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​Bespoke but Not Woke

Isha Bhallamudi (isha.b@uci.edu) is a PhD student in sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research interests are at the intersections of gender, technology, social networks and youth in India.

“Woke” politics must go beyond critiquing and cancelling popular culture in aggressive ways that do not foster a culture of solidarity and learning.

The docuseries Indian Matchmaking only premiered two weeks ago on Netflix, but its eight episodes have already generated an avalanche of reactions. The show ostensibly introduces Indian arranged-marriage culture to a global audience, but really it focuses only on very privileged Indian families (in India and the United States), all of whom are upper caste, upper class, heterosexual and largely Hindu.

Produced by Smriti Mundhra, who also directed the acclaimed and sensitive documentary A Suitable Girl (2017), this docuseries is fashioned differently, like an American reality show. There is a titular character, “Sima from Mumbai,” the high-end matchmaker trying to satisfy her wealthy clients, while providing meme-worthy quotes (“In India nowadays, marriages are breaking like biscuits”). The participants are quickly slotted into singular stereotypes. The men are deemed sweet, successful, loving, lazy, confused, while the women are assessed against the familiar standards—slim/trim/fair, too ambitious, too rigid, too unaccommodating. The sexism, ageism and colourism are all too familiar.

Throughout, the show teases intimacy, love and romance, but stops itself from exploring these themes more deeply. The format, which feels extremely American, clearly works—the show quickly became extremely popular online, especially in India. To Netflix’s growing Indian audience, the prospect of getting to watch this world of high-end matchmaking and wealthy clients at convenience seems to have been quite irresistible. And so, in the two weeks since it released, Indian Matchmaking has inspired an avalanche of responses—tweets, opinion pieces, news articles, memes, social media statuses and reaction videos. Even the universe of critical responses to the show is only helping Netflix generate more revenue off of it. While we critique popular culture for (even if only mirroring) regressive ideas, are we able to extend the same critical eye towards our own social practices and internal biases that provide fodder for such shows?

Across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, not to mention all the opinion pieces on various online platforms, I was astonished to see the intensity of the critical responses to the show. Clearly, it had struck a nerve. This is perhaps unsurprising, as Indian marriage is the most visible and crushing site where caste, gender, class and religious boundaries come together in a single explosion. Nearly every single Indian is affected by the social pressure around marriage, and younger urban Indians are pushing back against this pressure more and more. While they are pushing back against arranged marriages, are they also questioning the way in which their voluntary choices (even in “love marriages”) still fall largely within accepted social categories of caste, class and religion?

While the first few responses to the show seemed to reflect viewers uncritically enjoying the show and relating to it, very quickly, the tide of public response turned towards equally uncritically bashing the show for holding up regressive traditions and views without challenging them. Smriti Mundhra, the producer, pushed back a little, saying that the show simply held up a mirror to the reality of Indian matchmaking and that it represents a diversity of experiences.

In my opinion, the trajectory of public reaction to the show has been both predictable and boring. Unfortunately, this is increasingly becoming the norm whenever a new piece of popular culture comes out—it has become almost fashionable to interpret the show as prescribing or promoting the realities it shows, to quickly come up with salient structural criticisms of the piece at hand, and to do so in such a way that enjoyment of the piece is instantly vilified and imbued with guilt. Yes, it is necessary and transformative to engage in thoughtful public discourse around popular culture, which more often than not reflects and holds up structural inequities. However, it is not so useful when we consistently direct our constructive criticisms only outward, make a habit of reacting instantly, and weaponise the public response to “cancel” the makers of the piece or its defenders (and arguably, even viewers who don’t necessarily defend the piece), all with no engagement afterwards.

We are becoming adept at honing this critical ability outward, but are we also building the parallel capacity to levy these critiques inward? We are all very much a part of the Indian social fabric. We are as implicated in the Indian gender–caste–religion matrix as anyone else. What is it that allows us to come up with such nuanced and thoughtful criticisms of popular culture like clockwork, but stops us from asking ourselves, for instance, why we tend to only be attracted to people from our own class, caste or religion, even when we fight the arranged marriage system and marry “for love?” Do we recognise and question the ways in which our voluntary (and self-congratulatory) romantic choices reflect the very social structures we are committed to dismantling? Do we give ourselves opportunities to think about how our personal landscape of desire and decision-making buys into these structures we are comfortable criticising, but which we rarely extend to ourselves in any meaningful way? And what does it mean when our engagement with popular culture, more broadly, begins to revolve around critique in such a way that it forecloses enjoyment and pleasure?

The case of Indian Matchmaking tells us something about the nature of “woke” politics today—it is slowly becoming about constantly throwing insightful criticism at others, often in very aggressive ways that do the opposite of fostering a culture of solidarity and learning, but losing the ability to do it to oneself or accept feedback from others, with grace or ease. We are all implicated in the social structures we criticise, but often, this kind of public critique-making, or “calling out,” serves to let us distance ourselves from the goings-on. Yes, engaging in public reaction politics often lets us find validation, courage and solidarity towards our experiences and traumas, and strength to stand up against practices we find inexcusable and violent. While this is wonderful, it is also essential that we do not stop here, but move beyond this sort of politics, and towards a politics of radical reimagination, which will allow us to collectively engage with the personal, cultural and social with joy, care and freedom, rather than staying in a space of reactionary anger directed outwards.

 

 

Updated On : 4th Aug, 2020

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