Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Come on New Yorker, I expect better

It was inevitable that any article looking back on 2017’s best Hollywood films would refer to Harvey Weinstein as this New Yorker article does. But what took me by surprise was the leap of logic taken by Richard Brody from there. 

Brody dedicates the article to all the men and women who were silenced and had their careers curtailed through Hollywood’s sexual and systemic oppression. And what is true of gender is automatically true of race as far as systemic oppression goes. So he makes a special mention of black women stating that black women in particular have suffered from such oppression. 

As evidence, he presents “One Way or Another: Black Women’s Cinema, 1970–1991” – a repertory of films by Black women filmmakers from 1970 to 1991. He states: “These filmmakers, among the best of the time, responsible for masterworks in their youth, haven’t had the careers that their early work promised—or haven’t had careers at all.” The fact that they didn’t fulfil their early promise is all the evidence Brody provides of the systemic and sexual oppression faced by these women in Hollywood. By simple extension, same’s true of white women and men of colour who have had “slighter” careers as filmmakers, he argues. 

He then goes on it say that this absence of white women, and men and women of colour from Hollywood's ranks is the reason by why Hollywood’s films have become increasingly vapid and superficial. If only they were included more in the ranks of the industry, great depth of art would follow. 

Here are a few things I don’t understand. 

If sexual harassment and abuse didn’t keep film actresses from building a body of work, why has it stopped women filmmakers. One can only surmise that many actresses simply played the game, and got the roles in return. It wasn’t right that they had to do that, but either way, sexual harassment by itself didn’t stop women actors from building a body of work. Why didn’t the same phenomenon occur with women film makers? 

I raise this – not because I think sexual harassment is right in any way – but to ask why one section of women continued to produce a body of work and not another, if sexual harassment was equally applicable to both groups and equally debilitating. May be there is an explanation but Brody doesn’t bother asking himself the question. 

Second, women not fulfilling their early promise is not just a Hollywood phenomenon. Women across industries tend to thin out with time. It happens because women have children, and to maintain a balance between the demands of a career and of growing children is very hard. Some women manage. Many, many women don’t. This must be harder still for Hollywood filmmakers who have to spend large periods of time away from their families. Even many Hollywood actresses tend to fade out after having children. Filmmaking is a still more stressful, engrossing and all-encompassing exercise. 

If this is true across industries today, it would have been far truer of the period Brody presents as evidence ‘1970 to 1991’. The likelihood that women filmmakers would have entered relationships and had children would be higher than today. It would have also been far likelier, that they would choose to focus on their children than their careers. 

One could argue that this, in itself, is systemic oppression. But this is certainly not the kind of systemic and sexual oppression that Brody is talking about where women filmmakers have been intentionally kept out of power and abused. If it is motherhood that has kept women out of Hollywood’s creative ranks then the problem we are talking about is a societal question, not one limited to systems and sex. Moreover, the question is not limited to women because it cannot be easily decoupled with what is best for our children. 

Then there is the question of commerce? Brody doesn’t even mention it once – not once – in any of his rationalisations. The budgets of Hollywood films have bloated beyond recognition in the last thirty years. Such heavy investment would naturally come at the cost of edginess and risk taking. Is it any wonder that black subjects and lives find it harder to come to fruit? Most audiences like to see versions of themselves on screen. Given the massive investments, is it any wonder that executives opt for the lowest common denominator – they choose actors and actresses who are most likely to appeal to the largest demographic of audience. For the US and the markets Hollywood targets that would be white middle class.

Let’s step away from the US and the race debate there. Let’s look at India, which is the only other country with a privately funded film industry of a size and output that could somewhat compare to Hollywood. Even the educated, well-travelled cosmopolitan Indian class consume far more Bollywood films than Hollywood, despite Hollywood films being technically far superior. The few white actors who have appeared in Bollywood films (yes, they have because Bollywood pays very well) have always been relegated to second leads or villains. That is because Indians – like everyone else – is looking for a version of themselves in the culture they consume. If Nigerian film industry was to truly take off, we would find black Nigerian actors and actresses and subject matters that appeal to black Nigerians dominate the industry, not the lives of other ethnicities who also live in Nigeria. 

