Commentaries, Essays, Kindling, Opinion

Dear June: A Letter for Pride Month

Image source: http://www.blog.netapp.com

Dear June, 

When I was 22, I remember attending a lunch wearing a black hoodie that had a famous Oscar Wilde quote printed on it. At the restaurant, my uncle told me how he detested the quote and everything associated with Oscar Wilde, because ‘that blighted Wilde was a faggot’. I remember gasping in order to maintain the decorum of my favourite hill-station’s favourite restaurant. I sat quietly while picking at my garlic lemon butter trout with my fork, just the way I did with my pasta when my cousin asked one of our brothers to avoid wearing pink because ‘oh my god, he looks so gay in pink.’ Just the way I sat sipping my empty glass of lemonade when an unassuming elder repeated the f-word (used earlier by my uncle) to describe musical maestros like Freddie Mercury and Elton John.

It wasn’t just on these three incidents that I maintained decorum by focusing on doing something meaningless with my excessively fidgety hands. This habit goes back to my school days, when any two peers with a sense of intimacy were termed as gay as if gay were a cuss word. Atleast for us school kids, it was. And for those of us who refused to become more gender aware, gay and lesbian are still cuss words used as one of the most sure-sought ways of instilling shame in the targeted person. Interestingly, the validity of this claim had little to do with a person’s sexual and/or emotional orientation. It didn’t, actually. In fact, it turns out that being anything that failed to correspond with the present society’s definition of being ‘straight’ or heterosexual1 was something that one had to be deeply ashamed of, if not self- obliterating. Not just heterosexual, but heteronormative, if you will. Could I reason this to be a general reason for you being celebrated as Pride Month? To dispel (in instalments) the cumulative amount of shame that is brought upon the majority of the global populace for not fitting into neat labels, boxes and definitions as per heteronormativity’s assumed taste? 

Every year when I read June newspapers over breakfast as an undergraduate student in Delhi, I would spot pride parades. In other words, the robust and vibrant parades that the more privileged dissenters of heteronormativity2 participated in (mostly) worldwide. The faces, their smiles, the rainbow flags (and not to mention, the dazzling costumes that the bolder segment of the parade donned), all unanimously spelled out ‘freedom’. The rainbow specifically shouted out to its onlooking/ scowling or worse, denying populace that failed to conceive each colour in the spectrum of existence due to their oversaturated monochromes of patriarchal social conditioning. 

As you know June, ‘homophobes’ is the analytical term used to refer to the more radically conditioned populace that arrives at a visceral aversion vis-a-vis non-heteronormativity. Logically then, this term implies their sole characteristic as being ‘homophobic’, which can be defined as a phobia towards all things non-heteronormative. You know why this extended definition is important? Because while my anti-Oscar Wilde uncle was averse to a renowned artist solely on the basis of his homosexuality, my cousin was averse to our brother’s choice of dressing for being non-heteronormative (possibly because for prudes throughout the better part of history, pink is a girl’s colour. Never mind that pink was the preferred shade for boys and blue for girls3, because doesn’t that serve the same binary that you and I denounce? Perhaps I’ll leave this for another part of the letter.)

Now a person who is less fond of June might ask me why I am over-reacting to banal comments on Wilde and pink shirts. 

Because, those are the slightest discriminations against diverse identities that go pardoned,  unapologised for, or even unnoticed. 

Because, those are statements that well-educated and gentrified persons of modern day societies continue to make despite lending a hashtag to #LoveisLove.

Because, these were or are the parents who are sending their kids to homophobic (nevertheless homosocial4) schools to graduate into adulthood and repeat the behaviour of their parents, relatives and friends. 

Because I, and many like me, are tired of the usage of derogatory words to rattle the self worth of any identity that chooses, or even dares to be different. Because we are tired of the constant threatening and even terrorising treatment offered to any ambivalence around heteronormativity.

And most of all, because we are beyond tired of being subsumed for being fluid in our nature and choice of our existential expressions.

As a kid, I remember being labeled as a tomboy for preferring jeans over skirts, Lego over Barbie, sports over makeup and Eminem over Spice Girls. My teenage gait didn’t have the girly hip swing, and my pubescent self began to slouch due to being conscious of my recent developments. Apparently, they didn’t go too well with my ‘sporty jockishness’. And yet, I was fond of applying French manicures, straightening my hair, and got my young heart broken by doofus teenage boys.

Even now, I often perceive myself as tiptoeing deftly on the shores of androgyny. For example, I fasten the longer flicks of my cropped hair with a shimmering pin. On days that I don’t have corporate meetings to attend, I am found in oversized spectacles and plain t-shirts that are flanked by indie pants. My dressing ritual ends with a casual pinning of earrings and a smear of lip colour, in hues that range from subdued nudes to the boldest shades of scarlet. I enjoy musky colognes as I do fruity splashes, and focus on maintaining toned biceps despite failing miserably at performing basic pushups.

What does this hopscotch game amidst so-called binarisms make me? 

They make me who I am, and it is in this fluidity that my essence finds its home.

I was not exempted from the brigade of seemingly benign comments made by close as well as random people such as, ‘beta, it’s so nice to see you become all girly’ ; ‘you’ve cut your hair too short’ ; or ‘you would have been such an eligible boy, if only…’ The lack of validation accorded to my nuanced androgyny did leave me feeling confused about my identity, and at times, frustrated. Overcoming the need to conform to several binaries does originate from a certain amount of privilege, and that is an undeniable fact. But it also arises out of an ongoing internal battle wherein these binaries are vanquished, little by little every day.

My contention against these binaries gained additional zeal when I began to increasingly realise the futility of their artificial imposition.While at LSE, I heard Butler say that gender is nothing but an act of doing, or performativity that is assigned to us from the moment our birth is heralded with- ‘it’s a boy!’, or, ‘it’s a girl’. From that very moment, it is either this way or that. The pursuit of gender justice that unites Butler with humbler selves like me is our mutual wistfulness for a time when birth announcements sound more like, ‘it’s a boy/girl unless (s)he chooses otherwise!’ The finality of birth certificates becomes terrifying to those like us, who’d rather opt for a provisional one that can be revised later by a more evolved and informed version of our adult selves.

Oftentimes, my supposed idealism has been flouted as a bandwagon of western modernity. Those who are more well-versed with the diversity of Indian culture and heritage would agree with me when I say that heterogeneity is unapologetically Indian in its foundations, as is modernity. The temples of Khajuraho, Mahabharata’s Shikandi, the legends of Ayappan, Mohini and Brihanalla only form the tip of a colossal iceberg that swells me with pride for its ancient acceptance, but also pains me for its more recent shunning by the rudimental combinations of imperialism, capitalism as well as patriarchy.

Now keeping in mind your celebratory pretext of LGBTQA pride, I do not mean to undermine the urgency of diverse self-expression making itself more visible through each subsequent June. However, I also wish to bandage an over presumed affliction that rhetorically places a homophobic lot of the society as ‘villains’ against an alienated queer populace as ‘victims’. There are two flaws in this assumption. One, that it is impossible to put an end to binarisms with yet another binary. Two, and more importantly, because this is a redundant mechanism of division.  I’ll tell you why I say that. According to my naïve understanding, gender justice has little to do with vindicating queer identities and avenging homophobic myopias. Rather, the monster that deserves our unanimous fight is the homophobe as well as the queer victim that we carry within us due to the uninterrupted conditioning of heteronormativity wherein we eat, breathe, sleep, and essentially, live. 

Even though my privilege and lived experiences make me more gender-sensitive, I am not a morally upright exception to the conscious or unconscious denouncements that we as a pre-conditioned society make towards fluidity and deviant identities. There are times when the homophobic villain in us takes the subtlest precedences amidst the best of us. And it is this constant internal conflict that I find to be the cause of our alienation. This alienation resides in the very sophisticated boxing of our own fluid selves, as well as everything that we happen to interact with or know. For, how can water be boxed without ice trays?

So June, I end with a thank you for patiently enduring my musings that find more concrete expression with the unfurling of your rainbow flags. But before I sign off, June, I leave you with a crucial endnote that I hope for you and your successors to pioneer. This endnote revolves around an important observation that Amartya Sen shares when it comes to identities. He refutes one’s identity as being a source of accidental discoveries and instead, points at conscious choice as its fountainhead. In other words, we are not passive victims of  stagnant identities that we happen to discover. On the contrary, we are active agents of our constantly evolving identities that we harbinge through choice and mediation in multifarious situations of constraint. But then again, which choice is made in the absence of limitating circumstances?, asks Sen. 

In a nutshell, the presence of never-ending contingencies doesn’t take away the cardinal existence of choices that we are entirely responsible of and accountable towards.

Since you advocate the freedom of diversity more than any other month, I welcome you yet again with the earnest hope of leading each one of us to reclaim the choice of being who we are and how we conduct ourselves. I welcome you yet again with a pledge to continue the uncomfortable, yet undenyingly worthwhile quest of self discovery and self truth. As the world continues to be gripped in the fangs of a dreadful pandemic, I welcome you yet again as the month of freedom and diversity. I hope for you to usher it to a more sincere, accepting, and liberating means of existence. May you end after weakening the impostors within us, and undoubtedly, the biggest impediments to our own freedom.

Sincerely, 

Your fan. 

Footnotes : –

  1. A person sexually or intimately attracted to people of the opposite sex (only sex, not gender). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
  2. A term related to a world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation (and conduct). Source : Google dictionary, italics mine.
  3. 1918: Smithsonian on magazine Earnshaw’s Infants Department (stated in Vintage News by Khadija Bilal)
  4. Relating to social interaction between members of the same sex. Source : Google dictionary.

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Commentaries, Essays

The Ramayanification of India: Gender Mythification & the Saffron Agenda

ABSTRACT

While Indian academia is abundant in nuanced analyses of Hindu fundamentalism spanning across various decades and issues, my analysis is a modest effort to formulate Hindutva’s quest for ideological hegemony during the 1980’s. Belonging to a Hindu household myself, I pride the philosophical richness of Hinduism and its ability to withhold several strands of dissent. As a feminist scholar, it is the fundamentalist and distortional use of my religion for sectarian and political gains that I academically prosecute.

