Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Ugly Politics of Beauty" - OUTLOOK INDIA (25 September 2013)

 The racist tweets about 2014 Miss America pageant winner Nina Davuluri have become the stuff of legend, sparking reactions quite contrary to the expectations of the twits that tweeted, and only further raising the title-holder’s profile. Indeed, writers from India and America, including American writers of Indian origin like Davuluri herself, have weighed in with opinions about how the ugly tweets do not reconcile with the beauty of America’s diversity as represented by someone like Davuluri, and also how the newly crowned Miss America could never be Miss India because, though beautiful, she is far too dark for mainstream Indian tastes. Lakshmi Chaudry notes in her piece for the Indian blog First Post that Miss USA’s “dusky” complexion would not make her the ideal candidate for Bollywood stardom, the endgame of several Miss India winners, “unless she makes the miraculous colour ‘adjustment’” required by the profession. What Chaudry alludes to is not only the prevalence of skin bleaching as part of a regular maintenance regime for beauty pageant contestants and actors, but also the role played by Indian celebrities in shilling skin whitening products – a role the dark-skinned Davuluri was just not born to inhabit.  On the same blog, and also on the Huffington Post, Sandip Roy opines emphatically that “Nina Davaluri’s Story is an American Story, not an Indian One.” Hmm… I am not so sure about either of these claims.

But before I take up those issues, a little side trip is necessary to a land that is neither India nor the United States, but this detour is, nonetheless, still about beauty being more than skin deep. Like Davuluri, Yityish Aynaw made beauty pageant history for similar reasons. She was named Miss Israel 2013, the first black winner of that title. Like other Ethiopians of the Jewish faith, Aynaw came to live in Israel as an aliyah immigrant. She had been orphaned at a young age in her birth country before she moved to Israel with her grandparents. While Aynaw gained publicity for her success story as a black Israeli woman, news reports about the lives of several Ethiopian women, many of them refugees, told a far from positive tale. Revelations emerged that thousands of them had been injected against their will with Depo-Provera, a contraceptive. As The Guardian reported, “The phenomenon was uncovered when social workers noticed the birth rate among Ethiopian immigrants halving in a decade. An Israeli documentary investigating the scandal was aired in December [2012]…” Then, in February 2013, Aynaw received her crown. 

“So what then, to make of Aynaw's crowning as Israel's latest beauty queen (apart, that is, from the irony inherent in treating winning an appearance-based contest as some sort of victory for human rights)?” asks Ruby Hamad, writing for Australia’s Daily Life. As Hamad poignantly states, “It is indeed tempting to take [Aynaw’s] triumph as a sign that things are changing but her victory is at best purely symbolic and at worst utterly cynical.” And it is the symbolism that is inescapable here, as in the moment when the first black Miss Israel, upon special invitation, met America’s first black President on his official visit to Jerusalem a month after Aynaw was awarded her title.  

Miss Israel named Obama as one of her heroes, seeing the similarities between them: “Like him, I was also raised by my grandmother. Nothing was handed to me on a plate and like him I also had to work very hard and long to achieve things in my life.” Clearly, what is being evoked here is the symbolic rhetoric of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps – that oft-told tale of immigrants being able to succeed if they try hard enough, a foundational element of the ethos of the United States. While other allegations have arisen this year of how, generally black, asylum seekers in Israel have been discriminated against when searching for accommodation, Aynaw’s victory not only serves as PR on domestic race relations, but also in using race to support diplomatic relations across borders. Of course, US-Israel relations have a long history, but the depths of that connection continue to emerge, as in The Guardian’s exposure of the “memorandum of understanding” between the NSA and Israeli intelligence. Politics, they say, makes for strange bedfellows, but does it also help if they are beautiful? And what does that query have to do with the reigning Miss America and the land of her ancestry? 

