Much has been tweeted and written about the exchange between Priyanka Chopra and Ayesha Malik (@Spishaa) at BeautyCon Los Angeles 2019. Since the video went viral, a new signature petition to UNICEF to remove PC from her position as global Goodwill Ambassador seems to pop up on Change.org everyday. The petitions have obtained between 35,000 to 150,000 signatures (each) but neither UNICEF nor Priyanka have yet feel obliged to respond, which is concerning but not surprising given the rise of celebrity humanitarianism.
As a self-identified feminist, I was most disturbed by the way Priyanka responded to Ayesha. Media commentators have generally agreed that her tone was patronising and her choice of words ill-considered. However, Ayesha herself said she was ‘gaslighted’—a term that has reentered the global feminist (and wellness industry) lexicon recently.
I heard Ayesha’s words, against the backdrop of the ongoing caging and carving up of Kashmir. In her words, I heard the pain, loss and fear which is second skin for all those personally affected by a conflict that spans lifetimes and generations. As an intersectional feminist, Ayesha Malik’s comment offered a powerful opportunity to make a statement on a global platform about goodwill, peace and feminist solidarity. What I found myself wondering was—must Priyanka have heard to react in the way she did rather than to react with empathy and solidarity?
After all the power dynamics in the room were all in her favour. (For those who are wondering, the stated goal of the BeautyCon brand is to bring together celebrities, influencers, makeup artists and all those with a shared love of beauty with a price tag ranging from US$54.99 (1 day general admission)–1499.99 (Executive Package) with children 6 and under free).
What I found myself wondering was—must Priyanka have heard to react in the way she did rather than to react with empathy and solidarity?
“PeeCee”, as her fans call her is a global superstar, worth many millions and Ayesha is a minor social influencer. She was one of four headlining celebrities for the 2 day event. She had just concluded an inspiring speech in which she apparently encouraged women to band together and resist the “cat fight” narrative: “The more opportunity we create for each other, the more sisterhood will grow,” she said. “We’re 50 percent of the world population, we need to be represented in every field. We need to be empowered by each other, by people who are in positions of power, by putting [women] in positions of power.”
Instead, the world witnessed a textbook case of gaslighting.
When Women Gaslight Other Women
“Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity”, is defined as such by Wikipedia. The term itself is attributed to a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, made famous in Ingmar Bergman’s 1944 film Gaslight which talks about how a domineering husband attempts to convince his anxious wife that she is going mad.
The concept however, is not new and has been closely been analysed by scholars of social oppression (based on gender, sexuality, race and so forth) in disciplines as varied as literature, history, psychology, philosophy, media studies, medicine and jurisprudence. This scholarship has shown that gaslighting is a tried-and-true verbal and psychological strategy of oppression used to create self-doubt and shame women and others, who speak out of turn into silence. It weaponises female affect or emotion against women.
While the words and language used may vary, the goal of gaslighting is to undermine the target by portraying her as unreasonable, unreliable and inherently defective in mind as well as character/morality. It is a central tactic of misogyny that crosses cultural, temporal and public-private boundaries. For example, as Europe entered the age of Enlightenment in the 17th century, rational, scientific arguments were deployed to deny women equal rights to men—whether in marriage, divorce or suffrage. It was also used to discipline outspoken, rebellious, and otherwise inconvenient and disposable women who were diagnosed as prone to excessive and inappropriate emotions (hysteria) and institutionalised in mental asylums.
This scholarship has shown that gaslighting is a tried-and-true verbal and psychological strategy of oppression used to create self-doubt and shame women and others, who speak out of turn into silence.
I don’t know why I expected something different from Priyanka but I did. Perhaps it was the UN stamp of approval which raised my expectations. After all, UNICEF Ambassadors such as singer Harry Belafonte has used this position for powerful advocacy for human rights and social justice. In this age of celebrity humanitarianism and Brand-aid, he stands apart from the multitude of celebrities who promote consumerism and self-serving altruism in the name of ‘making a difference’. Certainly, with the help of Bollywood, the Ambanis, and Hollywood, the Priyanka Chopra Brand, has flourished despite minor hiccups. She currently boasts more than 32 million followers on social media and the “Chonas” wedding will probably be used as a case study in Business Schools on brand-sponsored weddings!
Priyanka’s first words of reaction amount to textbook gaslighting—“I hear you. Whenever you’re done venting. Got it? Done? Okay, cool… The way you came at me right now, girl, don’t yell. We’re all here for love. Don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself.” As she spoke, members of the audience began to applaud and continue to applaud through her response.
Let’s paraphrase. First, she told Ayesha (and the mostly female audience ), with her words and body language (including her hand gestures) that AM had said enough. Then she suggested that Ayesha was overreacting, that she had lost control and was therefore shaming herself through her emotional delivery.
Having silenced the speaker who is a Pakistani-American woman and minor social influencer, Priyanka went on to say that she had “many, many friends from Pakistan”. This is a South Asian version of “many of my best friends are Black”. To paraphrase John Eligon, a New York Times journalist who wrote a 2019 article titled, “The ‘Some of my best friends are Black’ Defense“. PC was deploying a tried and tested myth that our proximity to a group, absolves us from the possibility of discriminating against them in thought, word or action. In experience, this is a statement of denial and distancing that closes rather than opens the possibility for dialogue across cultural, class, gender and other social divides.
PC continued with, “And war is not something I’m really fond of, but I am patriotic”. As many have pointed out, this statement raises serious questions about whether and how PC understands the mission and mandate of a global Goodwill Ambassador. As a pacifist and feminist, this statement revealed a distressing lack of understanding of what armed conflict means for girls and women. As a long-time activist for girls and women, she surely knows that it is women and girl civilians who pay the highest price of war? That the dehumanisation of women and their bodies remains a widespread weapon of war? A weapon that the Indian military has used with impunity against Indian citizens, whether in Manipur, Kashmir or Chattisgarh?
After a half-hearted apology, she concluded with some more gaslighting: “So I am sorry if I hurt the sentiments, to people who do love me and have loved me. But I think that all of us have a sort of middle ground that we all have to walk, that you probably do right now. Girl, don’t yell, we’re all here for love. Don’t yell. Don’t embarrass yourself”. Again, she attempted to portray Ayesha as an out-of-control, emotional women who did not understand the goals of a women’s meeting such as BeautyCon2019.
Priyanka Chopra chose patriotism over peace at a critical historical moment. Like all of us, she has multiple identities and in this particular moment, her sense of national identity dominated her unrehearsed response to the accusation made by Ayesha Malik. The shared experience of being, or rather being identified as a woman came second. And there too, Priyanka used her power and position to try and set the norms for how women at a beauty conference should speak to one another. PC used the word “love” to imply a shared goal with her female audience and singled out Ayesha by gaslighting her as the overemotional, disruptive, unreasonable “other”.
The point here is not that the two women should share identical political positions simply because they are women. The point is that once Ayesha was positioned as overreacting, there was no need to respond to her questions about Priyanka’s hypocrisy. She was effectively silenced.
Nisha Thapliyal is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She studies and teaches about education, gender, social movements and media.
Featured Image Source: Afropunk