In the dollhouse

BY Shefalee Vasudev| IN Opinion | 05/06/2010
While one journalist uses fashion vocabulary to locate a cultural type, the other finds a moralistic high ground to defend her. Both appear to believe that to be meaningful, a woman must be in self-denial.
SHEFALEE VASUDEV asks why fashion is the first casualty when trendy vocabulary is used to describe an offender.

Reprinted from the June 2010 issue of Elle 


If you are taking a feminist purity check, make sure you are not carrying a Louis Vuitton bag. Peel off your false eyelashes, remove that chrome nail polish and instruct your hairdresser to hide the blond highlights in your blow-dried hair. Should you wear khadi instead of a little black dress, your chances of clearing the test are higher.

Ask why. In a recent war of words on anecdotal journalism, fashion played a provocative supporting role. A story Got a Girl, Named Sue about ousted minister Shashi Tharoor's girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar written by journalist Vrinda Gopinath in Outlook magazine got some vitriolic rants. 

It described Sunanda as a Dubai flash trash-type with false eyelashes, peroxide hair streaks, heavy makeup, seductive couture and Louis Vuitton victimhood. Letter writers trashed it as vindictive, personal and sexist.

Vidya Subramaniam of The Hindu slammed it too, (This Journalism Requires No Sweat), asserting that Sunanda's description was insufficiently verified and too personal.

Vrinda then posted a rejoinder on the media watchdog site suggesting that we should all loosen up and embrace our inner Barbies.

But let's not forget that in this battle of Barbies, fashion is the first casualty.

The party girl --  glorified as a diva with a purpose, a woman of chutzpah and choices, led by a luxury bag, balancing her eager self on impossibly high heels, hair coloured and curled, clothes seductive and revealing, a champagne flute in her hand -- is a fashion magazine's delight. Many pages are devoted each month to this fraternity. Their gowns and giggles, cleavages and charisma spawn a robust fan following, percolating down to other social classes that aspire to be and buy like them. If fashion is a fascinating conspiracy, the fashionista is its James Bond.

But the same diva finds herself out of favour in a news publication. If she is a party girl, she must be a gold-digger. Words used to describe her fly in thick and fast -- a woman of leisure, easy to chat up, a wannabe. The same fluttering eyelashes, blue nail polish and razzle-dazzle gowns that make her the centre piece of attention in glossies turn her into a vamp in news journalism. Readers who envy the abandon of It Girls on Page 3, even their luscious bodies and beautiful clothes, want  them to become puritanical to pass the test of worthiness in a news story. Vrinda's profile of Sunanda succumbs to that stereotype by biting into it, using trendy words irreverently, almost easily. On the other hand, Vidya's attack proves that the accidental bait has been bitten. The flash trash is presumed as synonymous with frivolity, turning the profiled person into a victim, which Sunanda was not.

While one journalist uses fashion vocabulary to locate a cultural type, the other finds a moralistic high ground to defend her. Both appear to believe that to be meaningful, a woman must be in self-denial. The presumption that a fashion chaser is an opportunist and the strait-laced a purposeful person is a flawed basis in assessing people in modern times. If bags and brands are used to trace a personality type, both news publications and fashion magazines need to rethink how they present women in fashion.

Vrinda defended her piece by saying "in today's world of fashion vixens and Madonna makeovers, who says dressing up seductively, outlandishly is a code for looseness?" It isn't.

Which is exactly why using fashion's excess to label a woman as a wannabe actually pushes us back to the old feminist argument. Would Sunanda be a lesser offender if she wore khadi salwar kameezes, had salt and pepper hair but the same sweat equity in Rendezvous Sports? Just as trend-based vocabulary is an insufficient tool to glorify someone as liberated, it is an equally inappropriate cross for social crucifixion.

I was no fan of Sunanda's attention-seeking tactics in the pre-IPL days and have a strong opinion about her alleged corruption. Shashi Tharoor's accusation that his friend was hounded because she was an attractive woman doesn't hold because till the tide turned, all she did was dress to thrill. She made no attempt to express her self-proclaimed entrepreneurial talent, if any. Let's be clear -- Sunanda is no Sarah Palin to blame the media's obsessive focus on her good looks. At the same time, I defend the right of a hundred other Sunanda-type fashionistas to be quasi-feminists, even feminists if they please or businesswomen despite blonde hair, botoxed faces and silicone breasts. Whether they live in Meerut or Dubai, do event management or pole dancing for a living. It doesn't give anyone the reason to take a moral high ground against them.

Trend-spotting to locate a cultural type is not a bad idea. If the same is applied to men in the dock too. This would mean that to ascertain the magnitude of Lalit Modi's fraudulence, we should investigate who made his bespoke suits, which scented candles he prefers during his day long spa treatments, where Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi shops for his branded spectacles and which shampoo Shashi Tharoor uses for his much mentioned hair, if not the colour of his underwear (I secretly hope it is not pink). In the crazy Chand-Fiza quaky love-hate story from the Haryana hotbed, Fiza's metallic nailpolish won media notice but Chand's unmanicured nails were overlooked. Alleged Pakistani spy and Indian diplomat Madhuri Gupta's tobacco-chewing habits and her holding a drink too many at parties has made it to news publications. But we have no idea which boots Uttar Pradesh cabinet minister Amarmani Tripathi wore when he went to jail for the conspiracy to kill poetess-girlfriend Madhumita Shukla.

Even if we did find out all these 'trendy' details; no moralistic reader or righteous journalist might stand up to defend these men as victims or label the copy as sexist. To embrace our inner Barbies -- golden hair, plastic boobs and all -- let's first stop playing me Tarzan, you Jane.



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