Fem bleach ad failed in its gay rights message

The reach of bleach: Fem bleach ad failed in its gay rights message

Suggesting that fairness gives female gay people the passport to acceptance and tolerance is a monstrous affirmation of societal prejudices

A screengrab from the ad video

Advertisements that contain a progressive social message are often slammed for precisely that reason — the message is abhorrent to those who are on the side of the bigots. Whether it was the ad for jewellery brand Tanishq last year that showed a Muslim family celebrating their Hindu daughter-in-law's baby shower or ethnic attire brand Fabindia's recent ad that gave an Urdu name to its Diwali collection, they attempt to portray India's multiculturalism and hence, infuriate illiberal yahoos who detest the idea of inter-faith harmony.

The Dabur Fem bleach ad film, released last week, aspires to this liberal, socially conscious genre of communication since it shows a lesbian ‘married’ couple participate in Karwa Chauth, a north Indian cultural rite meant for heterosexual married couples. Expectedly, it has evoked a sharp reaction, and following Madhya Pradesh home minister Narottam Mishra’s threat of legal action for showing “objectionable content”, Dabur India has apologised and withdrawn the advertisement. 

The thing is, the right-wing rage against the ad completely misses the point. The outcry against it should have come for a host of other reasons. 

Read: Same-sex marriage now legal in 30 countries

The video shows two young women getting ready to celebrate their first Karwa Chauth festival. As part of the process of glamming up for the occasion, one of them applies the bleach to the other's face. We are told that they are observing the day-long fast for their respective partner's happiness and long life. Then, when night falls, we find the girls, resplendent in their silks and jewels, looking at each other through their sieves and breaking their fast, while an older woman watches them with a beatific smile.

 The big reveal is, of course, that the girls are a same-sex couple. And as you take that in, a voiceover gushes: "Jab aisa ho nikhaar aapka, toh duniya ki soch kaise na badley? (When you glow like this, how can the world not change its mindset?)

 Really? You need to be fair and glowy for the world to accept you as a lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual, queer (LGBTQ) person?

The makers of this video must have felt that the ad ticked an impressive woke box, that it was mainstreaming LGBTQ people by showing a lesbian couple observe Kadwa Chauth. However, while one appreciates its attempt to bring the issue of gay rights into the public space, the ad is so muddled in its approach, so ill-thought through and wrong-headed in its storytelling, that it ends up entirely queering (no pun intended) that pitch. 

Most women-centric ads tend to display sneaky sexism, suggesting as they do that women must change themselves (get glowing skin, cascading hair, perfumed body, become multi-tasking superwomen, and so on) to achieve success in work and life. In the Fem ad, though, the sexism is not sneaky — it is splashed all over.

 First, its so-called progressive story is nailed to an utterly regressive cultural rite like Karwa Chauth, where a wife goes without food and water all day because this is supposed to endow her husband with a long life. What's even more outrageous is that it makes the social acceptance of gay people and their right to marry contingent upon their having fair and blooming skin.

  This is as ludicrous as it is counter-productive. You cannot hope to advance the cause of LGBTQ people by yoking it to manifestations of the same obscurantism and cultural orthodoxy that heaps opprobrium upon them. The Indian obsession with skin colour — the belief that you're a loser if you're dark and that to be fair-skinned is to command love, attention and opportunities — is part of the cultural prejudices that run deep in our society. Suggesting that fairness gives gay people (especially female gay people) the passport to acceptance and tolerance is a monstrous affirmation of those prejudices and hence completely overturns the ad's pretensions of social consciousness.

In 2018 the Supreme Court read down Section 377 (of the Indian Penal Code), a colonial-era law, thereby legalising gay sex between consenting adults. Despite that, the human rights of LGBTQ people are a long way from being fully realised. Same-sex couples in India cannot marry, cannot adopt children, and, in the absence of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, they continue to face harassment and discrimination in many spheres of ordinary life. 

On Monday, the Centre told the Delhi High Court, which was hearing a number of petitions seeking recognition of same-sex marriage, that marriage under Indian law had to be "between a biological man and a biological woman." Evidently, as far as the government is concerned, decriminalising gay sex does not translate into giving LGBTQ people the same social and legal rights enjoyed by their fellow citizens. 

Mass media, including advertising campaigns, can certainly play a role in normalising the social acceptance of LGBTQ people and creating awareness about their rights. But half-baked communication that situates gay rights in the toxic mix of sexism, racism and retrograde cultural practices merely push the LGBTQ movement a few steps backwards. The Fem ad does exactly that. 

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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