THE GANGRAPE and murder in Delhi of a young woman out for an evening at the pictures with a friend has convulsed the country into paroxysms of necessary grief, anger and self-loathing. What sort of people are we in whose midst such crimes — this is not the first, or even the worst — are committed? What sort of society have we created?
Lest there be confusion, given the placement of this column, let me stress right now, at the beginning, that the issues discussed below are tangential to the reforms we need in police procedure, in judicial procedure, in legislation. We want elected officials and public servants to be accountable. Improving laws and, just as essential, improving the implementation of laws may not eradicate sexual violence, but they are of immediate, pertinent relevance, the sine qua non even as we work towards the longer-term goal of social reform. The peripheral concern that is the subject of this editorial is our popular culture and the way it can reinforce patriarchal and misogynistic norms and what, if anything, we can do about it.
I write ‘peripheral’ not to diminish popular culture or its effect on the national imagination. But we should not allow ourselves to be distracted, to play into the hands of politicians conveniently blaming advertising and music videos and cities; into the hands of foolish, self-declared religious figures blaming ‘modern values’; into the hands of the scolds and finger-waggers and moral guardians everywhere in our self-righteous republic. We already live in a censorious culture with, for instance, a high-handed, whimsical censor board vetting the films we watch. If censorship helps preserve a sense of decorum and decency, there is vanishingly little evidence on our streets.
To link an incidence of rape in ‘real life’ to a violent rape fantasy in song lyrics, a novel or, indeed, to a rape scene in a film of unwatchable brutality (as in, say, Gaspar Noé’s 2003 movie Irréversible) is akin to linking the recent shooting at a Connecticut elementary school to trigger-happy video games. Yes, someone did make that link. It was the spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), an organisation resolutely opposed to tighter gun control. WIRED magazine’s report was sardonically headlined: ‘The NRA Solution to Gun Violence: More Guns, Fewer Video Games.’
This is not to absolve pop culture, or rather the makers of pop culture, of all responsibility. And it is not to absolve us, the consumers, of all responsibility. Do not leave your brain at home when you go to watch some execrable super-duper dhamakedar, masaledar, mazedar ‘hit’ film. Please question the invariably sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, plain stupid assumptions of the pop culture we consume. Use those critical faculties when you watch our news channels, when you read this magazine.
Popular culture and mass media can articulate a zeitgeist, can give shape, colour and voice to ideas, can make us feel, empathise, reassess values. It is a heady power that is mostly squandered. We do not engage critically with our popular culture, and if anything emerges out of the mostly misplaced anguish over the lyrics of Honey Singh or the misogyny played out in our films, TV programmes and advertising, it should be a renewed scrutiny of the media we consume.
But let us also recognise that all of human nature is the subject of art, popular or high. Art does not just bring us all the news that’s fit to print, but also all the news that’s not. Popular culture by definition is, well, popular and more useful than excoriating individual artists for their choices, however unthinking, is to attempt to account for that artist’s appeal. In an open, consumerist society, and that seems to be the model to which we sort of aspire, we vote against art we find crude with our feet. How many people put on blackface and perform in minstrel shows today in the US? Who would argue that this means that popular culture in the US is now free of racist stereotypes?
Art cannot lead us to the light. Religion has claimed that job. And what a fine job it’s doing; any closer to the light and we’d be blinded. A book or a movie or a song cannot change the world. What it can do, in the best cases, is crystallise the questions. And it is our responses, the social changes we effect, that create the need for new questions. Art is created to counter art, it is a conversation. Asaram Bapu knows that you can’t clap with one hand; he should also know that a conversation needs more than one voice.
(This article was originally published on 1o January 2012)