the modelling careers of Renee Kunjur, a Kurukh Adivasi woman from Chhattisgarh or Sangeeta Gharu, a Dalit woman from Rajasthan? (Both dark skinned women who have spoken out against casteism, colourism and featurism in the beauty industry). There is something about dark skin on a woman’s body that evokes visceral reactions amongst Indians. Race, could be a newly invented category in colonial modernity, however colour (often intermixed with caste) as a marker of difference has a much longer history. The caste system is probably the most successful and long lasting system of that hierarchised desire. Savarna women have historically cultivated their femininity and beauty by contrasting themselves to the sudra and untouchable women who were seen as uncultivated and masculine[5]. Hindu myths speak of the fair as Devas and the dark as Asuras. Periyar called this out in brahminical Hindu texts which he thought were texts that theologically privileged the ‘light’ over ‘dark’ in the racial binary he created of the Aryan and the Dravidian. He articulated ‘karuppu’ as an anti-caste concept[6] (as a differential concept of Varna) and subverted the whiteness of the Congress attire into the ‘Kaala’ of his Karuppu Sattai.

Post-colonisation, with the explosion of the market and the mass production and advertisement of bleaching cream as a product associated with the production of ‘lightness’ to femininity, desire and worldly success (in contrast to darkness as associated with masculinity and undesirability) there are now newer combinations and permutations in which caste, race ,gender and capital interact. While discourse on ‘Colourism’ as an important problem has moved in parallel with debates on racism in American , the discourse in India has still not even been able to question the million dollar industries of bleaching creams and even representation of dark skinned women (leave alone women of lower caste). Representation of dark skinned women in pageants is absent let alone constructions of ‘humane’ multifaceted characters in movies. So, the question is –Is colour merely about melanin or, is it a semantic binary of darkness and lightness that has consequences outside of language? Is it important to see it as an aesthetic concept through intersectionalities of race, caste and gender to expand the idea of the ‘political’ as not merely about power, but also question of desire? Is it time we demand representation of Dalit women (who need not necessarily be dark skinned) and dark skinned women (who need not necessarily be Dalit) in seemingly apolitical spaces like the beauty industry? Is it time we understand politics beyond mere materiality and look at desire, and its savarna/white constructions as just as powerful concepts that determine the political?  

~

Notes

1. While the political has been understood as feminist critiques of these events they have been unsuccessful in making them any less popular.

2. Black women point to how white women have cultivated femininity as cultural capital and have often used their femininity in their favour through a performance that makes them powerful as they are ‘desirable’

3. Transwomen have theorised the Performativity of gender beyond traditional understandings of oppressed/oppressor and have even spoken of femininity as liberating

4. The one drop rule was a concept that sustained Atlantic slavery in which a drop of black blood made the child ‘black’, even when the ancestry could be traced equally to African and European roots.

5. This is contrast to the emasculation of Sudra and Dalit Men by Savarna men.

6. Ambedkar however dismissed notions of colour, race and caste in the way Periyar essentailised them, however he didn’t deny the impact of colonialism in attributing certain stereotypes in a racial and coloured manner.

~~~

 

Noel Mariam George is an M Phil student from the University of Hyderabad who is working on topics of Ambedkar, Periyar and the Muslim Question in India. She has completed her Masters from JNU in International Relations and Area Studies.

 

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