This is a problem for minorities every where. Their culture remains on the margins because cultural consumption has a lot to do with finding a personal connection. When items of mass cultural consumption like films are concerned, we have to content with commerce. Casting minorities or making films about their lives means running the risk of your audience going ‘meh… this doesn’t resonate with me’ and walking off. As investments rise, it becomes harder and harder to take that risk. 

But Brody doesn’t at all consider commercial realities in his analysis. Perhaps he thinks that Hollywood executives should do it anyway because it is always easy to ask others to risk their money. If that is the case, perhaps Brody should first demand that Vogue and GQ – the sales of which subsidise the New Yorker and pays for Brody’s remuneration – start equally representation of coloured and white men and women on their covers, and in articles and advertisements. 

I am open to the idea that what Brody says is indeed true. Maybe it is all about carefully crafted systems of oppression. But what I am not open to is Brody asking me to accept the absence of a strong body of work by women and men of colour as evidence of “systemic oppression” without presenting and disproving all the other factors that could lead to the same result. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When Feminist Mothering is Easy

Today, a friend sent me this self congratulatory article Being a Feminist Mother is a Liberating Experience and I just had to take it to task. It irritated me and I wanted to understand why.

Using free association between terms such as patriarchy, agency, intersectionality, racism and gender bias, the Indian immigrant writer asserts that feminist mothering has helped her protect her daughter from society’s patriarchal expectations, especially that of immigrant cultures.

However, apart from broad general assertions, she quotes only three specific instances where she felt that feminist mothering gave her the tools to help herself and her daughter navigate a patriarchal world.

-       Her Indian mother questioned her decision to send her daughter to an expensive private school.
-       A boy questioned her daughter’s interest in politics because girls are only interested in fairies and cakes.
-       When her 17-year-old daughter wears short dresses, the Indian within her baulks but feminism gives her the tools to let her daughter be.

Since she pompously starts the article by presenting herself as someone at the intersection of race, gender and ideology – an Indian immigrant mother in the UK with a mixed race daughter (half white, half Indian) with feminist leanings – I’ll use intersectionality to examine her conflicts.

The first thing to be said is that she misses out on one critical intersection of her identity – class. As someone who is married to a white British person and can afford to send her daughter to a private school in the UK, she belongs to the educated professional class of the UK at the very least. So we can’t ignore the impact that belonging to this class would have on her own and her daughter’s conflicts and experiences.

Giving the best possible education to your child, boy or girl, among this class is a norm – in fact, it would be frowned upon to visibly discriminate between your son and daughter in providing the materials of education. (In fact, it is a norm even among the equivalent classes in India, and would have been 12 years ago when the writer placed her daughter in school). A passing patriarchal remark by her mother who had no control over her decision making, when the weight and fashions of the class that she belonged to strongly supported her decision in favour of her daughter doesn’t amount to a hard-fought conflict.

Ditto, a passing remark by a boy about girls liking fairies and cakes and not politics. If you belong to white middle class in the UK and are sending your daughter to a private school, she is already being exposed to a whole range of women role models and feminist ideology (from classroom discussions, literature, films, TV, media to more immediate examples of successful women role models). Surely, all that armour would weather a chance remark by a boy without any lasting impact. Even without the benefit of feminist mothering, her daughter would have enough strong women role models to be inspired from and to aspire to.

Feminist mothering would have surely had a stronger role to play had she belonged to white working class because even if white working class girls are inspired by women role models in society, economic considerations do not support their aspirations to become one. Having a feminist mother to bolster your dreams and support them would indeed be a huge advantage. 

Finally, we come to the writer’s daughter’s short dresses. I truly feel for her here because her immigrant background and her feminist beliefs would be at complete odds with each other here. Indian cultures place all the responsibility of sexual control on women and bestow all the privileges of sexual provocation and exploration to men. Mainstream western feminism loathes placing any responsibility of sexual control on women – from clothes to conduct to consent.  The writer’s choice would have been particularly hard given what was at stake - her daughter’s emotional and physical safety and security.