Using a postcolonial lens and borrowing from Foucauldian, Gramscian, Nietzchean, Althusserian concepts, I compile an understanding of how religious fundamentalism targets the psyches of those that it seeks to govern. My approach adopts the televised broadcasting of Sagar’s Ramayan as a classic example of Hindutva’s hegemonic agenda through popular media in the 1980’s, and I utilise several thematic examples from the TV series to progress my account. My analysis highlights the centrality of gender in Hindutva’s ideological imperative, and the subsequent implications that its it bears on our conceptions of gender relations, the Self and the Other. Addressing the primal role played by gender in communal contestations leads me to eventually forge a discursive link between gender and the nation.

PART I : Hindutva & Sagar’s Ramayan

Background: The 1980’s

Arguably one of the most politically volatile decades in the history of independent India, the 1980’s were characterised by a culmination of a lot of political ferment from the previous decades, namely, the end of the Nehruvian consensus and a decline of the Congress as the national spokesperson. The State’s centralising tendencies, along with the developmental plans that it undertook resulted in enormous wealth inequalities, income disparities, regional imbalances and secessionist movements, all of which resulted from and added to the State’s crippling legitimacy, and jointly qualified as a crisis of the Indian State.

The political climate was brewing further with the three M’s of the 1980’s, namely, Mandal, Mandir and Market. Firstly, the Mandal Commission that would soon recommend caste-based affirmative action, contributing a new dimension to the centuries-long casteism, particularly among the middle classes in northern India. Simultaneously, the Babri Masjid- Ramjanmabhoomi issue in Ayodhya added to the already-abundant communal tensions in the country. Lastly, a failure in Nehru’s socialist models had put the Indian market in a financial deficit, which would result in a serious economic crisis by the end of the decade. An increasingly crippling State’s incompetency to deal with these problems led to its delegitimisation even further. These factors profoundly impacted those who had maximum stakes in the present contingencies- India’s enormous and yet-emerging middle class, and gave rise to a greater consciousness of what divided India- caste, class, religion, ethnicity, linguistic and regional differences, rather than what united it.

A general crisis in terms of the Indian identity was beginning to rise along with the question- who was the real Indian? Was it the Brahmin or the Dalit? The Hindu or the Muslim? The wealthy elite, or the aam admi? The Hindi-speaking UP-ite or the Tamil who didn’t converse in Hindi? Or was it everyone in between?

During the same decade, the increasing incidents of violence against women, including dowry deaths and bride burning led to a sharp upsurge in feminist movements. Moreover, the growth of consumerism and the rising costs of living amounted to a larger percentage of women entering workspaces in the country. The active presence of women in political activism and employment spheres, along with a general modernisation of the Indian society posed an enormous threat to patriarchal and fundamentalist strands of Hinduism, collectively referred to as Hindutva*.

At this precise juncture, Chhachhi (1989) convincingly identifies a wedlock between right-wing Hindu fundamentalism-Hindutva, and the crisis-ridden Indian state. Hindutva was sanctioned by the State to “create ideological unity through the sponsoring of religious fundamentalism”1, thereby transforming it into the national identity and redefining Indianness on communal terms. Despite the stakes, an increasingly weakening State was handing over the responsibility of national integration to whom it considered to be a promising player. As for Hindutva, it was amplified onto the national platform like never before, and this was a chance for the Sangh to re-instate patriarchal order as well as seize political victory. A win-win situation for both, the onset of this ideological-political agenda would change the face of Indian politics forever.

Hindutva as the National Ideology

Hindutva, like most religious fundamentalisms, is typically “the political spokesperson of some group claiming to represent a religious community2”, but in its purely distorted and instrumental use of religion and false conceptions of community, not only does it fail to represent its professed community but also “mock[s] the idea of religion3”. Stipulating exclusivist criterions of being a Hindu, which include a specific fatherland, race, culture and holyland that are all Hindu, it aims to create a Hindu nation state and claims that only Hindus can be true patriots of India4. Its cardinal organisation, the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh identified itself, not as a Hindu organisation but a national one, which identifies “Hindu cultural regeneration”5 as its primary task. However, it can be argued that this claim of “cultural regeneration” provides a benevolent disguise to a peculiarly invasive and effective form of social control”6 for the purpose of Hindutva’s darker side of ideological hegemony and as a result, religious fascism.  For this purpose, culture is harnessed by Hindutva “as an apparently innocent middle term invested with Hindu religious meanings and associations”7.

Speaking of hegemony, the Gramscian framework states that hegemony can only be established with “cultural consent, discursive centrality, institutionalism and marginalization/ delegitimisation of alternatives”8. After going through numerous Hindutva manifestos, political rally videos, documented speeches and various scholars critiques of Hindutva-led fascism, I have theorised Hindutva’s establishment of hegemony in a very systematic way. As a part of its hegemonic agenda, Hindutva ideology consciously generates two mutually-reliant cultural conceptions in specified temporalities- of the past and the present.

On the one hand, it conceives a utopia, a mythicised and misrepresented** picture of India’s past, a “Hindu golden age”9, from which India has fallen and a nostalgia thereof. On the other hand, it induces anxieties regarding kaliyuga– the dark times that have presently befallen India, whipping up a “fear psychosis and a sense of injustice among the majority community”10, that are direct and exclusive results of the collective defilement of the Indian society and culture by the Other. Seen in contrast then, this professed mythicised past is characterised by the fact that unlike the present, it was “uncorrupted by Other cultures”11. Hindutva’s uncorrupted past and the defiled present are consequently brought together through the concept of “monumental history”12. A brainchild of Nietzsche, this concept is used in the construction of the past whereby “the writer drives home the point that greatness which was once possible and existent can be therefore, really be possible again”13. In other words, Hindutva invokes nostalgia for a utopian past and stresses upon anxieties vis-à-vis the present to jointly imply that: “the mythicised lost golden age could seem recoverable within a new political community of the Hindus”14.

In proclaiming itself to be the bulwark of this new political community (where the utopian past can be restored), Hindutva is able to contribute to, as well as derive legitimacy out of its status as the nation’s ideological hegemon. Hence, Hindutva gains much of its meaning and authenticity by virtue of its professed nostalgia, anxieties and a bid to redeem what has been lost. As a result of invoking a constant state of threat and anxiety among the middle class about its demographics, Hindutva “evokes complicity in morally offensive and violent policies and practices among people who would otherwise be repelled by them”15. And yet, these cultural conceptions of nostalgia and anxieties are not forcibly imposed, but carefully generated. This could be explained by the Gramscian concept of “civil society” which rules, not by force but by the means of hegemony that manufactures consent16. Hindutva’s manufacture of consent can be viably approached by adopting a Foucauldian analysis.

By the virtue of its normative and discursive powers as the nation’s cultural denominator, Hindutva constructs and disciplines subjectivities to produce “docile bodies”17 that are instrumental to the maximisation of its political interests. For example, by stipulating specific notions of what it means to be a Hindu, it thereafter directs these ideals as constituting the past and being compromised in present times. In similar logic, Hindutva promises a better future through their actualisation. As a result, subjects begin to embody and contest its notions of being Hindu, in the conception that the constant state of anxiety, inadequacy and loss can apparently be overcome by endorsing Hindutva as a way of life. It is in this endless conformity towards Hindutva and contestations with alternate notions of the Self that consent for Hindutva is manufactured. In short, Hindutva devices its hegemony by creeping into people’s vulnerabilities- first by conceiving and selling a false sense of inadequacy and threat to the collective psyches of subjects, followed by bidding their redemption.

Thus, by disciplining and regulating the desires of its subjects in accordance with its professed nostalgia (of a utopian past) and anxieties (vis-à-vis the present), Hindutva succeeds in manufacturing consent and ensuring its ideological legitimisation as the architect of the nation’s future. However, this agenda is carried out rather inconspicuously, behind the veil of a benign self- portrayal of itself in aiding the process of identity- creation.

However, the subjectivities that Hindutva disciplines and regulates in strict accordance are, “not universal, but sexed and gender specific”18; and as Chhachhi (1989) notes, pertain to gender relations as well as to individual and collective conceptions of gender. That is, the notions of being Hindu as per Hindutva’s ideologies cannot be described without referring to gendered notions of maryaada purshottam, mardaanagi, adarsh Bharatiya naari, pativrata dharma, or in other words, gender idealisations, norms and gendered notions of conduct.  A contending claim has been made by Das, who notes that “the drive to ‘fix’ the Indian state’s identity…had enabled the state (or its leaders) to incorporate gender to articulate divergent national identities…”19. Thereafter, by attaching particular notions of masculinity and femininity to the symbolism of the entire community20, gender identities get attached to communal identities21 and Hindutva’s strategy is “skilfully constructed to strike at the heart of identity- the intersection of community and gender”22. Thus, gendered subjectivities are discursively conceived through Hindutva’s cultural conceptions (nostalgia and anxieties) to constitute a culturally homogenised community and gradually, to determine the national destiny of a Hindu nation-state.

Chakravarti argues that “this is being done today not through powerful writing but through the power of the visual medium, the cinema and the television. It was a fairly conscious move by the state to telecast religious mega serials, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’…took off on the on the theme of a fragmented nation, carrying mythological tradition forward in a more coherent way emphasising a joint xenophobia against the enemy within”23.

Ramayan as Hindutva’s Ideological Apparatus

On Sunday, the 25th of January, 1987, the state-owned national broadcaster Doordarshan aired the pilot episode of Sagar’s Ramayan.  The quarter- hour serial was broadcasted nationwide on every Sunday that followed it until August the next year, and the national phenomena that this TV series created needs no prior introduction. Choosing to air Ramayan every Sunday morning ensures it was transmitted to the audience at a time when the typical Hindu middle-class family enjoyed a leisurely morning, off from work, with the family and closer to the time of their routine prayers. With lesser television sets back in that time and cable TV as its only source had very different bearings on the audience and viewership than it would have now, and I leave the reader to discern the politics of cable broadcasting/ collective viewership for herself/himself. What is certain is that Ramayan’s ubiquitous appeal formed an inescapable bait for anyone who lived in the immediate vicinity of a television set.

