Fair and ‘Dove’ly and the Asli ‘MARD’: More Harm than Good?

In an earlier campaign by Dove, they released a Photoshop plug-in which would make edited photos revert to the original natural images, in cases where skin colouring, and slimming effects were used. I thought the earlier campaign was an interesting idea; exposing the reality of the images of cloned physical beauty of the CGI that occupies media; an idea executed in a unique, quirky manner. The message was clear, Dove was trying to distinguish itself from other brands in the cosmetics industry , as having a conscience for  appreciating real,and believable beauty. However, soon enough, if their campaign is anything to go by, Dove too at the end of the day, is another vendor in the billion dollar ‘beauty’ industry. If you’ve been on Youtube recently, you must have come across the Dove ‘Real Beauty Sketches‘ advertisement. Many of my female friends were sharing the video enthusiastically; the theme being why women should appreciate their own ‘real beauty’ as the ad experimentally proves that women consider themselves less beautiful than what others perceive them as.

I have a huge problem with the conceptual origins of this ad and I was delighted by the wonderfully articulated response here http://jazzylittledrops.tumblr.com/post/48118645174/why-doves-real-beauty-sketches-video-makes-me. Kudos to the author of this brilliant post.

The ad is a circular argument. The claim is that women always believe that they are far less beautiful than what other’s think of their so-called beauty. While trying to prove this hypotheses, the factors used by participants in the ad to determine beauty are “rosy cheeks”, “fuller lips” and other banalities. The ads end with the participants’ emotional upheaval when they realise that people describe them to be better looking than what they thought about themselves.  So, in an ad that aims to challenge reigning beauty paradigms, and improve self respect amongst women, we have here, emphasis on the same old hackneyed criteria for ascertaining what beautiful stands for.  I’m not even going to deign to delve into those specifics. You know how far we’ve come along the blazing trail of revolution when all the ‘beautiful’ women represented in the advertisement are Caucasian. The most obvious message in the ad seems to be something along these lines- “So, you think you’re not pretty? Don’t worry. A random person believes you’re pretty, so all shall now be well with your self esteem!” YAY!

In a culture that  drives women crazy, restricting their political and social contribution in more ways than we can imagine, by bombarding upon them images of perfection that are altered by chemicals, lighting, scalpels and software, reinforcing the archaic markers of physical beauty under the sugar-coated and misleading  title of ‘real beauty’, I think, does more harm than good. Dove is trying to project itself as a savior of  women’s body image issues, by literally whitewashing the intent to create market forces necessary to maximise their profits.

Naomi Wolf in the bestseller ‘The Beauty Myth’ makes a very interesting observation:

“The last thing the consumer index wants men and women to do is to figure out how to love one another: The $1.5 trillion retail-sales industry depends on sexual estrangement between men and women, and is fueled by sexual dissatisfaction. Ads do not sell sex–that would be counterproductive, if it meant that heterosexual women and men turned to one another and were gratified. What they sell is sexual discontent.”

I believe in beauty. I really do. I think visuals have the power to transform you, and there are certain visuals, be it a person, landscape, or a filigree carving, that is so aesthetically pleasing, that you cannot help but think, ‘beautiful’. It can be a combination of what the visual means to you, and the composition of the vision itself. Beauty in people, makes them attractive to you, and ordinarily results along the instinctive biological trajectory. But the point is, beauty is an individual and abstract concept. What is beautiful to me, might not be beautiful to you, and that’s the beauty of it. This sort of checklist oriented, standardisation of an intrinsically abstract concept is merely product designing, where women unwittingly market themselves.

It is in the interest of corporations to ensure women continue ascertaining their self worth through this  ridiculous beauty prism. It is in the interest of patriarchal politics to control women’s bodies, in order to ensure survival of the patriarchy itself- sometimes obviously so by restricting reproductive rights, sometimes by congratulating an accomplished woman in power, on her appearance.

