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May 12, 1999


Amardeep Assar

Vanity Fare

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Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...Who is the Fairest of them All? Fairest...a problematic word. Does it mean light skinned? Or most given to truth and justice?

Actually, neither. Let's start by agreeing for the moment that the question can be interpreted to be asking "Who is the best / prettiest / most powerful / handsomest and ALL other good things (pick whatever....) of them all?" It is the mirror's job then to tell the questioner that she/he is indeed the "bestest," as a four-year old would say.

Some four-year olds are quite comfortable doing without such a mirror, but for others such a device helps them feel they are indeed superior. Sometimes however, the mirror has to go a step beyond and put down someone else, thus making the questioner feel more secure of his or her "bestestness."

Mike Myers in Vanity Fair I stuck my neck into this one a while ago, so what the heck.....the April issue of Vanity Fair (its Hollywood issue, just before the Oscars, Daaaahling) had a picture spread that may have been such a mirror. It featured Mike Myers, the Canadian actor (sorry....STAR) of the hit movies, Wayne's World and Austin Powers, shot by David LaChapelle. It showed Myers dressed in saffron robes, as a Hindu deity, intended to be 'Kali' with a long red tongue dangling from his mouth. There are blue-skinned naked apsaras seated around him, with flowers concealing the bare essentials. He sported a bodhi, with mehndi on one hand spelling out "Call my Agent." The other had a palm-held electronic device with its screen showing 'Om'.

After reading some messages about this on the Webster of South Asian Journalists Association, SAJA (, I wrote a letter to the editors of Vanity Fair, saying "What bothers me is the ease with which religious symbols important to a peripheral group (Hindus, in this case) can be appropriated and used in this manner, with the assumption that this is funny / innocuous."

While acknowledging that the pictures were intended to be funny, I went on to ask whether the magazine "would have the nerve to depict other culturally central symbols in this manner, eg, Jesus, Madonna and Child (I mean...Mary, the other one), Moses, etc....take your pick." There were several messages by then on SAJA, which ran the gamut from being the writers being very upset, mildly so, amused, and even very amused. SAJA did not take a position on the issue, but made the pictures available on its website.

The postings on SAJA were picked up by several publications, and media outlets over the next several days. Some of these reported the controversy, without really paying a lot of attention to the nuances of reactions. One such was the New York Post which said "Star's Photo Stunt Enrages Hindus." Incidentally, that article quoted parts of letter, labeling me a "distraught Hindu." I called and then emailed the paper to clarify that while I was indeed bothered, I was not enraged, distraught, and was not a Hindu. The response was, predictably, silence.

Quite unexpectedly, David LaChapelle, the photographer issued an unsolicited apology, saying to SAJA, "I would like to apologize if these photographs hurt or offended anyone's feelings," and also that "the photographs were meant a s a humorous take on the trend of appropriating religious imagery as a fashion statement."

In contrast to the New York Post's characterization of "Hindus" being somehow "enraged" in a monolithic manner, other publications were more attentive to the different points of view, such as India West, and the Mr Showbiz website.

Evidently, India-West contacted Vanity Fair for comment but none had been received till I-W went to press. India Abroad headlined the article "People upset over photos of deities." Newsweek quoted Sree Srinivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, and the coordinator of SAJA. Srinivasan questioned Vanity Fair's editorial judgement, saying "Vanity Fair would not do this with a rabbi or a priest." Newsweek also said Myers intended this to be satirical representation of pop icons fixating on Eastern cultures.

Mike Myers in Vanity Fair There were those that felt "i" needed to lighten up, else America would laugh at them as lacking a sense of humor. Prominent among them was an article by Tunku Varadrajan in India Today's North American edition . Tunku shredded my letter as being "egregiously wrong-headed." However, as an aside, a few days later, I learnt that Tunku and I happened to have gone to the same school in India, although may years apart. We have since been in touch via email, and plan to meet soon. I've told him "All is forgiven," and he has said he will pay for the beer. So, my enlightened self-interest prompts me to not react any further to Tunku's article. There IS such a thing as a free lunch.

Shifting gears, I have thought further about all of this from two different, yet equally important personal perspectives. One is that of working with college students studying global aspects of marketing in my classroom. The other goes deeper into the immigrant experience. A few years ago, after becoming a US citizen, I still saw myself as an Indian in America. Then something started to change, much like different types of layers of rocks slip and slide, with pressure and time, to metamorphose into something new. I moved from being Indian, and might even say I came to feel this change in my bones when I returned at the end of January from a few weeks in India. I remain very Indian, but am now American, from India. So does this add anything to what started with the pictures in Vanity Fair?