Broadcasting the mega serial through state-sponsored media finds resonance in Althusser’s conception of the Ideological State Apparatus, more specifically, “the communications apparatus by cramming every ‘citizen’ with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc, by means of the press, the radio and television”24. Treating the televised Hindu epic as a hegemonic state apparatus to prevail Hindutva’s agenda, a lot is derived out of its formalisation of a national community primarily through interpellation, or “hailing”25, which is discussed in part II of this article.

In its televised form, Ramayan represented a microcosm of the vast spectrum of Ramayans that have travelled across time and space, in the form of traditional folklore, popular literature, storytelling, visual arts, scriptural articulation, the Bhakti movement and dramatic folk enactments (Ram Lila). At a basic level, Ramayan is the story of a Ram, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in his supreme quest to recover his abducted wife Sita from Ravan, the demonic king of Lanka. Argued to be one of the “oldest surviving text of a story that has been continued to be retold for over two thousand years”26, the narrative tradition of the Ramayan displays “the ability to support both authoritative and oppositional tellings.”27 Moreover, the epic’s narrative discourse bears sufficient evidence of not only encouraging contradictory strands, but also providing the impetus for negotiations28. Ramanand Sagar’s televised telling of the Ramayan, for its selective and manipulative scripting of the epic forms one of the most serious contraventions to this tradition. His imposition of “one master narrative of a unified Hindu community”29 that chose to emphasise on the “unity of all these versions [of the epic] rather than their differences”30 helps one draw close correlations between Sagar’s treatment of contradictory strands of the epic and Hindutva’s treatment of difference “as a need for homogenisation rather than the signs of emerging plurality of voices.31” Sagar’s homogenisation (and if I may add, gross distortion) of an extensive narrative tradition, apart from leading to “cultural loss”32, was granted by authoritative sanction by being broadcasted on Doordarshan whereby the State was not just complicit but actively endorsed in the propagation of the hegemonic narrative of the “national past”33.

Ramayan’s “ready availability”34 for Hindutva’s ideological agenda stems from its placement in a past that used to be glorious, but which has undergone significant deterioration and attributed to the “tragedy of the nation”35. The “theme of loss… that underlay the entire serial”36 corresponds to Hindutva’s cultural conceptions of nostalgia for its bygone glories, present day anxieties, as well as a strong resolution to reclaim what has been lost in time. Hence, Ramayan marked one of the first instances of a highly self-conscious”37 televised Hindu epic being “harnessed to the Hindu nationalist political cause”38.

PART II : Mythification & Othering in Ramayan

Both, the Hindutva discourse and Ramayan base their authenticity and cultural superiority on a history constitutive of a distinctive culture, a construct that is “overwhelmingly created on gendered lines”39. This distinctive culture is highlighted in Ramayan through the mythification of gender idealisations exhibited by its protagonists, thereby collectively constituting an “imagined urban past”40. This past is put into jeopardy by the series’ antagonists that it systematically Others, which is then redeemed by its protagonists, adding to their glorification at the cost of demonising the Other. I proceed to argue that Ramayan as Hindutva’s Ideological State Apparatus interpellates gendered subjectivities vis-à-vis Hindutva’s cultural conceptions of nostalgia and anxieties through the twin-processes of mythification and Othering.

Mythification

Not only does “the power of the visual image”41 in Sagar’s Ramayan impart “the mythical, nonspecific material quality of the epics”42 a “given materiality, a reality”43, it imparts this materiality and reality onto very carefully constituted myths, in strict accordance with objectives of the Hindutva agenda. “Gain[ing] its authority by representing the world of the divine”44, Ramayan imparts divine sanctity to its content, primarily through the process of mythification. By “deploy(ing) the tool of mythification in order to construct a dramatic narrative- as a morality play of fall, rise and redemption”45, Ramayan de-contextualises and de-politicises history and oversimplifies complex factors by projecting them as free of any contradictory strands altogether. Mythification does not deny the presence of these contradictory strands but “it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact”46. Furthermore, “by eliminating all nuances that can permit a non-patriarchal code to operate and which are very much an integral part of the epic’s natives”47, Ramayan confirms its nature as a manipulative discourse in close conjunction  with Hindutva’s patriarchal gender norms. This can be further elaborated while considering the series’ gender idealisations.

Ramayan’s male protagonist- Ram is portrayed as the living embodiment of maryaada purshottam– the “epitome of male perfection”48– an obedient son, a loving brother, a virtuous leader, and supreme upholder of moral obligations whose primary virtue is constituted by truthfulness and dharma. Moreover, Ram personifies “ideal behaviour not only for a ruler and citizen, but in relation to family, caste and gender hierarchy as well”49. The series’ female protagonist Sita, who is Ram’s wife is systematically denied of any meanings that she had previously been associated with in her own right and is cast primarily in relation to Ram. She is selectively constituted in the televised epic in her least assertive form, as the “epitome of ideal womanhood”50 for her chaste, passive, self- sacrificing and unconditionally enduring nature. Sagar’s Sita relentlessly prides herself herself as a devoted wife (pativarta nari), solely constituted by her wifely duties (naari dharma) towards Ram. Hence, Ram’s masculine bravado, heroic valour and honour aren’t placed in a gender binary opposite to Sita’s feminine meekness, chastity and fidelity, but are done so relationally, on two unequal planes. That is, while Ram’s being is partially conditioned by Sita, Sita’s existence is entirely structured around, and conditioned in accordance with Ram. As the signifier of ideal womanhood, Sita equates feminine virtues with wifely devotion and sanctifies a woman’s being as being wholly and solely focused around her husband. What’s more- Sita is granted supernatural powers for her supreme devotion to Ram, just as a patriarchal society awards brownie points to conforming women.

She can be identified as what de Beauvoir (1989) calls “the absolute Other”51, the empty signifier, through whom the man, the signified, attains meaning. However, unlike de Beauvoir’s absolute Other who suffers a lack of agency, Sita is shown exercising her active discretion against the exhibition of these powers due to a lack of her husband’s lack of permission thereof. Further, not only is Sita shown confining herself within what she deems permissible by Ram, but settling her own confines in ways that would further glorify her husband. For example, during the time she spends being captured in Ravan’s Lanka, Sita makes an active decision neither to make use of her powers, nor seek any opportunity to free herself, “because that would mean that Ram would not obtain the glory invoked in rescuing her”52. Here, Sita is shown as exercising her active agency as a devoted wife to deny herself any self discrimination as a self-sufficient woman if it compromises the exalted image of her husband. This can be seen as a powerful denominator of Hindutva’s expectations of its women at the time of modernisation and neoliberalism, where choice and agency emerge as the new mantras. In this way, Hindutva logic skilfully encourages the power to exercise choice and agency, but tempers a woman’s discretion to dispense these powers in ways that would further the cause of Hindutva and patriarchal motives.

Thus, as an ideal woman, Sita’s gamut of choices and her purpose of living are inextricably tied to her husband’s glorification as the signifier, whereas the sole purpose of Ram’s being as the signified is to uphold his own glorification as the icon of masculine valour. In exhibiting their gender virtues in these specific ways, both Ram and Sita are mythified and glorified as “Hindu ideals”52 and “moral exemplars of the Indian society”53

Apart from being the “ideal monogamous model for the Hindu marriage”54, the marital union of Ram and Sita ultimately results in the inauguration of Ram Rajya, or the rule of Rama, the “urban archetype… situated in an imagined past”55 towards which Hindutva imparts much nostalgia. In serving as preconditions of the establishment of the ideal state, gender subjectivities embodied by Ram and Sita authenticate Hindutva’s discursive creation of gendered subjectivities without which, the ideal nation-state stands inconceivable. Ramayan’s purposeful formulation of the contradiction-free utopian state based on gender idealisations can be seen as aiding the Hindutva agenda in further silencing dissent against Hindutva’s imperatives and producing docile bodies in a strictly patriarchal code.

Cusack makes a noteworthy observation that in its abundant iconography, Hinduism “lacks explicit distinctions between this world and the otherworld, and between the gods and human beings”56. Thus, not only do the iconographies of Ramayan’s various characters capture popular imagination and identification, but also serve to justify their gender idealisations as enactable and the resulting utopian state as attainable.

As discussed in this section, gender idealisations are powerfully mythified in Ramayan while being embodied and conducted by the series’ protagonists, thereby imparting them with a distinct physicality. The divine images of Ram played by Arun Govil and Sita by Deepika Chikhalia instilled much devotion and love among the viewership community. However, mythification as an interpellative tool is limited in that it only goes thus far to instil nostalgia towards idealised gender norms and a utopian community. In order to have a viable effect on the viewer’s psyche, the entire edifice of mythification revolves on a crucial lynchpin- the Other.

Othering

In her renowned work, postcolonial scholar Chandra Mohanty (1991) described the process of Othering as the creation of a “cultural and composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourses”57. In similar consistency, Wu (2008) points out that the creation of Ramayan coincided with the upsurge of Hindutva, “which was partially fuelled by the series’ presentation of a Hindu world menaced by demons (the Other)”58.

In Ramayan’s representational discourse, most of the female protagonists like Sita play as the normative referent, the signifier to the male signified in a binary analytic. However, their binarism is primarily gendered. These gender idealisations and the consequent nostalgia that they invoke have to be met with their antitheses in the form of the Other and their inhabitation of an anxiety-ridden present. It is only with the bid to redeem this present that the Self can be glorified in both- the Ramayan as well as the Hindutva discourse. As Mishra (2002) indicates, “the ‘rakshasization of the Muslim Other was crucial to the recovery of this myth”59. In order for this demonisation to materialise, Ramayan conceives what I have identified as a process of Othering, a racial, cultural, sexual discrimination between the protagonists and antagonists, which is collectively transposed onto the moral realm.

