With highlights from several celebrity weddings invading our Instagram and Facebook feeds, we are now at a point where the anticipation of wanting to see a few photographs of celebrities getting married has given way to too much information. While there are many celebrities who augur that paparazzi culture has invaded their privacy, recent events signalled the polar opposite. There was certain exhibitionism that seemed quite deliberate; be it Deepika-Ranveer’s Italy wedding or Priyanka Chopra-Nick Jonas’s Udaipur extravaganza. With this kind of spectacular display of money and power all over our social media, it has become important to rethink the power and responsibility of celebrity status and the symbolism attached to weddings. Weddings in India have been identified as one of the major causes of gender discrimination and domestic violence. Wedding costs take the form of dowry and usually, most of the money spent to celebrate the occasion is by the bride's family. While it may not be the case in the weddings of these rich and successful celebrities, but to an outsider, these weddings that seem extremely lavish becomes problematic, especially in contrast with the limited resources of middle-class Indians, who then feel compelled to invite large numbers of people for feasts and ceremonies.
What these celebrity weddings have sparked is an interesting duality - the upholding of tradition in an increasingly modern media. Often, people look up to celebrities as ambassadors of ‘the good life.’ The aspirational messages, as in the case of say, being dressed in all their glory for a premiere of a movie are often combined with the ‘Celebrities: They are just like you’ images. This rocky texture of fame often makes us enamoured, but at the same time leads us to upwardly compare ourselves, as if what they do is just within our reach. This has only been exacerbated in the context of social media, wherein we consume their extremely curated realities, through personal devices that we hold in our hands, and assume that they are letting us in. This phenomenon has also been substantiated by a small proportion of advertising literature. The relationship of the incongruity between self-image and the image projected by an advertisement (in this case, celebrity weddings) is found to correlate to post-purchase dissonance in consumers. The aspiration of an individual’s ideal self-image and the image of the consumer good results in the motivation to purchase.
Apart from the general disregard shown by these ‘woke’ celebrities through the endorsement and furthering of expenditure patterns unattainable to the average viewer, what comes as a greater surprise is the betrayal toward the specific causes that they chose to espouse. For a rather ‘socially conscious’ Priyanka Chopra, it was ironic to see her do things that she has opposed in the past, including bursting crackers, using animals to pander to western sensibilities of what Indianness is, while resorting to the oriental stereotypes of a land obsessed with elephants and snake-charmers. Keeping the word ‘socially conscious’ at play, it is a rather distinct dichotomy between these celebrities who then join hands with socially relevant causes to nurture the movement while resorting to hollow, token ‘isms,’ such as feminism. These celebrities are then portrayed as crusaders of socially relevant issues, varying from gender to mental health. What we need instead is their acknowledgement of privilege and opportunity that comes with their status and accountability for how that position is utilised and what their actions symbolise. While on one hand, we have seen interviews of Deepika Padukone talking about her struggle with mental illness and having founded the Live Love Laugh Foundation, this image of her having ‘beaten’ mental illness can also possibly be a trigger to a lot of people and make them feel guilty for not trying hard enough or not being strong enough to have beaten the illness.
Knowing fully well that the appearance of altruism makes them more popular with the public, the good causes of the famous benefit themselves more than the causes. The real commitment to the causes should be reflected in their actions by understanding the cause in-depth (at least with respect to the platform they operate on - entertainment), rather than words. For years, women have been altering themselves into costumed actors to suit the retrograde public mindsets which are manifested in the form of covering their heads with the ghoonghat or veil, both as a status symbol and as a means of patriarchal control. To conform to these reinstates the ‘purity’ of the culture. So, you can use feminism as a brand, by asking your mother to walk you down the aisle for People magazine to cover it for the world. But, when you are truly committed to the cause, you should simultaneously question the structural violence that is then manifested in the form of a veil and ghoonghat. This is especially true in the times where Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was bombarded with casteist slurs and threats of violence for holding a poster stating ‘smash Brahmanical Patriarchy.’ The concept of Brahmanical Patriarchy talks about the subordination of women in India operated through the powerful instrument of religious traditions, which have shaped social practices. A fundamental principle of Hindu social organisation is to construct a closed structure to preserve land, women, and ritual quality within it, and it is impossible to maintain all three without stringently organising female sexuality. These rituals were seen in all their glory, being practised at these weddings. In this new nexus of celebrity, power, and consumerism, we as writers, scholars, and development practitioners need to resist power at all times; power that these celebrities inarguably come with. If celebrities then want to associate themselves with causes, they must also confront the colossal and constant violence inflicted by these age-old gendered traditions of vidai, kanyadaan, ghoongat, etc. Most of us who associate with causes of mental health, gender, caste do so from a position of marginality and, often, physical vulnerability.
What then is the difference between a Priyanka Chopra, who has invested in Bumble as a so-called women’s dating app, or a Deepika Padukone, who empathetically promotes the woman’s choice, and Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, who had written to women to lean into capitalistic ethos? As Arwa Madhavi writes in her now viral The Guardian article, ‘Capitalism has co-opted feminism and turned it into a way for privileged women to advance their careers and sell books.’ What makes you a feminist is not that you use it to promote sales, but to promote equality among all who identify as women, to support not just powerful women who have choices about dating apps, but to be allies to those who have no such choice and no power at all.
Arathy Puthillam and Sumati Thusoo