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Looking Through Time, Starkly

by FARZANA VERSEY

Picture this: President Barack Obama waving at the crowds in a gay parade. Behind, there are men wearing helmets, fire-hoses in hand. Helming the operation would be Mitt Romney, the enemy of the state until the elections. This could be the digitalised image on Time magazine’s cover.

The inside story will have a long feature that will deal with gay family values, health, support system, and a box item that will trace the history of homosexual marriages from the Neanderthal era. Another essay would address the important issue of cross-dressing and the psychological reasons behind why many elite fashion designers happen to be gay.

Now that you have pictured this, take a look at the latest cover that is obviously the rage. A 26-year-old woman poses with her three-year-old son sucking her nipple. She breast-feeds him as well as another adopted son. The title of the story is “Are you Mom Enough?” It deals with the issue of “attachment parenting”.

I find the photograph disturbing, not only for its ‘calculating’ stance towards measuring motherhood, but because it chose to use a boy child. He is standing on a stool, and both are looking into the camera, she with hand on hip model pose and he with a mix of confusion and enjoyment. There is an element of dwarfism here. He could be an adult, what with his long pants and camera-friendly attitude.

She says she feels it’s like a warm hug. Then, why not an embrace? I will not discuss the ramifications of late breast-feeding here, but let us not reduce relationships to ‘concepts’ on the drawing board of advertising departments.

This is far more unsettling than Silvio Berlusconi asking his brood of young women to perform oral sex on a Greek statue, although their form of address for each other does belie paedophiliac instinct – “daddy” and “my babies”, although ‘Baby’ happens to be part of the general man-woman lingo too and ‘Papa’, from Marilyn to Madonna, has been a constant figure of sexual connotation as well as the preacher to the one wearing more hardware on her body than in a store.

What has this got to do with Time magazine, which in its contemporary form looks like a cross between Reader’s Digest, Penthouse and Aesop’s Fables, with a dash of Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not’.  It is not the only one, but in the stable it is probably the white stallion. Yes, that too could be a cover story on itself.

Time’s managing editor, Rick Stengel, is candid, which is now the mainstream thing to be:

“To me, the whole point of a magazine cover is to get your attention. From the moment that we started talking about this story as a cover possibility, it was like I couldn’t get out of the meetings. There was so much opinion and passion about it and discussion. What that told me is, boy, this is a story that people care a lot about.”

Sensationalism is half the problem, or not at all, given that people are becoming immune to every fresh slick trick. They look for new magicians. The strategy is to play victim after the assault. The editor does not disappoint, for he just wishes the stores will not shy from displaying it or worse: “I would hope they wouldn’t cover it up in any way. It’s certainly a possibility.”

On this possibility rests the industry of hide-and-seek. The censored is increasingly becoming the one that needs a perambulator.

***

If we have pop culture, quick-read literature, bottled poop as art, a cat that smiles as cinema verite, and a whole lot of hand-held things that jerk and produce avant garde items, then why do we expect news to be any different?

For those who rue the lack of individualism, we now have uniqueness on an assembly line. Each event, person, issue comes with Warholesque warranty, a list of facts, and a prenuptial clause or a tombstone engraving. In effect, the expiry date too has the sweep of a Hollywood divorce or burial. There is no place for ordinariness. Even those poor, ordinary people are award-winning images.

It is all a river of scum pop psychologised.

***

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Neurosis are flashed as terms of endearment for oneself.  The idea, apparently, is to ‘come out’.  Drugs, alcoholism, severe depression as well as physical ailments are not illnesses that need to be treated. They are movements to draw attention to the disease that dare not speak its name, although it is listed in the WHO.  There is a serious flaw about such mainstreaming, for it creates an industry around sickness.

Celebrities, endorsement junkies that they are, sell medicines based on fear or upward mobility.  It feels good if your osteoarthritis and cannabis come from the same fount of famed sufferers. Today, Lindsay Lohan is a brand; her value lies in her trips to rehab, each faithfully recorded in striptease detail.

If that isn’t bad enough, activism about serious issues seems to have reached the doorstep of the ivory tower. Is there any reason for organisations to use star power? In real terms, has anyone calculated the benefits of what Angelina Jolie or George Clooney really contribute?

