Something that was supposed to be a good thing turned out to be divisive beyond Homi Adajania’s wildest imagination. He was a popular director in India before, but now everyone actually knows how to spell his name correctly. He directed a vogue-sponsored video (above) about empowering women and the internet went up in flames.
For the uninitiated, Deepika Padukone, the voice and soul of this video, is Bollywood royalty. Think Angelina Jolie meets Jennifer Lawrence meets…well you get the idea. She is famous, she is rich, she calls herself a feminist (sometimes she even acts on it in admirable ways), and she is the daughter of someone famous and rich. None of those are strikes against her. After all, celebrities need to give voices to the causes that matter.
Vogue has made many such videos in the past, with good results and minimum controversy. So I watched this one because I was curious (and because I have a compelling need to have an opinion about everything!)
My conclusion – It’s nicely done, and a brave effort. But…
1) It is the most confusing PSA I have ever come across. I cannot decide if she is urging me to go ahead and have extra marital sex (because…it’s my choice?). Or whether she is asking me in some round-about way to stand up for the choices I make. Which would be more to the point, but that message is lost in a mish-mash of words involving sex and clothes.
2) For every genuinely powerful moment in the video there are several that are, for lack of a better word, quite silly.
I love this part – “the bindi on my forehead, the ring on my finger, adding your surname to mine, they are ornaments. They can be replaced”. There is so much social stigma surrounding divorce in India, and this is exactly the kind of thing young girls and women need to hear – they don’t have to stay.
Such powerful sentiments are interspersed with irresponsible and insensitive statements like:
- “It’s my choice to be a size zero, or a size fifteen”. Many women don’t become size 15 by choice, but many Size 15 women have chosen to love and accept themselves. That would have been a far more ‘empowering’ message. Also, this is somewhat hypocritical since the message is being run by Vogue and they rarely feature anyone above a size zero.
- “My choice… to marry, or not to marry. To have sex before marriage. To have sex outside of marriage”. I wish she had stopped at “before marriage”. Now she just sounds like a spoilt rich girl who wants to do whatever she wants to, without consequence.
- “To love a man or woman or both…my choice”. So then they can choose to be not gay or transgender etc? I wonder if they realize they just erased about 50 years worth of progress the LGBT community has made in their struggle for equal rights.
3) It does nothing to empower those who may really benefit from empowerment messages. India has changed dramatically in the last two decades, to a point where I don’t recognize it. There is more money now; people are more aware and more progressive. But that is true of a very small section of the population. I doubt this video will somehow empower the truly oppressed women, or give them any sense of hope. I don’t think it will instantly enable some woman in rural India to stand up and fight for her basic human rights. Maybe that is not what Vogue and their team intended, maybe all they wanted to do was appeal to the higher middle class/quasi-rich section that has the ability to shop at Zara and drink Cappuccinos. That is not empowerment; that is advertising.
4) East or West, there isn’t any relatable material here. I tried taking this video out of the Indian context and viewing it as a universal message to all women. It still feels un-relatable and remote. I have this vague recollection of a rich cousin who drove around in expensive cars and studied in elite boarding schools in India, I keep visualizing her in this video. (Disclaimer – Nothing against expensive cars or boarding schools…or the rich cousin!)
It doesn’t matter which hemisphere you live on, all of feminism is encompassed in one word – equality. Everything else is a subset, a detail. Empowering women sets them on the path to a state of equality that all feminists strive for. The dictionary meaning of Empowerment is “to give power or authority to, to enable, to permit”. Power is not something you can donate or give, it is something you nurture and cultivate with tangible tools. Flashy billboard video is one way to do it, but sometimes the power of choice comes from something as small as a $25 microcredit.