The writer doesn’t really tussle with the two oppositional stances though. She looks around and sees that short dresses are the norm as is holding men responsible for sexual transgressions, and takes comfort in the belief that her feminist daughter will be ok. However, that doesn’t answer why despite decades of feminist demands on the subject, sexual assault remains common in the West and its aftermath on women as traumatic as ever.

Perhaps a more fruitful discussion wither her daughter would involve the role of shifting contexts, places and power in sexual dynamics between men and women, and how to remain alert, aware and sensitive to them even as we assert our rights to live and experience life freely.

Words such as patriarchy, racism, intersectionality, gender discrimination have meaning and value. But every time we use them slavishly and sloppily to find comfortable, convenient and self-congratulatory positions, we rob them a little of their power and meaning and end up empowering our opponents.

Being a feminist mother is liberating indeed, especially when it gives you a comfortable look out post to view the world and asks nothing of you in return. In other worlds, it is called entitlement. 


Monday, February 13, 2017

Searching for Saloni: My StoryCity fiction is launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival Melbourne

On February 12, I went public with my fiction. For most people, that means the launch of a book or the publication of a story in a magazine, journal or book. My experience was different. My fiction was published on StoryCity, an app that takes you on innovative, adventurous city tours using stories and narratives.   

My fiction was commissioned by the Melbourne City of Literature to coincide with the JaipurLiterature Festival that was brought to Melbourne for a day (Feb 12).

My story "Searching For Saloni" is fast-paced adventure filled with riddles, codes, art and lost histories connecting Melbourne and India. The story revolves around Indian artefacts being stolen from the NGV International, which you – as the protagonist in the story – have to collect from different locations across Melbourne CBD. The answers to all the riddles are hidden in the architecture and sculptures of the city.

At the festival, I chatted with Meelee Soorkia, the editor of the stories, about the experience of writing the stories and about being an Indian immigrant writer in Melbourne.

Meelee: Your story involved bringing historical connections between India and Melbourne together. How did you go about finding them?

Chetna: When I was first invited to write a story for StoryCity, I was a bit stumped. First these are adventure stories, and I had never written adventure before. And then, I had to bring in some Indian element into a story set in Melbourne. I found that challenging.

So I started thinking what is it that I enjoy, I am interested in. And I enjoy art and history. Following that train of thought, I recalled a conversation I had had with a historian Cherie Mckeish a while ago about the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. A number of Indian artefacts had been brought to Melbourne for display at the exhibition, and they were still on display in Melbourne at the NGV International and Melbourne Museum. So I knew I had to somehow make them the focal point of the story – to bring them to light.

But once I started researching a number of connections came to light. Just between Federation Square where my story starts and State Library of Victoria where it ends, I found five locations which had an Indian connection, and that was amazing. We tend to forget that India and Australia were colonial cousins, and there were interactions between the countries through the 19th and early 20th century. Many Australian settlers from Britain would often live in India before coming to Australia, and there is a gold mine of stories to be mined in those connections.

Meelee: What were your first impressions of Melbourne when you arrived here?
Chetna: I didn’t come to Melbourne straight from India. I actually first lived in Europe – I did my masters there and lived in Europe and then in London for a few years before coming to Melbourne because my husband is Australian and I was pregnant, and we wanted to raise our children in Melbourne.

So my understanding and experiences of Melbourne start there, as a middle class family. One of the first things I noticed is that Melbourne, and by extension Australia, has a bit of an identity crisis. We can’t make up our mind whether we want to be fully public or fully private, and it drives a lot of anxiety in the city. For example, when I arrived here pregnant and I was often asked where I was planning to have my baby, and it is only after sometime the penny dropped that they were fishing for whether I was going public or private with my delivery. As soon my daughter was born, the next question was which schools I was putting her name down in – was I going to go public or private?

