From jokes to insults: the decadence of discourse

The recent spate of insults (masqueraded as jokes) leveled against an emerging Indian actress Yami Gautam on the social media have once again exposed the hypocrisy of both the pseudo-liberals and confused-crits among the intellectual elites.

Some these comments (in the lingua franca of the upper class elites and their comrades also known as ‘tweets’) include:

  1.   “Doctors are recommending kids to stare at Yami Gautam pics to prevent vitamin D deficiency in them. #YamiGautam”.
  2.   “Yami Gautam is the Dean of ‘Fair and Lovely Professional University’”.
  3.   “Everything is Yami Gautam in love and war. Ab Ki baar Modi Sarkaarite.”
  4.   After Rani Mukherji’s Black, they are planning to produce a movie starring Yami gautam!.
  5.   “Guys you can stop using Fair & Handsome. Apply Yami Gautam instead.”
  6.   Some of these Twitteratis have also called her a ‘CFL’.

While some of their objections to representation of women in the advertisements involving the so-called ‘fairness’ creams pertain to objectification or commodification of women, they also argue that these commercials construct an ‘ideal women’ resulting in a form of oppression where others lose their identity as they measure and define themselves against these images.

A cursory look at these comments is enough to suggest that the concerns animating our criticisms of that paradigm are conveniently ignored while we direct comments to Yami Gautam. The remarks calling her CFL, or asking males to apply her instead of their fairness creams, or suggesting that kids stare at her pictures for curing vitamin D deficiency, are also infected with commodification and objectification, in addition to, vulgar misogyny. In addition to this, these comments show a profound lack of both sense and sensibilities.  The movie ‘Black’ was a nomenclature on the experiences of its blind protagonist. Without a single strain, one lived experience was trivialized at the expense of another. Interestingly, there is scant mention of either the market or the manufacturer, while Twitteratis continue their incessant attacks on the actress.

One of the under-noted facts is that the sale of these fairness creams (despite ‘fair and lovely’ being the market leader) has consistently recorded a fall. Their efforts at persuasion as well as enticement (by throwing an open challenge of ₹5 crore to anyone who is not satisfied in just a week!) have not helped and the initial attraction to these cosmetic product has been showing the signs of fading away without abatement. Are they, then painting women with dusky and dark skin-colour as victims en masse? Are they denying them the capacity to reason their purchase (generally for skin-care, for example) or non-purchase as per their own convictions?

Important underlying values of the commitment to liberalism include tolerance and respect for those with whom we may not agree. Granted, these commercials need to change their emphasis; they must not be offensive to any section of the society; they must respect our diversity (ironically, what unites us these days are heat and dust); and must create avenues for human flourish and enterprise. Importantly, they must respect our right to be ourselves.

By the same token, in our criticisms, we must also be alive to the dangers of the ideology of enforced sameness and homogeneity. Liberals also recognize that someone like Yami Gautam has a fundamental right to free speech and contractual freedom. Those who use cosmetic and skin-care products are entitled to determine their own conceptions of good and beauty. Discussion, debates and wider engagement involving multiple interest groups (including the commentators and intelligentsia) could be a preferred way of generating awareness and revising norms. It is tough, time-consuming and often costly. But we cannot alternate conceptions of democracy to our convenience. Virulence, violence, humiliation, labeling, condescension and condescension are a non-starter.

Ignoring several critical players, from corporations to government that shape our lives and choices in profound ways, that we chose Yami Gautam as our subject of attack tells the story of the decadence that defines our discourse.