In its representational discourse, Ramayan provides crudely different iconographies to the protagonists in comparison to the “racial and cultural Others”60, as reported by Sagar’s son Subhash, to invoke divine images in the minds of the viewers61. The “overdone divinity”62 imparted to all the leading and supporting protagonists ensured they had fair skin, attractive features, firm physiques and ornamental dresses, qualifying them as what Madhu Jain calls “moving calendar art pictures”63. In comparison, the series antagonists such as Ravan, Khara, Dushan and Shurpanakha amongst others, were deliberately featured as dark-complexioned, with often-deformed features, unshapely bodies, coarse voices, draped in tribal-styled attire, and are often shown uttering animal-like laughs. Their evil powers are further dramatised by exaggerated abjection and crude production techniques such as artificial graphics. Moreover, while the protagonists are strictly bound by “normative roles ad prescriptive behaviour”64, the antagonists are shown as sexually unrestrained and “morally ambiguous”65. However, two characters on the side of the antagonists such as Ravan’s wife Mandodari and his brother Vibhishan, who are mythologically perceived as innately humane and ‘caught on the wrong side’, were deliberately depicted in the same iconographic fashion as the protagonists. Concurrently, the series’ monkey characters such as Hanuman, Sugriva and Angad were portrayed more humanely than the Others, despite being of animalistic descent, because of their superior morality. This serves as a classic example of Sagar’s iconographic demarcation of protagonists and antagonists by casting their conflicting moralities onto exaggerated corporealities. In addition, the distinct regional affiliations of the protagonists (towards the northern part of India) versus the antagonists (to an exotic land called Lanka) renders demarcations more tangible and consequently “proffers an invigorated sense of identity”66, a rudimentary step towards Hindutva’s directed xenophobia.

In being “profoundly a text of ‘Othering’”67, Ramayan makes no delay in its constitution of the Other. Right from its pilot episode, one sees several gods, sages and celestial beings approach a sedate and reclined Lord Vishnu in the heavenly abodes of Vaikuntha, expressing their anguish about the state of affairs on Earth. They lament the slow demise of truth and righteousness due to the growing powers of the demon king- Ravan. Prithvi, the Earth goddess equates his rule with that of unrighteousness and immorality after which, a brief iconography of Ravan and his demons is shown, appearing to cause havoc. After being jointly invoked by this divine cohort to cast his earthy intervention and restore order, Vishnu decides to descent on earth as Ram, making the beginning of Ramayan. Thus, the formulation of an anxiety-provoking present is a deliberate cue to justify the worldly intervention of a divine force, an act that preconditions the glorification of the protagonists who embody morality in their crusade against immoral demons.

One can easily draw parallels between this celestial lamentation and Hindutva’s repeated anxiety-inducing discourses such as Saffron Demographics and Ghar Vapsi; and between Vishnu’s bid to restore order and Hindutva’s necessitation of ethnic cleansing to create the Hindu nation-state. Moreover, it is interesting to note that not only do Ramayan and the Hindutva discourse jointly treat difference between the Self and the Other in racial, cultural, sexual and iconographic terms, but their anxiety vis-a-vis the Other “is cast in a moral discourse of Good versus Evil, such that the other is implicitly evil”68. Hence, overcoming the Other in this bid to restore moral order is cast as an epic tale of moral redemption.

However, the fight between the Good Self and the Evil Other is not always contested over neat demarcations69. How then, is the Other differentiated?

PART III: Gender & Sexuality in Ramayan

Several scholars ranging across discourses on Hindutva converge upon the line of argument that gender and sexuality are crucial implications in Hindutva’s drive for ideological hegemony. It is of no co-incidence then, that Ramayan as its ideological apparatus heavily invests in tactics of mythification and Othering to interpellate subjectivities in gendered and sexual terms, progressing as “primarily a story of sexual intrigue”70.

Hindutva’s Ideal of Masculinity

In her article regarding the semiotics of communal violence and rape in the 2002 Gujarat Riots, Sarkar argues that “there is a dark sexual obsession about allegedly ultra-virile Muslim male bodies and over fertile female ones, that sustain figures of paranoia and revenge”71. While this sexual insecurity vis-à-vis the Muslim Other has been accounted for in several documentations of communal violence, it has also been reported to being closely linked to colonial conditioning of the Hindu self image as emasculated, “impotent, meek” and incapable of defending the Hindu nation”72. As a result, a bid to revitalise Hindu masculinity combined not just an attempt to counter these claims of emasculation, but to do so while maintaining a distinct upper hand in the spiritual realm73, and hence, morally superior.

Most divine masculinities in Ramayan are embodied by Kshatriya protagonists, who are actively endorsed in the life of a householder74. However, they are mythified and glorified as being “pure and free from lust”75 to the extent of being desexualised in comparison to the sexually predatory Other. For example, several tellings of the epic account for Kaikeyi’s sexual blackmail to force Dashratha to put her son Bharat on the throne instead of Ram. In carrying the risk of portraying Dashratha as sexually blackmailed, and hence, lustful, is completely censored in Sagar’s Ramayan. Sen Gupta perceives this as “a complete brushing away of female or male sexuality wherever it proves to be uncomfortable with a masculinist, heterosexual and puritanical worldview”76. On the other hand, the series provides no respite in Kaikeyi’s sexual portrayal, because this depiction of hers serves a functional role in that it augments her image as morally culpable and hence, inferior to the rest of the protagonists.

In similar context, Mankekar draws close parallels between Ram “with a bow and arrows slung on his shoulder… frequently shown meditating, praying, and leading the ascetic life of a renunciate”77; and Bankim Chandra’s construction of “ideal masculinity [that] combined militancy of the kshatriya [warrior] and the spirituality of the renouncer (sanyasi)78”. I take this argument further by suggesting that Ram’s manifestation of these two elements is contingent upon the Other. Meaning, that an otherwise sedate and meditational Ram’s militant aggression only manifests in defence against threat and aggression directed by the Other. Moreover, while Ram and other Kshatriya protagonists exemplify Hindutva’s ideal masculinity through their depiction of moral ascendency, self-adequacy and competency to triumph the Other against all odds, their apparent stability rests on thin ice. In other words, the inherent vulnerabilities and anxieties of Hindutva masculinity vis-à-vis the Other are displaced onto, and seek re-assurance through female sexualities.

Female Sexuality

Sattar points out that although male protagonists and antagonists can be morally demarcated as good and bad, “the split between women characters is far more pronounced and is always expressed in terms of sexuality”79. Similarly in Ramayan , while Sita, Kaushalya, Arundhati among other female protagonists are shown as domesticated, submissive, chaste, conforming and sexually restrained, antagonists, primarily Shurpanakha and Tadka are cast as demonic, deviant, untamed, sexually untamed and hence, threatening. Most, if not all their traits are defined in sexual terms and their moralities stem directly from their honour, which is wholly located in their sexual chastity.

Furthermore, masculine protection of women’s sexual chastity and honour is justified by rendering female sexuality as “fragile and easily fractured80” and under a constant threat of the carnal Other. The apparent threat posed by the Other serves a functional cause to the extent that in its sheer absence, gender contestations cease to be viable. Hence, for gender subjectivities to be implicated as per Hindutva’s conceptions, this immanent threat needs to be fabricated (and thereby redeemed) even when all empirical evidence and logic fails, as is the case with Saffron Demographics. In identical logic, the mutilation of Shurpanakha and the consequent abduction of Sita in Sagar’s Ramayan serve the same functional cause. It is interesting to note that without these two significant events, it is almost impossible for the series’ narrative to progress forward.

Shurpanakha’s mutilation results from a sexually deviant demoness and sister of Ravan, who takes the form of a bejewelled damsel after being enamoured by Ram and proposes to marry him while he is on his exile. A highly bemused Ram expresses his vow of monogamy towards Sita and provokes the demoness to take her proposal to his brother Lakshman instead, deliberately signalling his availability as against his actual marital status. After being amply mocked by Lakshman too, an infuriated Shurpanakha returns to her demonic form and threatens to eat Sita up, seeing her as the cause of her rejection. At this point, Lakshman is asked to intervene, whereby he mutilates Shurpanakha by cutting off her nose. Vowing to destroy the two brothers, Shurpanakha departs for Lanka, where she pleads her brothers to avenge her humiliation. Ram then remarks to Sita that it is a shameless woman (lajjaheen aurat) who causes of the downfall of her entire community. This act of Shurpanakha’s mutilation can be symbolically interpreted as a gendered punishment for non-conformist behaviour. Shurpanakha’s transgression stems not just from her overly sexual appearance and vanity thereof, but as Das suggests, from her direct disavowal of patriarchal norms of male protection, through her agency that enables her to give out her own proposal without a mediating kinsman. At the same time, the reason for her mutilation is attributed to her attempt to attack a defenceless and innocently meek Sita. However, when seen in the light of the ongoing argument, Sita is instrumentally implicated here to mask the real threat that Shurpanakha’s unrestrained sexuality posed to Ram and his brother, or rather, their masculinities.

Apart from functionally serving as an opportunity for the valorisation of divine masculinities by ‘protecting’ their woman, this scene serves as the core catalyst to the subsequent narrative by “move[ing] the story to top gear”81 and hence inciting the demons led by Ravan to avenge their sister’s mutilation by abducting Sita. Moreover, it is of no co-incidence that Ramayan’s narrative progression relies on the rational digression of its female characters- Manthara, Kaikeyi and Sita, thereby creating situations to justify masculine intervention at the behest of of feminine lack of judgement. Evidently, The entire plot of Ramayan is based on the mutilation, abduction and retrieval of women by men.

What operates implicitly here is the displacement of Hindu masculine insecurities and anxieties vis-à-vis the ultra virile Other onto female sexualities, which, by being cast as threatened, serve as a battlefield for masculine contestations. The constant defence, protection and retribution of female sexualities allows for Hindutva masculinities to seek re-assurance under an equally masculine veil of male protection.

When these gender contestations enter mythological content and iconography, not only are they decontextualised, but are placed in a larger moral imperative, thereby gaining the status of an epic tale of “fall and rise, continue with a re-signification of woman… and triumph in a coda of redemption”82. Equivalently, Ramayan constitutes a moral battle between the Self and the Other, where the lines demarcating the two are constantly re-inscribed by contesting through female sexualities, their mutilation, abduction and retrieval, where gender and sexuality serve as the most salient markers of Otherness.