These are big questions for middle class Melburnians, and they drive all kinds of anxieties and mannerisms in people. Some hide the fact that they studied in private schools, others flaunt it, those who studied public wear that as a badge – but everyone is aware of it. And I found that very interesting.

The only other country where I felt this tension, and not quite to this degree, was England – from where of course we have adopted this system. The Middle Class in India had largely adopted the private model, whereas Continental Europe is loudly and proudly public. But Australia cannot decide which path it really wants to take.

Meelee: Was leaving India difficult?
Chetna: I am a part of the second wave of Indian immigrants to Australia, who have come here post 1990s. As was discussed in one of the earlier sessions at the festivals, we left India by choice. We didn’t leave India because we felt we had no opportunities there. So I had agency in my decision to leave India, and I was aware that there would be loss involved in the process.

In India, I was a journalist. I knew where I was going. I had social capital. When I left, I lost my social capital. I also found myself lost as a writer because how can I write about places for others when I am myself still discovering. But then, my writing and stories became my way to explore the places and to understand them better.

Meelee: So how has Melbourne influenced your writing?
Chetna: I am writing a set of short stories, which loop around Melbourne’s South East. They start in the CBD and then move to Richmond, then Kew, then Balwyn and then sort of loop back. That’s the plan. They are loosely connected, in the sense one story begins where the other is left, but are completely different set of characters. And again, I am interested in the specific characteristics of these neighbourhoods.

For example, the story in Richmond is set in a pop-up linen store. Now pop-up shops is a real trend in Richmond, we have pop up design stores, pop-up jeans stores, everything is a pop-up. And often the people working in these stores are poorly paid artists and designers – very fashionable – but struggling to make ends meet, and Richmond is full of them. So I bring that into my story. The story set in Kew is about a working mother who has just gone back to work after her maternity break and is struggling with the idea of building her career afresh – because I have met such Mums.

So I am trying to explore life and people in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne through my stories.

Meelee: Thank you so much Chetna. We look forward to reading your stories.
Chetna: Well you can. Because some of them have been published as greeting cards with short stories in them, which are available at the festival bookshop.

The app StoryCity is available on iOs and Android smart phones for FREE. Chetna Prakash’s story Searching for Saloni is among Melbourne city stories.

The Melbourne Noir greeting cards with Chetna Prakash’s short stories in them are available at Avenue Bookstore (Swan Street, Richmond), Paperback Bookshop (Bourke Street, Melbourne CBD) and ElthamBookshop (970 Main Rd, Eltham).

Friday, February 10, 2017

Celebrity, Superheros, Social Media and Trump

This article was first published on The Big Smoke on November 17, 2016. 
Now that the unexpected and the horrible has happened, it’s time to make the initial cut in the post-mortem of the cadaver called “liberal politics”.
The question that all liberals are asking is: How is it that a vindictive, sexist narcissist has become the leader of the free world under our watch?
How did we not see this coming?
The factors that have led to this outcome are complex, interconnected and multifaceted. Many of these are already being discussed robustly – globalisation, an over-emphasis on political correctness, the Clinton baggage, the role played by third-party candidates.
But I want to explore three less-discussed factors that I think the intellectual classes should have picked up on. They relate to the culture in which we live, and each have unwittingly done the groundwork for Donald Trump.

The cult of the nothing celebrity

I came across the Kardashian phenomenon eight years ago in London, when I encountered a long line of very young girls queuing up to meet Kim Kardashian, who was there to launch a line of perfumes. They were clearly excited to be meeting their role model.
Reality TV stars used to be second rate celebrities but Kardashian changed that. She is a phenomenon built brick-by-brick through one objectifying selfie after another. And at the foundations of this phenomenon lie a sex tape (possibly self-leaked) and a reality TV show. 
What appalled me was the failure of our intellectual class to critique the phenomenon. Some merely saw her as an entertainer. Others saw her ability to control and use her own life and body as entertainment for people as pure genius. In the meantime, she amassed millions, proving to the world, and most dangerously to our children, that success lay in relentless, blithe and shameless self-promotion.
Read more on The Big Smoke