Posted by Savitha Ganesh and Purvi Rajpuria
Sometime ago, we were scrolling through YouTube, when we saw a video by Shreya Jain about her luxury and designer bag collection. Naturally, with little else to do on our hands, we watched the video, and proceeded to binge on several other videos from her channel. Turns out, Jain owns quite a few luxury items and talks about them in multiple videos. What really shocked us about the videos was not the total monetary value of all the items she displayed (which, by the way, added up to a few lakhs of rupees), but her glaring inability to process the criticism she received for her lifestyle in the comments section.
Oblivious to her socio-cultural and economic capital, she defends her lifestyle by claiming that she was able to buy the items only through her “hard earned money”, and by “prioritising her spending”.
In this context, this article attempts to take a look at social media influencers and their general disconnect with large sections of Internet users which is rooted in classism and mono-culturalism.
While not all social media influencers carry out such brazen displays of wealth, Jain’s videos give an insight into the class and caste composition of the space they occupy online. This space is gaining prominence as an influential voice on matters of feminism, lifestyle, beauty, arts, etc., among its large follower base.
Considering how topics such as feminism is “in vogue”, several social media influencers attempt to talk on women empowerment. However, they fail to use their influence to challenge structures of caste, class, and gender, and often continue to perpetuate existing power structures that they benefit from.
We take a look at some prominent trends among social media influencers such as: (1) the creation of a progressive-conservative binary, that is highly derivative of Western liberalism, (2) the creation of a homogenised category under the label of ‘desi’, as a representative voice of Indian culture and the use of so called ‘traditional culture’, and the savarna femininity associated with the same.
The creation of a progressive-conservative binary
The idea of the ‘progressive’ woman, as promoted by social media influencers, follows a trend of stepping into male dominated roles, replicating their behaviour, and especially their aesthetic. This has led to the popularisation of terms such as ‘girlboss’, used for financially independent women, dressed in power suits, and working in a corporate environment.
YouTuber Komal Pandey who often associates herself with the term, lists out clothes from brands such as H&M, Zara, and Marks and Spencers, in a video that talks about how women can dress for work. She uses words such as “polished” and “elegance” throughout the video, giving an insight into the aspirations of ‘empowered’ upper class working women. However, this idea of empowerment, dependent on a very specific aesthetic, however, is inaccessible to working class women, who are forced to work due to their financial conditions, and ‘lower’ caste women who have historically been assigned what Brahmanical society deems ‘dirty’ work.
hence, the girlboss aesthetic, that aspires for a neat, tidy, and polished look suitable for a corporate environment, separates itself from these women. These videos thus seem to cater to a more affluent and younger audience, who can afford and relate to the lifestyle she talks about.
Another social media infuencer, Sejal Kumar spells out this binary in terms of “sanskari” and “unsanskari”. A video titled “Girl Gone Unsanskari”, shows a day in the life of a working woman, whose self expression is curbed by a ‘sanskari’ or conservative society. It starts with her picking a work outfit, only for her mother to stare at her low neckline with disgust. She decides to wear the outfit anyway, but the travails don’t end. She is stared at by her auto-driver, her boss at work, and another man at the railway station. At each instance, the fact that she is sticking with her choice to wear what she wants is made clear, and her empowerment is equated with this choice.
In another video filmed during quarantine, she dresses up in outfits that she would otherwise never wear on camera for fear of them being labelled as “too revealing”. The point of contention emerges as her inability to choose what she wants to wear because that would attract stares from men or disapproval from women. And thus, she is separated from the rest of society and shown as a victim of a conservative value system.
This idea of a clear divide between the progressive (‘unsanskari’) and conservative (‘sanskari’), that is heavily dependent on a specific aesthetic and the clothes a woman wears, derives heavily from the Western ideas of liberalism, where individual choice is paramount.
Political scientist Wendy Brown elaborates on this in her paper titled “Civilisational Delusions: Secularism, Tolerance and Equality”, by using the example of a bikini and a burqa. The bikini, commonly associated with the women of the West, is often used as a symbol for gender equality and freedom (as it allows women the choice to bare their skin), whereas the burqa is touted as the tool of women’s oppression. However, Brown argues that pitting the bikini against the burqa, and using it to compare the degrees of women’s freedom in the two societies is a liberal universalist folly.