If there is one thing that many Americans, if not several around the world, have heard of India lately, it is the news of the vicious rapes, with the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape case being the most well-known example. The brutal incident resulted in the young victim, a student of physiotherapy, losing her life. Nation-wide protests ensued in India, and international attention was drawn to questions of the treatment of Indian women. Just a few days prior to the Miss America contest, the sentencing of the convicted men in that case was pronounced. What I have to say next, is not pretty. Davaluri’s win projects her, just as Aynaw’s did her, as someone markedly different from those others of her ethnicity – hers is an exceptional position because of the country of her citizenship. 

While for Aynaw the comparison to be made is to other Ethiopian Jewish women in Israel, in Davaluri’s case she is remarkable because, as an American of Indian provenance, she is to be seen as unlike women in India. Aynaw becomes an icon of immigrant aspiration while obscuring the plight of black refugees – victimized by the state and society – who, if they “work very hard and long” can achieve some measure of success. In other words, the onus is not on the state, but on the individual herself. Davaluri, meanwhile, becomes an illustration of how her country has allowed her to fulfill her potential as a woman of immigrant roots – she can aspire to be both a pageant winner and someone who wants to go on to study medicine. Quite by coincidence, there is a similarity between the 24 year old Miss America’s vocational goal and the 23 year old Delhi victim’s paramedical field of study. In contrast, then, India is relegated to the position of a patriarchal society where women are seen as victims, not least because of the pervasiveness of rape culture.

This is not an attempt to diminish the very real existence and problem of rape, patriarchy, or even their interconnectedness. Nor am I arguing that pageants are part of some nefarious state design to afford a nation the moral high ground either in domestic concerns or international affairs. (Yet, one must admit that it is very interesting that pageants use the imperial language and symbols of state: queens, their reign, and crowns, for instance…) Rather, I want to make a case for how pageantry works politically, even if unintentionally. An Indian American winner counter-poses America and India, likely indicating that one of those nations is more patriarchal and discriminatory against women. Simultaneously, what does it do for American women themselves? How does it take attention away from legislative battles over women’s rights to reproductive and sexual healthcare in states such as Texas, or reduce concern over the cover up of rape on US college campuses, because the notion is that these problems must be far worse in a developing nation like India – that foreign land of Davaluri’s origins? 

Admittedly, charges of India’s treatment of its women citizens were not the most apparent on social networks where users were more concerned with calling Davaluri a terrorist or a Muslim (or some combination thereof), but what those racist tweets did was to underscore Davaluri’s foreignness, and all it stands for, even if she was born in the United States. This is precisely why pageants themselves need not be directly calculated in their political intent; the mechanisms are already in place for their outcome to be judged, a second time, in the popular arena. Racism, beauty standards, the media, and the contemporary ubiquity of social networks where commentary can be passed freely and invisibly are all in place to mete out opinion based on the color of a woman’s skin. In that sense, not much has changed since thirty years ago when Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America, only to be stripped of her title for having appeared in an adult magazine.

Speaking of the color of a woman’s skin, much has been made of why the dark-complected Davaluri would not fare as well in a pageant in India as she did in the country of her birth and citizenship. Undeniably, the most famous winners of the Miss India title, some of whom like Aishwarya Rai went on to win the Miss World contest, have all been light-skinned women, giving even more of a fillip to a thriving industry in skin-lightening products. However, just because such beauty care items are not as commonly seen or advertised in the United States does not mean that a nexus does not exist. For example, Amway, once a sponsor of the Miss America contest, is but one of many multinational beauty product companies that sell skin-lightening products in India and other parts of Asia. In itself, this begs the question of why an event that casts itself as a scholarship, rather than a beauty, contest would be financed by a cosmetics giant. Apart from the politics that pageants may unwittingly participate in, there is also a pretty penny to be made from issues tied to race and appearance. Miss America Nina Davaluri may not be hawking skin-lightening cream in India, but who is to say that she will not be the face of a cosmetics line that will use her appearance to open doors in the land of her ancestry?

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