PART IV: Gender & the Nation

In communal and nationalist discourses, female sexualities are commonly relegated to the symbolic realm and come to determine communal honour83. This is purposefully done to profess communal, and consequently national honour as vulnerable and threatened by the licentious Other, and thus, in need of male protection. In similar logic, masculine ascendency is sought over the Other community through the sexual defilement of their women, equated with the defilement of their honour. Counter-claims to this ascendency then follow in the form of retributions in similarly sexual ways, as is evident in most cases of communal and sectarian violence. Thus, as Nussbaum argues, by being relegated as symbols of communal honour, women are limitlessly reduced from being persons, ends in themselves, to mere instruments, means of expressing “male power, honour and security”84. One can find endless examples of the instrumental use of women subjectivities throughout Ramayan and the Hindutva discourse, for the contestation of masculine insecurities, anxieties in search of re-assurance and stability, that jointly result in the “gendered nature of nations and nationalisms”. Thus, masculine contestations across mythological, communal as well as national discourses come to be centred upon, conditioned by and reassured through the differential sexual chastity and honour conferred upon, and persevered by the women of the epic, the communities and the nation.

*

Notes

* Officially coined by V.D. Savarkar in 1923, Hindutva is used as a term to refer to Hindu nationalism and present-day Hindu fundamentalism in India. This ideology was soon adopted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on its formation in 1925, thereby marking the inception of the Sangh Parivar or conglomerate of organisations representing Hindutva, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini and several others.
**
Several scholars such as Chakravarti (1990) and Roy (1995) have highlighted the fraudulence of these claims by highlighting selectively constituted national historiographies that entail a very distorted conception of the past, which have in turn been utilised by Hindutva to gain genealogical and cultural authenticity. 

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Standard
Essays

Spectatorship, Suffering & Haneke’s Caché

This was my essay submission for the film studies course ‘Screening the Present’ as a part of my Masters programme at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the academic year 2013-14. This is an original piece of work and has been re-published for all those who might be interested in the topic. 

In her essay titled Ethics, Spectatorship and the spectacle of suffering, Libby Saxton (2010) provides some meaningful insights into the ethical dilemma around watching suffering from a mediated distance. Lillie Chouliaraki (2006:2) states that “no spectacle can raise the ethical question of what to do so compellingly as suffering”. Through the content of her essay, Saxton invokes the arguments of several scholars and critics, who argue for and against the contention that the spatiotemporal distance that separates a spectator from the suffering that s/he is witnessing is damaging and obstructs the former from undertaking ethical responsibility towards the latter.

According to Chouliaraki, Sontag and several others, the spectacles of mediated suffering that we witness from a spatial and often temporal distance “…surround us with scenes of misery in which we cannot immediately or directly intervene, disrupting the chain reaction linking contemplation, compassion and action” (Saxton, 2010:65). Critics belonging to this theoretical position are increasingly skeptical of such spectatorship and Sontag’s conception of ‘tele- intimacy’ or the “illusion of closeness” that the televisual media fosters in order to “conceal political hierarchies” (ibid:66). While some are inclined towards such an argument, others provide an opposition by placing the ethical responsibility of the spectator over immoral effects that such images of suffering might potentially generate. They argue that “we are removed far away from danger but not necessarily from responsibility” and stress on the “capacity of cinematic images to attract, distract or hold us to account.” (ibid: 63; 64). Further, interventions of those like Bolantsky (1993) place the “ethico-political agency and responsibility of the spectator over the purportedly ‘immoral effects’ of such images” (Saxton, 2010:65). Critics such as Bolantski, Sontag and Chouliaraki concede that “the act of contemplating others’ suffering is not innately problematic, but rather those modes of representing and responding which instrumentalize this spectacle to shore up or naturalise the socio-political status quo” (ibid:66). Over time,the analysis of such “modes of representing and responding” has extended beyond the news discourse as scholars have noted- “the relationship between cinema and distant suffering has become a discernible concern” (ibid:64). Moreover, Saxton openly considers whether “certain filmmaking practices can open up different perspectives on atrocity images generated by competing technologies by repositioning them in new contexts where they put camera’s fictions into question” (ibid). It is at this point that I seek to analyse the representation of the ethical dilemma around spectatorship and mediated suffering in Michael Haneke’s highly acclaimed film- Caché. 

On the surface, Caché is a story of a bourgeois Parisian man (Georges Laurent) and his family, whose peace is utterly destroyed when they start receiving anonymous visual content, potentially excavating hidden secrets from the his past and “buried in his psyche” (Solomons, 2006). Released in 2005, the film has been critically acclaimed and received by many as “a trauma film” (Radstone, 2007: 19) and “a film about anxiety in relation to a history of colonial violence and the technology associated with it” (Khanna, 2007: 241). Since much analysis of the film by distinguished scholars has been done through psychoanalytical and/or postcolonial frameworks, I take this as an opportunity to assess the ways in which the ethical dilemma around spectatorship and mediated suffering has been represented and negotiated in Caché. I begin by discussing the several connotations attached to Caché following which, I analyse the ways in which Haneke’s unique filming technique and visual aesthetic implicates spectators for being ethically responsible. While doing so, I seek to demonstrate how Caché goes beyond simply representing the ethical concerns of Saxton and others in its unique interaction with its spectator at diegetic, as well as extra-diegetic levels. I conclude my essay with several ambiguities that evolve out of such an analysis and their crucial value in negotiating around the ethical dilemma of spectatorship and mediated suffering.

To begin with, it would be wise to pose the “key question that confronts Haneke’s film” according to Ranjana Khanna : “what, exactly, is Caché?” (Khanna, 2007:237). Before attempting to answer this question, one already has the sense that the answer is not going to be easy or clear-cut by any means. Yet, for whatever it is worth, the word Caché, in its literal sense means ‘hidden’. The film “makes great play of what is, and remains hidden– to its characters, to the camera and to its spectators” (Cousins, 2007:233, emphasis added). The film relentlessly denies any clear-cut reading of it at any level- any logical derivation of or conclusion to the whodunnit plot is inevitably flawed or ambiguous and its hidden ethical and moral implications are open to endless deliberation and debate. While these are just a few ways at looking at the hidden connotations behind Caché, my analysis is chiefly concerned with the film’s ethical implication of its spectators at a diegetic as well as extra-diegetic level, at how it converses with them and places them in  ways that effectively facilitate ethical reflexivity and moral deliberation. Bearing this in mind, I proceed to carry out my analysis.

Many critics conspicuously place the look of the “mediated witness” under ethical scrutiny, as devoid of “moral justification” for being remotely situated from what is transmitted to them via ‘visual technology’. Moreover, “moral qualms about such distanced spectatorship are exacerbated by the propensity of certain kinds of atrocity images to abstract or sanitise their subject-manner or turn it into an object of voyeuristic fascination (Saxton, 2010: 65). Does the film technique and visual aesthetic in Caché allow for such ‘voyeuristic fascination’, or does it ethically implicate its spectators to exercise reflexivity?

Right from the opening scene of the movie, we see a constant rupture in the film’s linearity and a confusion of spectator’s expectations. The unforgivingly long establishing shot of the movie, which is fixed on an almost static mise en scène denies the wistful spectator any depth of field. After briefly looking for anything in particular to be discovered in these long minutes, the spectator scans the edges of the frame and then constantly returns to investigate what is or is about to take place, as conventionally expected. This long shot of the video footage of Rue de Iris impose you to look but don’t suggest what you should be looking at. As Khanna argues, “There is no lesson or anything in particular to be discovered in the disturbingly long establishing shots. They seem to suggest that we should look for something, or investigate in the manner that we have been taught to read. And yet in Caché, there is only emptiness and spectacle” (2007: 24).The smoothness of this long shot is finally interrupted by the ripples caused by the fast-forward button pressed by Anne, the female-protagonist of the film. At this moment, the spectator realises that s/he had been seeing an intra-diegetic video footage, which, according to many like Beugent (2007: 230), is deliberately shot by Haneke in high-definition in order to thoroughly confuse the spectator as to whether s/he is watching- the diegesis or the intra-diegesis or an overlap. This constant shuffle between diegesis and intra-diegesis creates a situation in which, the spectator, embedded within the film’s masterful whodunit thrust has to be constantly alert and use their discretion to distinguish between the two and determine what exactly they are viewing at that moment- the film or the video footage. Wheatley correctly observes that it is not until one goes through this experience a few more times along the narrative progression that they grasp the distinguished form of the video footage, which is characterised by the static position of the camera (2009:162).Not only is the narrative plot unpredictable but so is the source of the images on the screen, and being left with little more than their own discretion to judge which is diegetic and which is not. Hence, the spectator is compelled to be constantly alert to avoid misidentification of surveillance shots for the diegesis and thereby denied leisure, which is one of the preconditions for ‘voyeuristic fascination’.