Recently, Bollywood filmstar Aamir Khan made his television debut with a show that deals with real issues.  Aside from the fact that it sells a story, instead of merely telling it, within less than a week we hear about its impact. The first episode was on female foeticide and the Rajasthan government has reportedly set up a fast-track court.

The media is heralding it.  A niche programme reaching a relatively small section of the population is given credit for bringing about change before any tangible difference is made.  Instead of feeling ashamed about how the government and we as a society have failed, the jubilation conveys a close-knit group where the cheerleaders become umpires.

***

Osama bin Laden is not the hero of terrorists, but of the mainstream.  Without making him an accessible figure of hate, casting the net wide would not have worked.  Two recent terror threats reveal how even those with possibly evil intent are working on the drivel instinct.  In one instance, the plot was embedded in porn DVDs.  One reckons that the limited use of verbal language with monosyllabic roll and thrust probably did not leave much to decode. It is interesting that attacks in many ways use similar terminology.

The other case it turns out was just setting the panties on fire.  A suicide bomber belonging to the Yemeni branch if Al Qaeda was all set with his ‘tightly sewn’ underwear that carried the bomb that is supposed to be undetectable and was to be used on an airline headed for the US.  It turned out that he was a double agent who worked for Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, which is in close contact with the CIA.  This revelation is now public.

Has it contributed to any way to public consciousness? Such deals are commonplace. However, because it was not seen as merely a security issue, it went viral. Jokes on jocks rocked. In some ways it acted like a collective nervous laugh, where pent-up rage was let loose and the insider job could be seen as a halal metaphor.  People are being fooled every day into believing that they know more than they should. It is the secret service of auto-suggestion.

The fact is that they know little or nothing. Crucial information is withheld.  The governments work undercover when it comes to the good of the citizens. The cat that is let out of the bag is cloned truth.  Coming soon in cinemas close to you.

***

Despite the counter-culture becoming the core one of the elite, thereby making almost all dissent pampered sophistry, political correctness prevails.  There was anger over an advertising campaign for potato chips featuring actor Ashton Kutcher enacting the role of an Indian character named “Raj”. He is in brown makeup and uses a sing-song accent.

‘Popchips’ had to withdraw the ad. The Indian act was not the only one. The story was about a man looking for love and for that Kutcher used different garbs, as a white dreadlocked Briton, a Karl Lagerfeld look-alike, a tattooed guy with a beard.

These are all stereotypes. There are people who use these to either project/protect an identity or because that’s just how they are. It is upsetting that brown people think that brown makeup is an insult, when these same brown people, even in their own country India, colour their hair blonde and wear blue contact lenses. Here is a sanctimonious quote by a tech entrepreneur addressed to the company as well as the actor:

“Right now you’re making the world worse. Not just for me, or a billion other Indian people, but for my son, who I am hoping never has to grow up with people putting on fake Indian accents in order to mock him. Maybe people won’t be familiar with that stereotype if you, yes you personally, can refrain from spending millions of dollars and countless hours of your time on perpetuating that stereotype in order to sell potato chips.”

Perhaps the gentleman will be disappointed to know that when his son returns home to India on holidays, his American accent will be considered a stereotype as much as his baseball hat worn backwards.  It will be difficult for many in his social circle to ever accept his brown son bring home a black woman partner, or a man. It might help him to know that most of the billion odd Indians he speaks on behalf of do not know any English, and many of them do have regional accents. Pointing it out as something for people to “mock at” reveals insecurity and selfishness.

Kutcher looks pretty much like the gay prince from some principality who was interviewed on the Oprah show twice and came dressed as though he were not just Raj, but part of the colonial Raj. Films made by Indians use brown people with Indianised accents, including the well-known ones by expats like Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta. They depict a diaspora from a limited viewpoint. Those of us living in India might well take umbrage at such depiction because it ends up being about us, too. And what about stand-up comics? Are the Spelling Bee winners, the call centres, the cabbies not a reality? Is reality a stereotype, then?

So, why do chips ads cause people to huff and puff? Because it is expected. In this streamlined society, where people speak about breaking barriers, and the pastures are ostensibly uniformly green everywhere, an autumnal blade of grass can start a movement. It is disconcerting, but in this blinding light there is no room for shadows.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at http://farzana-versey.blogspot.in/

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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