So, let’s just stop pretending Dove is a philanthropic gender rights organisation, and treat it like the multinational cosmetic conglomerate it really is? Even if the ad is genuinely well-intentioned, I still find it problematic, and this sort of misguidedfeminism does more harm than good, by merely wiping the glass ceiling sparkly clean. (Probably with the cleaning liquid advertised using domesticated, OCD housewives)

The issue of misguided feminism takes me cleanly to the other promotional video which has been bothering me.  Farhan Akhtar’s ‘MARD’ initiative- or Men Against Rape and Discrimination. He conceived the initiative after Pallavi Purkayastha , a lawyer working for his company- Excel Entertainment,  was sexually assaulted and murdered by her watchman. The promotional video is a collection of attributes that an ideal ‘man’ or ‘mard’ should possess in order to qualify as worthy of the distinction. Attributes such as being  respectful and well-mannered; a man who respects women, their bodies and souls, is always ensuring a woman’s self-respect, who never forgets that women are human beings to, who is strong, confident, courageous, who makes a women feel protected by his presence, and who is a friend, companion and sympathiser with women, qualifies as a  ‘mard’.

I am a fan of Farhan Akhtar’s screenwriting and direction. He’s outraged at the sexual violence against women he sees everyday, and is trying to do his bit to contribute to awareness. I applaud him for the effort; it prima facie, seems to be a genuine gesture in a world rampant with hypocritical celebrities. However, I can’t share the enthusiasm of the many feminists sharing this video across social networks.

We are currently at an epoch in this country, when people are taking to the streets in protest, when women’s rights are finally getting the real, undiluted airtime they deserve, when women are refusing to fall prey to victim blaming, and when women have honestly had enough. We are at a time when what we decide, might actually have the  power to influence long term public policy, and change the social landscape. At this juncture, we cannot be endorsing the need for  a  Mr. Darcy, full of respect and chivalry. We should not want a courageous and strong man who makes us feel protected as a testament to his masculinity. Some might argue, that if women’s rights are somehow bound to masculinity, it might end up converting the larger male demographic to make India safer for women. With his knack for gauging public reactions and psyche, this was probably what Farhan Akhtar intends.

However, I don’t think we should settle for this purported ideal ‘mard’. Don’t patronise me, and respect me because I’m a woman. Don’t protect me from other men because you’re a strong and courageous man. I don’t need you to ensure my self respect.

Treat me the way we’re all supposed to treat each other- as human beings in a civilised  society with penal sanctions if that civility is breached. And I’m not going to settle for anything less than that.

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9 thoughts on “Fair and ‘Dove’ly and the Asli ‘MARD’: More Harm than Good?

  1. this is a brillaintly thought and written article Mrin.Yes the Dove ad does make me question motives as well..It’s incredibly funny how these kind of things create a mob sensation so quickly.Almost satirical inflammation.Like the kolaveri sensation.(Which I still dont get). I Suppose if people started thinking for themselves isntead of going by comments on facebook & youtube below the videos..they’d have a better understanding of what they truly like and not.There’s an underlying problem here.very troubling

    1. Thanks Dhanya! Glad you liked it. I doubt this going viral was mere mob mentality though. Women are unconsciously being led to appreciate the same stereotypes, that we’ve been trying to break for years; it’s just cleverly disguised.

  2. Also, the brand which owns Dove (Unilever) also owns Axe. If they’re that committed to showing people “real beauty”, why don’t they start with the brand which basically started the trend of sexualising deodorant ads.

  3. Sanjana says:

    I don’t entirely agree. The point of the MARD campaign was to directly address the image that some people have of ‘manliness’- the ability to dominate women. I don’t think the ad intended to be patronizing. I think with that one, we’re overthinking a bit. I genuinely share your ideals of misguided feminism, and therefore, started reading these posts after running into one post on facebook. However, I think in doing such overanalysis, one tends to discredit genuine attempts made by people that are rather worthy of our respect.
    All in all, I thought it was a very well- written post and an interesting perspective. It’s always refreshing when people challenge “established” gender-roles.

    1. First, thanks for the great feedback Sanjana. I genuinely appreciate it!
      As for your point about the MARD campaign, I agree with you about it is definitely a genuine campaign, as I’ve said in the post. I respect the makers immensely for making the attempt as well. However, that doesn’t change the fact that along with doing away with men being seen as having the ability to dominate women, we should simultaneously do away with the “man-as-protector” ideal too. Maybe it’s a step by step sentisisation approach, but ideologically, replacing one problematic stereotype with another makes me uncomfortable.
      I’m glad you liked the post. I’m very honoured!

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