The video footages that spectator witnesses are mostly longer than s/he desires them to be, too static to excite him/her, devoid of any cinematographic innovation and often disruptive of the film’s linearity. The playing-time of these footages, along with their fast forwarding and stopping is directed by a remote control, which is not in the hands of the spectator but of the protagonist, who refuses the spectator’s impatient scopophilic drive to be gratified in the pace that s/he craves. Beugnet (2007: 229) observes that for those watching the film on DVD “will unwittingly mimic the actions of the characters, viewers of the film within the film”, who are likely to fast forward the long establishing shot only to realise its intra-diegetic nature when it is being fast forwarded by Anne. This diegetic act can be read as an implicit condemnation of what the voyeuristic pleasure-driven spectator is most likely to do in such a situation to gratify their visual pleasures at a desired pace that Cachè often purposefully fails to deliver. Moreover, the Paris massacre of 1961- the reason behind the death of Majid’s parents and a central feature of most postcolonial analyses of the film only has one verbal mention in the film. One could read this as a Levinasian way of paying homage to those who lost lives as a “thought freed of all representation” (Saxton, 2010: 99) or as the film’s refusal of the voyeuristic eye to be allowed any speculation of violence that transcends representation. The film’s gradual frustration and denial of voyeuristic desires are punctuated by Majid’s instantaneous suicide, which is of equal shock to the spectator as it is to the Georges- the diegetic spectator himself. The unrelentingly unfixed camera, which refuses to blink for almost six minutes after Majid’s suicide forces the spectator to witness what s/he might not desire. The spectator’s inability to escape this post-suicidal impasse forces the spectator to reflect upon atrocity that they have been so complicit in witnessing, as Aaron argues “not only as consumers but as consensual parties in generation of character’s suffering for our entertainment” (Saxton, 2010:67). Despite the spectator not being directly responsible for the violence that s/he witnesses on the screen, Wheatley reads Caché as imposing guilt on someone not just for “doing something wrong but by merely desiring it” (Wheatley, 2008:184, emphasis added), making the spectator reflect upon their desire of wanting to witness violence that their drive to entertainment awaits.  This gradual frustration gives rise to disorientation on the part of the spectator, who, according to Wheatley, “seeks the source of this discomfort in order to best diffuse it, and become aware of the reason for this discomfort” (2009:153). Constantly denied the opportunity of engaging with the movie in a manner that is visually gratifying, the disorientated spectator is driven by his/her own frustrated desire to act reflexively, only to discover that those desires involved someone else’s suffering, and that, despite being staged, hence being ethically implicated in their own relationship to what they witness on the screen.

In Saxton’s account, the ethical dilemma around spectatorship and suffering is premised upon an asymmetrical relationship between the spectator and the sufferer on many levels. At a basic level, there exist subject-object relations, which, according to Aaron underpin Mulvey’s ‘gaze theory’ and “are reconfigured in terms of an encounter between the self and other, and exposure to alterity is understood to be political through and through” (Saxton, 2010:67). The spectator is the westerner, the subject of the gaze while the sufferer is the non-western object of his gaze the the privilege of the former is directly or indirectly linked to the pain of the latter in ways that many scholars ethically interrogate. How might the power of the gaze as exclusively western be negotiated in Caché?

At a diegetic level, easily qualified as the affluent westerner, Georges counts as a spectator of the tapes that he receives but this is partially complicated if one considers that many of the tapes consist of video footages of an anonymous gaze, constantly surveilling over his domestic haven. Many a times Georges and Anne are watching themselves being watched by a source that they will never know of. This is not to imply that the suffering that Majid undergone in his life so far can be compared to that of Georges as he is ethically implicated but that Caché, through the power of the image strongly asserts that the gaze can “penetrate the privacy of the home” (Silverman, 2007: 247) and that while Georges and Anne might have the luxury of watching mediated images of suffering on the flatscreen in their living room, they are constantly being watched by a surveilling eye at moments that they are not aware of. A postcolonial reading of the gaze by Silverman accounts for the ways in which “techniques of surveillance were formally instruments of power used to control and oppress others, especially in the hands of the French army at the time of the Algerian war…as an essential element in defending the gated community against the other, but they can also be used to put under surveillance the very people who formerly controlled the cameras” (ibid). The surveillance tapes that the Laurent family receives can be seen as a return of the gaze, suggesting that the gaze is no more an ‘instrument of power’ of the west but dispersed into anonymity. The surveilling gaze is ubiquitous in the contemporary world, and whether it belongs to a fixed source of authority is increasingly called into question by the anonymous surveillance content shot from an unidentifiable spot.

One’s inescapability from the anonymous gaze is reinforced by the constant challenging of the impenetrability of spaces where Georges seeks recluse. For example, in one of the last scenes where he goes into his room to get some sleep, he takes a voyeuristic peep at the outside world through closed curtains that are suggestive of his position as being able to see while not being seen. However, the presence of a camera is confirmed by the spectator’s ability to see Georges throughout his voyeuristic peep and even while he attempts to fall asleep. One could have concluded otherwise had the shot simply ended on Georges entering the room and closing the door behind him, but in this case, the camera deliberately denies him any sort of privacy of space. Similar is the case when Georges has an emotional breakdown in his kitchen after failed attempts to locate his missing son Pierrot. He doesn’t escape the spectator’s gaze.  Hence, the conception that Georges might be the sole voyeur and/or unseen by anyone else is challenged in instances such as these. But Georges is not the only one whose conception is being challenged.

Silverman states that “Today we are all objects of someone else’s gaze and, because of the endless circulation of images, often incapable of fixing its source” (ibid). At an extra diegetic level, as cinema-goers, spectators are under the constant impression that they are the sole voyeurs in the cinema hall. In this scophophilic illusion of being the sole bearer of the gaze, the spectator often forgets that s/he is being surveilled at almost all times, whether in the subway, or driving into the parking lot, in the elevator, outside the ticket booths, and at times that s/he is unaware of while entering and leaving the cinema. While his/her gaze might not be returned to him/her actively on the screen, s/he is subject to authorised and anonymous gazes that are beyond his/her control. Wheatley observes that “Caché serves as a contemplation as well as an example of the power of images to prompt the viewer into a position of ethical awareness” (2009:155). Hence, in George realising that at many times, he is being watched, caught unaware, the spectator is made aware of the same, and that ultimately, there is no one perpetual holder of the gaze. In the absence of any exchanges between the subject and object of the gaze in a trending surveillance in Caché seems to re-iterate the power of the gaze but displaces it from being exclusively western to one that is constantly contested, superior to our discretion, omnipotent as well as omnipresent.
One might wonder how a spectator might be ethically implicated in realising that s/he is not only watching but is being watched. At a diegetic level, Wheatley argues that “Georges is able to ignore, or suppress his awareness of his childhood act as long as nobody knows about it, submerging himself in the trappings of his bourgeois lifestyle… but once the mysterious images introduce the idea of someone who has ‘seen’ Georges, who is aware of his misfeeds, he can no longer deny that it happened” (2009: 158). At an extra-diegetic level, apart from suspending his/her self-awareness in the “moral vacuum” of “cinematic interpellation” (ibid), the spectator, like Georges, is submerged in a space where s/he believes s/he is the sole voyeur. However, on being suggested otherwise, s/he is made conscious of constantly being watched by an omnipotent and omnipresent gaze and thus, is made to feel accountable for his/her conduct for there is a gaze holds him/her as its object, which might not look the other way when s/he wants it to, hence, implicating reflexivity in what s/he does and how s/he does it.

The power of the gaze, in penetrating through closed rooms in order to capture scenes where the protagonists suffer setbacks, emotional breakdowns and even conduct the act of “visceral suicide” (Wheatley), is capable of what Sontag calls “the manufacturing and experiencing of sympathy” and which “can thus be strategies of disavowal, ways of denying our agency and responsibility” and jointly advocates with Chouliaraki for “reflective rather than sentimental responses” (Saxton, 2010:66). In being overwhelmed by sympathetic feelings, the spectator is likely to diverge from engaging in the reflexivity that the negotiation of such an ethical dilemma demands. However, while watching Caché, a spectator is driven by the movie’s whodunit plot to the extent that s/he hopes for every subsequent scene of the movie to bring him/her closer to finding out who is the sender of the tapes and images and in the process, is mobilised in his/her pleasure drive “in the form of the ‘desire to see what will happen’”(Wheatley, 2009:159). At a diegetic level, on realising that Pierrot has gone missing, Georges and Anne shift their attention away from the ongoing news on their television set, the images of which, Wheatley observes, “go unnoticed by Georges and Anne, who remain oblivious to the outside world” (ibid: 160). On encountering what appears to be a personal problem, they become oblivious to the latest news of the atrocities taking place in places at a remote distance from them. At the same time, at an extra-diegetic level, the spectator himself/herself remains unfazed by the atrocity images that continue to dominate the scene by being placed at the centre of the frame. The spectator is more invested in knowing whether or not Majid is behind Pierrot’s disappearance even when s/he sees Georges undergo an emotional breakdown in the kitchen. Thus, the diegesis as well as cinematic technique creates situations for the spectator where s/he is compelled by his/her pleasure drive to place suspense over sympathy, which is gradually frustrated as previously discussed. The spectator is skilfully manoeuvred by the whodunit  while avoiding a plunge into sympathy, immediately after which, as Ezra and Schillers argue, the film “dramatizes its insistence upon pushing central events and expectations to the periphery, while situating the surface- and the ostensibly superficial as its core” (2007: 212). By the end of the film, the spectator realises that to have solely focused on the suspense/thriller aspect of the movie is to have missed the point, and goes back to reflect what s/he missed, ethically calling into question the pleasure drive responsible for making him/her miss what the movie was really about.

Haneke himself remarks: “…if you come out wanting to know who sent the tapes, you didn’t understand the film. To ask this question is to avoid asking the real question the film raises, which is more: how do we treat our conscience and our guilt and reconcile ourselves to living with our actions?” (Solomons, 2006). This is suggestive of Haneke meaning to drive the spectator to confront his/her own conscience and guilt that s/he might constantly disavow. Gilroy is highly critical of the film for its “horrible accommodation” of colonialism “by means of an equation of colonial atrocities with the childish acts of a 6 year old” (2007: 233; 235). However, seen in another light, Wheatley remarks that “the issue is not the child’s crime but the adult’s refusal to acknowledge responsibility” (2009: 164-165). Seeing Caché’s implications solely in a colonial light might prove to be slightly regressive, for through its colonial undertone, what the film seems to be pointing out to is individual reflexivity of what s/he stands morally culpable for. This is one of the reasons why I make a conscious referral to the spectator in individual terms (his/her, s/he as opposed to their, them). The film encourages “personal engagement” of the spectator with the screen in a way that his/her response to the film is “personal and subjective” (ibid: 9-10). Through its shifting camera positions and use of both: static and unfixed camera technique, an overlap in film and HD video footage and highly ambiguous points of view, not only does the film deny any clear meaning but also tells us that there is no one point of view, no “one truth”, but only “personal truth” (Solomons, 2006), which remains subject-specific to the spectator concerned. Comparing this to the ‘Cavellian model of spectatorship’, Wheatley (2009:10) argues that this grants the viewer “an unprecedented autonomy” and the opportunity to interact with the film not just at a personal level but in a dialogue that is open-ended and continuous. Hence, besides being ethically implicated, the spectator is given the opportunity to enter into a unique interaction with the film at a diegetic, as well as extra-diegetic level.

To conclude, while contributing to a negotiation in the ethical dilemma of spectatorship and mediated suffering by implicating its spectator in their responsibility of what they watch on the screen in many ways, Caché, in its unique discursive interaction with the spectator denies any certainty but one. That is, the certainty of ambiguity itself – that no is absolute or ultimate gaze, point of view or truth, but meanings that we constantly produce and contest. Carrying these ambiguities in this negotiation is of crucial value as it helps one to avoid essentialism. To hold on to ambiguities is to hold on to the possibility of the existence of something, the awareness of which, we are yet to be made aware of and the acknowledgement of a dilemma as well of not having arrived at a solution, but having entered the phase of negotiating that dilemma. Of not having arrived there yet but in the process of arriving, unsure of whether these ambiguities can ever be solved and whether a final point can be arrived at after all, but of  striving towards nevertheless. More important that trying to solve the ambiguities, it is what implicates us through these negotiations that makes focusing on such a dilemma worthwhile. In ethically implicating its spectators and problematising notions of voyeuristic desire, the power of the gaze and of sympathy being a ‘strategy of disavowal’, Caché makes significant contributions in the negotiation of the ethical dilemma of spectatorship and mediated suffering. However, there are significant steps that need to be taken, several questions to be asked to proceed with the negotiations- is mediated suffering, in being “denuded of its raw power” (Saxton, 2010: 65) neutralised suffering? Is the authenticity of concern for pain and suffering solely determined by the spectator’s distance from it and hence “unlicensed” (ibid)? In asking whether spectators are only implicated by the suffering of only “those like us” (ibid:66), are we not re-iterating coloniality? Is the pain of another human being not simply enough to generate ethical responsibility and solidarity? These are questions are more unasked than unanswered in light of the ethical implication of spectators in a world that is “more connected but lonelier than ever” (Riddering, 2013).
References : –

Beugnet, M. (2007). Blind spot. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.227-231. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/227.full.pdf+html [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Bolantski, L. (1993). Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Translated). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chouliaraki, L. (2006). The spectatorship of suffering. London: SAGE Publications.

Cousins, M. (2007). After the end: word of mouth and Caché. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.223-226. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/223.full.pdf+html.

Ezra, E. and Sillars, J. (2007). Introduction. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.211-213. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/211.full.pdf+html [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Ezra, E. and Sillars, J. (2007). Screen. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.215-221. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/215.full.pdf+html [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Gilroy, P. (2007). Shooting crabs in a barrel. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.233-235. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/233 [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Khanna, R. (2007). From Rue Morgue to Rue des Iris. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.237-242. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/237.full [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen, 16(3), pp.6-18.

Radstone, S. (2010). Caché: Or what the past hides. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, [online] 24(1), pp.17-29. Available at: http://www.informaworld.com [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Riddering, K. (2013). Are We More Connected but Lonelier Than Ever Despite Social Media?. [online] Yahoo Contributor Network. Available at: http://voices.yahoo.com/are-we-more-connected-but-lonelier-than-ever-despite-12456202.html?cat=9 [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Saxton, L. (2010). Blinding Visions: Levinas, Ethics, Faciality. In: L. Saxton, ed., Film and ethics: foreclosed encounters, 1st ed. London, New York: Routledge, pp.95-107.

Saxton, L. (2010). Ethics, Spectatorship and the Spectacle of Suffering. In: L. Saxton, ed., Film and ethics: foreclosed encounters, 1st ed. London, New York: Routledge, pp.62-75.

Silverman, M. (2007). The empire looks back. Screen, [online] 48(2), pp.245-249. Available at: http://screen.oxfordjournals.org.gate2.library.lse.ac.uk/content/48/2/245.full.pdf+html [Accessed 26 Apr. 2014].

Solomons, J. (2006). We love Hidden. But what does it mean?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/feb/19/worldcinema [Accessed 20 Apr. 2014].

Wheatley, C. (2009). Introduction. In: C. Wheatley, ed., Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, 1st ed. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, pp.1-13.

Wheatley, C. (2009). Shame and Guilt: Caché. In: C. Wheatley, ed., Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, 1st ed. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, pp.153-187.

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Essays

A Critique of Connell’s Existing Theory on Masculinity

This was my essay submission as a part of my Masters’s degree for the course ‘Gender Theories’ at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the academic year 2013-14. This is an original piece of work, bearing my copyright and has been re-published in the interest of… whoever might be interested 😛

Connell suggests that masculinity is not a coherent object of study, especially if understood in isolation. Critically discuss.

The sociology of gender, more particularly of masculinity, has gained immensely from the academic contributions made by the highly accredited scholar R.W. Connell in his pioneering conceptualisation of masculinities, the critiques it sparked and the progressive revisions thereof. Premising his conceptualisation of masculinity firmly on discursive practices of individuals located in a gendered order, Connell (1995) suggests that masculinity is not a coherent object of study, especially if understood in isolation. He asserts that “if we broaden the angle of vision, we can see masculinity, not as an isolated object, but as an aspect of a larger structure” and goes on to account for this structure and masculinity’s location in it as ‘inherently relational’ (1995: 67-68).

In my essay, I intend to investigate the concept of masculinity as an ‘inherently relational’ one and argue that it is not just in isolation that masculinity ceases to be a coherent object of study but that a particular hegemonic pattern in the slanted interplay between masculinity and what it contradicts is crucial to the longevity of masculinity as a stabilising factor of multiple patriarchies in what Butler (2004: 196-197) calls  a ‘phallocentric worldview’.

In order to do so, I begin my essay with an attempt to unpack Connell’s definition of masculinity and explore its relational dynamics within a larger framework. Following this, I explore Connell’s conception of masculinity and its logical coherence against ‘isolation’ and test masculinity’s relational dynamics with feminity as slanted and crucial to the its longevity as a stabilising factor of multiple patriarchies. In the next section, I extend these relational dynamics to the interplay between Connell’s conception of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (1987, 1995) and the multiplicity of masculinities that evolve in response it and in the “mutual conditioning (intersectionality) of gender” (particularly masculinities) “with such other social dynamics” (Messerschmidt, 2012: 59). While several scholars have acknowledged that “the interplay of gender with other structures such as class and race creates further relationships between masculinities” (Connell, 1995: 80), I treat this as an occasion to pay particular attention on the dynamics of caste in its intersection with gender, particularly masculinity at various points and what effects this has on Connell’s theoretical viability.  I conclude by suggesting possible implications that a relational concept might have, not just for the logical coherence of Connell’s formulation of masculinity, but from a progressivist outlook to foster gender equity.

To begin with, it would be analytically useful to unpack what Connell theorises as ‘masculinity’. According to him, “’masculinity’, to the extent that the term can be briefly defined at all, is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices in bodily experiences, personality and culture.” (italics mine) (1995: 71). The three words that I have put in italics are the ones that I consider to be the cardinal points of correlation.

To elaborate, the place is the social location that a person occupies in the gender structure. Keeping in mind an earnest Halberstam’s claim that “masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects” (1998: 2), not only does an individual inhabit this location in relation to other individuals but in a larger relation to masculinities and feminities. As a result, individuals travel through masculinities while simultaneously producing them.

Masculinities are produced by individual engagements in “masculine” practices and characteristics (Schippers: 2006, 86). Speaking of practices- the second cardinal point of correlation, Connell theorises masculinity as “a configuration of practice, (which) is simultaneously positioned in a number of structures of relationship, which may be following different historical trajectories.” (1995: 73). Hence, masculinity constitutes what we understand as ‘masculine practices’ while ‘doing gender’ (West & Zimmerman, 1987). What these definitions make clear is that these practices consist of social interactions take place within particular social structures at local, regional and global levels and bear spatiotemporal contingency (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005: 849).

The embodiment of these practices produces particular effects- the third and final cardinal point of correlation. These effects vary widely, from an individual to a collective level and have significant socio-cultural impact.

Hence, the three cardinal points- places, practices and effects are placed in a simultaneous relationship. As a result, individuals constantly occupy shifting locations in the gender structure, endlessly constituting and contesting masculinities through their practices and producing effects through and being affected by these practices on an individual and collective level.

However, this entire process does not exist in itself or in a socio-cultural void. In other words, while an inter-relation between places, practices and effects is explicitly mentioned in Connell’s definition of masculinity, what is equally important to factor in is that “masculinity is accomplished in social actions and is therefore contingent upon the gender relations in a particular social setting” (ibid: 836). Hence, masculinity needs to be understood in relation to the particular gender relations, as well as various dynamics of the social structure that it exists within and in constant interaction to, such as race, class, religion, and case. Such an approach, which is thoroughly intersectional, is not only likely to provide us with a holistic insight of masculinity but also the construction of multiple masculinities that emerge in this interplay between gender relations and the various social dynamics that they bear contingency upon. In Connell’s words, “To understand gender, then, we must constantly go beyond gender. The same applies in reverse. We cannot understand class, race or global inequality without constantly moving towards gender. Gender relations are a major component of social structure as a whole, and gender politics are among the main determinants of our collective fate” (1995:76).

To sum up, relational dynamics exist at three levels. First– at the basic level of the definition, which has already been discussed at length. Second, between the constitution, re-constitution and contestation of masculinities and the larger structure of ‘gender relations’ and ‘social dynamics’ within which they exist and are ‘mutually conditioned’ (Messerschmidt, 2012: 59) . And lastly and what we often fail to consider- the interconnectedness of each relationship with other relationships, for example, the relationship between gender and caste impacts and is impacted by the relationships between gender-class and caste-class, something that I will elaborate later on in the essay. To assume each relationship in isolation and as unilinear is to miss the most crucial component of intersectionality, which calls for the understanding of relationships as constantly interacting and intersecting.