To explain this further, she uses the example of a 2010 New York Times style page, that featured women on the streets of New York wearing heels that went up to 6 or 7 inches. She says,
Imagine walking for an hour in such shoes, let alone running for a bus, chasing after children, navigating inclement weather, standing all day at work, or even for just two hours at a cocktail party in them. In Islamic female religious dress, one would surely be more comfortable…In short, if shoes nearly impossible to stand let alone walk in are freely chosen, that does not make them shoes of freedom, something of course that can be said of hijab or niqab as well. (Brown 13)
The brand of feminism promoted by social media influencers such as Sejal Kumar is stuck in this bikini-burqa dichotomy, where the bikini represents progressiveness, or ‘unsanskari’ behaviour, as it allows women the choice to bare their skin, while the burqa is equated with a ‘sanskari’ mentality or conservative behaviour as it requires women to cover up in order to protect their honour. However, Brown argues that the same dichotomy is absent when it comes to men, whose near nakedness in public is never equated with their freedom: “rarely is it suggested that men in loincloths are free whereas those in three-piece suits lack autonomy and equality”.
Both the burqa and the bikini are different negotiations of women’s sexualised status in society; while one form of negotiation demands that women exaggerate their sexualisation by baring their skin, the other ties the site of sexualisation (their bodies) with their honour, and demands it be hidden from public view. The excessive focus on clothing as a marker of women’s freedom, not only pits women against each other but also steers attention away from far deeper, systemic problems that plague womankind.
The creation of ‘desi’, a category that claims to represent Indian culture
We also noticed a selective use of the word ‘desi’ or ‘Indian’ in the titles of videos by YouTubers who have grown up and live in India. Considering that the term ‘desi’ is used to connote one’s origin from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, in an international context, it is interesting that several social media influencers in India use the term to refer to specific aspects of their life.
Dolly Singh, for example, regularly uploads videos from her Delhi apartment that center around outfits and make-up looks appropriate for different occasions. However, she uses the word ‘desi’ only when the videos feature her saree-clad, sindoor-wearing mother, who lives in Nainital.
Similarly, the only make-up and outfit videos where Shreya Jain uses the word ‘Indian’ are the ones where she dresses up as a bride, wears an elaborate lehenga or saree, and dons heavy jewelry.
On further dissection, we realised that the categories are not grounded in the realities of what those living in India do, but on perceptions of what Indians do, derived heavily from a Western gaze. The lehenga, sindoor, and small town India are far more exotic to the Western gaze; they are a ‘discovery’; something that does not appear to have been influenced by Western trends and aesthetics at first glance.
Moreover, what is shown as ‘desi’ in the Indian context, is a homogenised category of upper caste customs, traditions, and aesthetics (presented without critique) that claims to represent the entirety of the country. You are unlikely to find an influencer who questions the politics of burning effigies of Ravan (who is considered a representative by Dravidians and Dalit-Bahujans) in a lookbook for Diwali; or that of the image of Mahishasura where again a hero of some Adivasi, Dalit and Bahujan groups, is depicted as a treacherous demon in dominant mythology, in videos about dressing up for Durga Puja.
These voices, often amplified at global platforms, become representative of Indian culture, despite their lifestyles being removed from vast multitudes of the country.
Using respectable femininity to further the Hindu nationalist project
We noticed a more overt desire to ‘protect’ Indian culture amongst the social media influencers who share clips of themselves performing Indian classical music or dance forms (many of which have a history of Brahmanical appropriation) online. These channels cater to the nostalgia of an older audience, many of whom are Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). A large number of them are run by young and middle-aged women, who perform a domestic femininity. This femininity plays a significant role in evoking a nostalgic and protective feeling towards the culture being performed.
A popular program on 21-year-old singer Ankita Nandy’s channel is the balcony concerts, where Ankita and her younger sister Antara perform songs in different Indian languages. Not only do they synchronise their uploads with Hindu festivals from different states, but they also dress up in ‘traditional’ outfits from the respective state, and sing in the language most commonly associated with it. For example, in a video where they sing the Malayalam song Jimmiki Kamal, they wear the traditional Onam colours of gold and white, have flowers in their hair, and perform in front of a garlanded Ganesha idol.