Something became clearer a couple of days after writing to the magazine. I was bothered by the ease with which the symbols were intentionally parodied, as opposed to being ineptly used / portrayed (as may have been done in Xena recently, although I didn't see that, and am not speaking to that).

If I may be allowed some academic pedantry -- in understanding another culture, it is important to get beyond one's Self Reference Criterion. This is that part of ourselves that relies upon an unconscious reference to our own cultural values, experiences, and one's knowledge in making decisions about others from different cultures. Yes, it is natural to have this reliance, and people from different cultures are likely to do so spontaneously. But the drawback is that if one is not attentive to this reliance, it can get in the way of assessing others. Taking a very simple example, in many parts of India, it is very common to see men who are friends walking along hand in hand. Doing so in some parts of the US would lead to very different conclusions being arrived at by the typical American (if I may generalize), who is unaware of this nuance from another culture.

By extension, the reference to one's sub-cultural background can equally come into play when one is dealing with those from other sub-cultures, within the larger culture. It can be very useful to keep this in mind, and try to move beyond the starting point, to understand others in the ways that are more true to how they see themselves.

Building from this, one should be attentive to the differences between aspects that can be classified into cultural imperatives, adiaphora, and cultural exclusives. To illustrate, if the outsider wants to understand and operate effectively in, say, Chinese society, it is important to understand the significance of Guan-xi (ie, relationships). Then there are adiaphora -- practices that the outsider may choose to participate in, or skip, without giving offense, for eg, eating particular food typical of that culture. Last there are the exclusives -- those things outsiders should not mess with / and should take the trouble to understand. Religious symbols, I submit, can be seen as prototypical cultural exclusives.

Again, by extension, subgroups within a culture may have different perspectives, and see certain things are more central to their experience and being, and not to be trifled with.

Which brings me back to the issue of representing, versus parodying. They're NOT the same. Perhaps these things can be seen as instances of one culture (or subgroup) mocking at another without attempting to understand the perspective of the latter.

By extension, a dominant group/ perspective can do the same sort of thing with the symbology of a peripheral group in its own culture, without beginning to "get" it.

It is this last aspect that I find most troubling about the Vanity Fair episode, and others like that which play out, and will undoubtedly continue to happen.

Another egg-headed detour, if I might. A few years ago, Amartya Sen wrote in an essay on India and the West, about three perspectives on looking at another culture -- the tendency to be magisterial, to exoticise, and being objective / accepting. I allude to these in order to point out that parodying another group may arise from the first, ie, magisterial perspective. Many in the America I have come to be part of, may be too smug in their sense of superiority about the natives of faraway lands, who supposedly left as "huddled masses" from "there," with the horrendous problems of their cultures of origin, and came HERE, to their new land, in the manner of the Emma Lazarus poem about the Statue of Liberty, lifting her "lamp beside the golden door!"

The second perspective is that of exoticising. Once this meant India was the land of tigers and maharajas with opulent palaces. Today it is often little more than the place from which America has acquired such C-O-O-L stuff like "bindis" and "mehndi." Unless of course you are still reading the novice Western travel writer still painfully obsessing about the tigers, the maharaja's palaces, and the obligatory description of cows in bazaars along crowded cities on the Grand Trunk Road, much like the "Sahibs" did in the Raj.

Of course, one could have made light of all this. Instead, I chose to take the issue seriously, because the attitudes of being magisterial and of exoticising that will get in the way of understanding other cultures, or more importantly, even understanding those subcultures within one's own larger culture that may have different values.

It is the third way of looking at others that Amartya Sen recommends that can help lead to the understanding of others as equals, and not seeing them as oddities to amuse oneself. This is not just about being politically correct. By and large, most people will agree that it is inappropriate to represent iconic figures of another group in ways that are dismissive or derogatory. Of course, people do and will continue to make racist / sexist remarks, and these will remain acceptable to others who form their private spheres.

But public expression should be approached with a degree of reflection, as opposed to a matter of being convinced that one is right, because we've done it before. This space is being rightly chipped away. It is not acceptable to speak of white, black, brown, yellow people using labels that were once commonplace. Being accepting of differences, and being conscientious in respecting other cultures (or subcultures) may not be fashionable, but it does make sense. Because it is the right thing to do

I've chosen to make my life here, but have difficulty with some aspects, and am willing to question the values of some parts of the culture I live in. Nothing wrong with that, and I don't need the mirror to flatter me.

So why was this so hard forVanity Fair?

Amardeep Assar teaches marketing at York College, City University of New York. He is most pleased to find signs of progress and intercultural borrowing. After 18 years in the US, dhaba style tea is now increasingly available as latte chai in Manhattan....and also in dinky, little Blacksburg, Virginia, where he visited recently.

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