I now proceed to test masculinity’s relational dynamics as slanted and crucial to the its longevity as a stabilising factor of multiple patriarchies. Several scholars have addressed the internally complex nature of masculinity as a category . Messerschmidt seems convinced about there being no fixed masculinity and that gender hierarchies were “historical” and therefore  “subject to change” (Connell & Messerschmidt: 832). Connell argues that “The problem of shifting definitions is exacerbated by our inability to define either masculinity or femininity except in relation to each other and to men and women” (1995:71). In his critique of Connell’s conception of hegemonic masculinities, Demetriou argues that “men do not constitute a homogenous or internally coherent bloc” (2001:340).

However, masculinity exists, not simply in equitable relations with feminity but in what Paechter (2006) calls a “dualistic relation”, “whether claimed by males or females, positions both extreme and normative feminity as without power, and indeed, as pathological” (p.257). Feminity thus constitutes everything that masculinity is not and something that all ‘incompetent’ masculinities dread slipping into. Roy comprehensively paraphrases this in his article- “This fear of failure (of attaining masculinity) is also a fear of the feminine because failure represents the danger of slipping into a category that you have never respected and held as inferior to your kind. From fear to hatred is a very short journey and violence a logical corollary” (2013: 25). In other words, failure amounts to feminity, a synonym of powerlessness. What is clear here is that the binarism of masculinity and feminity isn’t just relational or mutually exclusive, but it one where masculinity is everything that feminity can never be, and feminity is everything that masculinity is so threatened of becoming, so much so that the very act of successful emulation of masculinity by the female body is suppressed to “…allow for male masculinity to stand unchallenged as the bearer of gender stability and gender deviance” (Halberstam, 2001: 372).

Further, as Halberstam points out, “…unlike male feminity which fulfils a ritual function in male homosocial cultures, female masculinity is generally  received by hetero- and homo-normative cultures as a pathological sign of misidentification or maladjustment, as a longing to be and to have a power that is always just out of reach” (ibid: 360). Despite being binary opposites, “feminities are not constructed in the ways masculinities are; they do not confer cultural power, nor are they able to guarantee patriarchy. They are, instead, constructed as a variety of negations of the masculine” (Paechter, 2006:256). Whether seen at the normative level, or at the level of performativity or embodiment, masculinity and feminity don’t just exist in relational terms but they do so in a dualistic relation, which lacks an equal balance and the “subordinate term is negated”, and “feminity is thus, defined as a lack, an absence of masculinity (Kessler and McKenna, 1978)” (ibid). Hence, masculinity doesn’t simply attain its logical coherence in a simple relation to feminity, instead, it does so by placing itself on the ascendent end of what I term a ‘slanted relationship’ with feminity, legitimising itself through unequal gender relations where the feminine is constantly debased, thereby amounting to a stabilising factor of multiple patriarchies in a ‘phallocentric worldview’. It is for the same reason that masculinity is so firmly situated in the male, and any instance of female masculinity is subdued, for that allows male masculinity to “stand unchallenged as the bearer of gender stability and gender deviance.” (Halberstam, 2001: 372)

My use of the term ‘multiple patriarchies’ implies an intentional move beyond the opposite binarism of male-female and masculinity-feminity to address a similarly dualistic relationship elsewhere.

Apart from patterns of masculinity being “socially defined in contradistinction from some model (whether real or imaginary) of femininity”, they are also formed as a result of “social ascendency of one group of men over others (Connel & Messerschmidt, 2005: 848; 844). Hegemonic masculinity isn’t just “ a configuration of gender practice which…guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Demetriou, 2001: 340) but as Anandhi et al point out, treats “those men who do not or cannot conform to hegemonic masculinity as effeminate and inferior” (2002: 4397). Further, it ensures the durability and survivability of patriarchy more through ‘incorporation than active oppression’. Demetriou borrows the Gramscian concept of ‘dialectical pragmatism’ and Bhabha’s ‘hybridity’, to account for hegemonic masculinity as an ‘internally diversified bloc’ that counters the ‘crisis of patriarchy’ and adapts to historical changes by constantly incorporating non- hegemonic masculinities “in order to construct the best possible strategy for the reproduction of patriarchy” (2001: 348). He asserts that the interplay between hegemonic and non- hegemonic masculinities in his ‘masculine bloc’ is “non-dualistic” (ibid). However convincing Demetriou’s account may seem, “in practice, both incorporation and oppression can occur together” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005: 848).  This indicates a similarly dualistic relationship between hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities which, despite being slightly masqueraded by the ‘incorporation’ factor which makes it seem like there is room for mutual exchange, is eventually one-sided and in the favour of hegemonic masculinity, which exercises ‘effeminacy’, ’oppression’ and ‘incorporation’ simultaneously. For example, despite hegemonic masculinity being enacted by only by a minority of men, it is constructed as an idealised type of masculinity, which, despite not corresponding closely to the actual lives of any men, is structured within the widespread ideals, fantasies and desires of men that they constantly strive for but can never completely achieve (ibid:832; 838). Hegemonic masculinity is thus imparted normative value to the extent of placing it at an unattainable height, in a ‘slanted relationship’ with non hegemonic masculinities, constituting everything that non-hegemonic masculinities constantly lack while it can freely ‘effeminate’, ‘incorporate’ and ‘oppress’.

However, to neatly place hegemonic masculinities as the ‘incorporators’ and ‘oppressors’ versus non-hegemonic masculinities as the ‘incorporated’ and ‘oppressed’  in two homogenous, mutually exclusive binaries, is, according to Gopal (2006: 810) not only “incongruous but also makes us aware of the not so salient axioms of positivist, colonial logic.” The numbers variants of hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities are categorised not only according to their relational proximity to “a particular hegemonic masculinity” as Paechter (2006: 255) argues but in an intersectional relationship to the ‘social dynamics’ within which they are constituted. Undertaking an intersectional approach towards masculinities helps us understand the complex contestation of masculinities not only in relation to one another but within an entire social structure, as elaborated in the example below.

In their accounts, Anandhi et al, who conducted a research in the Thirnur village in Tamil Nadu, observed that the dominant response to the constant emasculation and humiliation of the dalit (lower caste) men by the mudaliar (upper caste) men emerged in “symbolic wish fulfilment in safer locations… even if dalits could not beat up the mudaliars in person, they dismembered the bodies of mudaliars after their death- when the bodies were left in the burning ghat for cremation… inscribed by the dalit men’s desire to be masculine enough and an acknowledgement of their inability to do so” (2002: 4399). In contrast to this, several decades later, the younger generation of dalits resisted upper-caste dominance in more direct ways, by “contesting upper caste dominance, primarily by refusing to work for mudaliars and by getting direct access to land either as sharecroppers or as owners of land” (p.4400). Not only do these examples point to the changing relations between hegemonic and non-hegemonic masculinities in terms of resistance but place these resistances in a “complex interplay of territorial control, display of violence and masculinity” (p.4401) within a larger structural  “socio-economic transformation” (p.4405).

Furthermore, what these accounts problematise is the notion that only the ‘disempowered’ are forced to assert their masculinity through “embodied acts of display” (p.4401-4402). Anandhi et al have accounted similar acts of “embodied acts of display” through the use of “violence against women” by upper-caste mudaliar men of the same village. Why would men, who are monetarily well-off, hold high a high social status in terms of their caste and possess normative power over hegemonic masculinity as the village patriarchs feel the need to re assert their masculinity? Interestingly, hegemonic masculinity, while being resisted and increasingly contested by the dalit men of the village, in increasingly characterised by resistance. Not only did the dalit notion of “being a man” get equated with “being able to demonstrate one’s distance from a regional (mudaliar) hegemonic masculinity (Wetherell & Edley:1995)” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005:840), but also with resisting and constantly challenging it. In response to that, the threatened mudaliar masculinity gets characterised as a threatened, non-hegemonic masculinity itself, but this shift does not amount to hegemonic masculinity getting attached to dalit masculinity. Neither the hyper masculine dalit man lacking insufficient resources, nor the publicly emasculated village patriarch qualify as a repository of or complicit to hegemonic masculinity. As Anandhi et al sum up, “Though the masculine practices of the dalit youths look as if they are hegemonic, it is incomplete and at best a processual interregnum at the time of study” (2002: 4405). Hegemonic masculinity, in the process gets attached to the very act of resistance, which constitutes the violent subjugation of  women (of their caste and the other’s) by two equally problematised caste-based masculinities. To sum up, hegemonic masculinity in the Thirnur village is produced through the very act of resistance to the brahmanical patriarchy of the upper caste (mudaliars) with a hyper masculine assertion of masculinity by men of the lower caste (dalits) and a counter resistance by the ‘publicly emasculated’ mudaliars. Evidently, the social dynamics of caste placed individuals at locations that will constantly be contested by them or others in resistance to them, locations that they can never fully achieve. It is in this constant contestation that the heart of patriarchy lies and hegemonic masculinity is produced.

To conclude, I would like to contend that whether looking for masculinity’s regressive elements or its progressive potential, neither can be duly achieved by treating it in isolation. In terms of what masculinity contradicts, be it feminity or non-hegemonic masculinities (in the more specific case of hegemonic masculinity), it does so by placing itself in a slanted interplay in an inherently hegemonic pattern that is crucial to its longevity as a stabilising factor of multiple patriarchies in a ‘phallocentric worldview’. This regressive element exists in its relational interplay. Moreover, in approaching masculinity through its slanted interplay with what it contradicts brings up the question of which one we fix normative value to. Which masculinity becomes fixed and which ones play as its satellites? Such normative value has clearly been imparted to hegemonic masculinity by Connell and to female masculinity by Halberstam. Can one hope for the slanted interplay to become more equitable without questioning the top-down placement of these normative values?

Speaking of its progressive potential, one can argue that since masculinity exits in “constant contestation” and is “historically open”, is a concept in social science that “has the capacity to travel and acquire new meanings” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005:853). However, placing it outside isolation and in relational terms in itself and to the larger structure of social dynamics does not necessitate gender equity. Yet, situating masculinity within an intersectional framework is definitely a step in the right direction, an ongoing process that has to travel long before both, femininity and masculinity can escape ‘phallocentric world views’ to situate themselves in more ethical relations of gender justice and equity.

~

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