Posted by Dan Rebello and Hannah Stephen
Recently, Aranya Johar featured in a skincare product advertisement. Sharing it, she said she wished she had seen such when she was younger. The advertisement featured women from different walks of life, displaying their idea of womanhood and being fulfilled in their skin. For her, that was a victory, seeing women she sees every day, on screen. While it has been a long journey from advertisements that showed skin shades go lighter by the second, products are still sold for the cisgender binary and trans* folx find representation nowhere.
Representation is an essential tool in including historically and systemically marginalised voices into the mainstream. It has been the means through which the minority communities have been offered a seat at the table. Affirmative action through reserving seats and opportunities for representation has been effective in politics and institutes. However, when it comes to movies and popular culture, representation has been tokenised and treated as merely a checkbox to tick off to keep the critics at bay.
In the case of trans* folx, cisgender actors find no qualms in playing them and disrespectfully so denying them any representation. And this is what makes the debate on representation not-so-straightforward. There must be a questioning of why assimilation into mainstream media has become a quest more important than trans* and queer liberation.
Angela Davis famously said, “I have a hard time accepting diversity as a synonym for justice. Diversity is a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way it functioned before… It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference.” A striking example of this is a recent social media campaign by a dating app whose entire premise is making dating safer for cis women. Apart from being trans-exclusionary in its messaging and functioning, trans* folx on the app have repeatedly faced abuse and even been restricted access to it. When the campaign went on to feature trans people without taking responsibility for its lack of measures to protect trans* folx, it tells you a story of how representation can often be an act of co-opting. A means to use one of your own to become their spokesperson and evade their problematic and harmful ways.
The recognition and fame of icons from trans* and queer communities are based on their caste and class privilege, making them worthy representatives through which the rest of the community will be homogenised. This can result in what Grace Banu, a Dalit trans activist says is the reduction of the stories of Dalit transgender people being considered as “background noise, rather than the human histories that need to be centered to ensure liberation from both caste and cis-Brahmanical patriarchy.”
The visibility of trans* folx will, unfortunately, always be tied down to its acceptance by cis-heteronormative, Brahmanical narratives of aesthetic and worthiness. Dhrubo Jyoti, a queer, Dalit journalist points out that even in the queer liberation movement it is through caste that “it is determined who gets to lead, whose voice is heard, who gets access to spaces.” For minority communities, these Savarna icons of representation appear to be the ‘person on the inside‘ fighting for you. However, they merely become another tool in the hands of the system to further indoctrinate the community.
Advertising in the digital world and era of influencers is evidently different from traditional advertising. Letting you in on a trade secret, influencers – no matter what their ideologies – are reduced down to their follower base and their potential to sell the commodity. Agencies that chalk out brand campaigns continue to be overwhelmingly cis and heteronormative spaces. Therefore, when they enlist influential trans* people to become part of their brand voice it is because they cater to the assumed cis-hetero audience and are, as a result, effective in furthering the brand message. Oppressed castes feature nowhere in this system.
The role of popular culture and influencer culture in the digital age is to limit the working-class population from realising the full potential of their political and economic goals, consequently, keeping us from organising against oppression. And while we might argue that most content creators are vocally political today, that politics remains heavily unquestioning of caste and the imposition of gender.
The performative wokeness of brands to remain relevant is part of the industry’s measures to blunt people’s capacities to think and question. By making conversations on trans* lives part of the mainstream, the cisnormative aesthetic is inevitably superimposed on a community that strives to break free from it. Through predigested, 15-second, snackable, branded content, our humanity is continuously being diminished as our own community members are leveraged to deepen the facets of social control in our consciousness.
In a time when our reducing-by-the-day attention span and algorithms that keep us doom scrolling, it can often be the only way through which we learn new things. It can be our primary source to question our conditioning and our harmful behaviours. However, when brands and capitalist agents are invited into these spaces, it prevents the possibility of learning through questioning. It, instead, works to “impede the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves,” says Theodor W. Adorno.
This is, however, not a questioning of the need for representation. We do need consistently increasing representation in the governing bodies of both caste and gender minorities. There is a need for a rewriting of history through the lens of minoritised voices. Nonetheless, representation in popular culture is similar to hiring non-binary people as police officers in an effort to counter police brutality. Reformation is, often, not the solution to systems that are not broken but merely fulfilling the purpose of its existence. There is a need for a complete overhaul of popular culture. Mass culture as popular culture as an imposition from above, and as Dwight Macdonald pessimistically said, “far from Mass Culture getting better, we will be lucky if it doesn’t get worse.”
Gender diversity in capitalist structures is not an indicator of inclusivity or progressiveness. It is like Akshay Kumar walking on a treadmill to understand the plight of women who walk several kilometers for water. We need to remember every day that representation is not the goal; an end to oppressive structures is the goal. Acceptance of trans* folx and experiences by the cisnormative world is not the goal, abolishing gender imposition is the goal. Our fight lies in the upliftment of the community and through this solidarity we envision a world without oppression and hate.
Hannah Stephen is a writer running from pillar to post making sense of culture and conversations. She is mostly found convincing people to watch Nanette by her namesake. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter