Ideas

Outrageous: The Language And Coding Of Feminist Outrage In India

Actor Vivek Oberoi is in the line of fire for sharing a meme on Aishwarya Rai. 
Snapshot
  • The meme on Aishwarya Rai’s ‘relationship timeline’ shared by Vivek Oberoi is neither funny, unfunny and least of all, offensive.

    By denigrating it, Twitterati is only feeding into the deeply-held expectation of a woman’s “pristineness and perfection”.

    A woman’s relationships should not be a matter of shame, and references to them should not be offensive.

Recently, actor Vivek Oberoi was pushed into deleting a meme he had posted on the day the exit poll results for the general elections of 2019 were broadcast. The meme featured actor Aishwarya Rai and showed her as the protagonist in a series of relationships, first with Salman Khan, also an actor, Vivek Oberoi himself, and then as part of a family portrait with her husband Abhishek Bachchan and child. The meme equated these three chronological stages of her life with, successively, opinion polls, exit polls and the end results in an election.

I remember seeing the meme on my timeline and finding it neither funny nor unfunny but certainly not offensive. However, a few hours later, I was surprised to see that the meme had the pole position on the “outrage circuit” of social media. Vivek Oberoi was widely pilloried by both men and women, who called the meme various permutations of ‘silly’, ‘tasteless’ and ‘disgusting’.

The chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Rekha Sharma, called it ‘absolutely Disgusting, distasteful, and degrading a women [sic]’ on Twitter, and said that a notice had been issued to Oberoi on the issue.

Perplexed, I asked people on Twitter why I, as a woman, should be outraged by the meme. Not many were able to articulate exactly why they were offended, but I was offered a few specific reasons for the meme being problematic. Someone suggested that the meme’s offensiveness arose from the inclusion of a child in its narrative.

However, the family portrait in the meme showed the child with her parents in an image probably made available to the public realm by her guardians, and it had not been altered in any way to be derogatory towards her. In fact, the function of the image here was the same as that of its original purpose of circulation — to represent a happy, stable family. Similarly, none of the other images used in the meme were private and clearly represented information already in the public domain.

What was it about these innocuous, widely circulated images that their juxtaposition transformed them into a misogynistic monstrosity? Was it the idea that together, they show Rai as a woman who has had a “full and interesting life” and thus one who has a ‘past’? Or, that the meme’s narrative logic referred specially to her relationships with men prior to her marriage?

Or was it that the sharer, who has recently displayed political partisanship, and is, therefore, perhaps an obvious target, is also one of the subjects in the meme? Oberoi was Rai’s second public boyfriend, who, it is said, paid for taking on Khan with his acting career. (It is disturbing that the pugilistic encounter between the two males where the same woman was treated and coded as an agency-less property seems not to have attracted as much outrage.)

If the current outrage is about the fact that Rai was not a virgin in her relationship that resulted in her marriage, it represents an unfortunate prudishness which denigrates her identity as a career-woman, capable of making free choices about her life.

A woman’s relationships should not be a matter of shame, and references to them should not be offensive. If it is this aspect which offends ‘feminist’ Twitter, then their codes about women are ridiculously outdated, against female agency, and measure a woman’s worth by her sexual and emotional ‘pristineness’.

Someone else pointed out that the meme was reprehensible because it showed that Oberoi was not ‘over his ex’. This would be a valid argument if that ‘ex’ was not a celebrity, and the relationship had not been played out in the public eye.

Does the language of the meme, which works off easily recognisable visual codes and syntactic parallels, somehow become distasteful because it is being shared by an individual who has had personal interaction with a celebrity who is merely a signifier to the meme’s audience?

It can be argued that Oberoi’s sharing of this meme isn’t personal at all — it is merely piquant that the narrative signification of the meme also features him, but in a reified manner, removed from the realm of personal interaction. This is particularly true as the meme is a shared one — he has neither created nor authored it, making him as much a subject as any of the other subject signifiers.

If the reason for the outrage is that a woman, any woman, is used to represent the different stages of the narrative denouement — then it is absurd, because that is a call for the excision of all women from public representation!

In fact, in its current form, the meme celebrates Rai’s celebrity; it does not denigrate her. Within the internal logic of the meme, if the three male partners stand for different expectations about the elections, Rai represents India herself, which, one hopes, is not an insulting comparison for anyone.

Thus, after much pondering and social media sourcing, I could not see a valid reason why this meme or its sharing could be disgusting, shameless, or offensive. There is certainly nothing here that should make the head of the National Commission for Women send a notice to someone who shared it, causing various opportunistic publicity-seekers to appear out of their burrows of imminent obscurity like a grotesquery of the absurd and perpetually offended.

We women are not perfect goddesses — and our public perception should allow us to be viewed as flawed and fallible, and a suitable butt of jokes, not because we are women, but because we are human.

By promoting the public idea of the pristine woman, the ranks of the “perpetually offended” do great harm to the feminist cause because when such a woman does call out sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination, her account is disputed, disrespected, and dismissed because she does not pass the test of “pristineness and perfection”.

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