In an article in Round Table India, Nidhin Shobbana explains how Onam is commonly associated with the ‘savarna spectacle’ of women wearing white and gold sarees, making pookalams (floral arrangements), and eating a large vegetarian sadya (feast). These savarna sensibilities, displayed in the Nandy sisters’ music video, promotes a neatly packaged version of Onam, that excludes the multiplicity of ways in which marginalised castes in Kerala celebrate the festival. The creation of a monolithic Malayali identity, is not objected to by its viewers, but ironically, is celebrated as multiculturalism.
What is particularly interesting about these videos is the demure, gentle, and domestic femininity that the Nandy sisters perform. Often dressed in sarees, wearing jewelry, and with flowers in their hair, they sing songs which often have a religious angle. Each video begins with a polite greeting, where they introduce themselves in the language they are singing in; the virtuosity and domesticity almost makes it feel like you’ve stepped into a ceremony inside their home.
The use of Hindu religious symbols in the background, whether it is a Krishna idol, brass lamps with flowers hanging over them, or even the visibility of an ‘om’ symbol, cements this image of a ceremony. The performance of domesticity (used to connote a controlled sexuality) and the simultaneous assertion of caste-Hindu membership, is key for them to position themselves as ‘respectable’ women, and thus evoke a feeling of protectiveness among their followers.
The Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi women who have been oppressed by Brahminical forces for generations find no place in this representation of Indian culture. The idea of the ‘Indian woman’ is instead equated completely with the aesthetics surrounding savarna women which contributes to a dangerous process of homogenisation.
In her paper titled “The Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India: ‘Bharat Mata’, Matri Bhasha’, and ‘Gau Mata’”, Charu Gupta examines the gendering of national symbols by the largely upper-caste leadership of the nationalist movement. Traits such as domesticity and abundance were associated with the symbols of Bharat Mata and Gau Mata.
These symbols were emphasised to evoke feelings of nationalism among the men of the country during the colonial period. In addition, the symbols were promoted as figures who needed to be protected from invasion or penetration, through an emphasis on the woman’s chastity and wifely fidelity. Ultimately, these symbols are fixtures of a Brahmanical imagination, with the sacred duties of motherhood being extensively written about in foundational Hindu texts, most predominantly in the Manusmriti.
The femininity of the Nandy sisters plays a similar role with respect to Indian culture, which ‘strong’ men should be ready to protect at all times. The symbolism in their videos take on an overtly patriotic tone when they sing Suno Gaur Se Duniya Waalo on Independence Day; here, their domestic and respectable femininity is accompanied by the tricolour design of their guitar straps.
Many commenters expressed pride to see “their” Nandy sisters take on the patriotic costume, with one even mentioning how Bharat Mata is blessed to have the two sisters as representatives. Thus, underneath the seemingly neutral costumes of patriotism lie ideas surrounding savarna femininity and the associated Hindu nationalism.
Considering that many of these social media influencers have large numbers of followers online, we found it important to analyse where they come from as well as the overt and covert messages their videos carry. While social media might appear to be a democratic space that allows independent creators to have a voice, dominant caste sensibilities find their way into the content they put out.
This is not surprising considering the overwhelming presence of dominant castes on social media. According to a study by the Deccan Chronicle conducted in 2019, only 8 per cent of Dalit communities, and 7 per cent of tribal communities depicted high social media usage patterns, as compared to the 15 per cent from upper caste communites. Moreover, 75 per cent tribals, and 71 per cent Dalits were shown to have no exposure to social media, as compared to the figure of 54 per cent in the case of upper castes.
Although aestheticised to seem harmless, these dominant caste sensibilities align with a larger Hindu nationalist discourse at the forefront of contemporary national politics. Not only do audiences fail to problematise the content they’re consuming, but they also often celebrate these videos and their aesthetics as women empowerment.
Although many of these channels are run by social media influencers who are women, the videos continue to perpetuate gender norms that are at the core of Brahmanical society.
Purvi Rajpura is a freelance writer and illustrator. She recently graduated with a BA in Literary and Cultural Studies from FLAME University, Pune. She can be found on Instagram.
Savitha Ganesh is a freelance writer. She graduated with a BA in Sociology from FLAME University, Pune. She can be found on Instagram.