Monday, July 04, 2011

Diva Orientalism: it's not new! (Part 2 of 2)

In "Diva Orientalism, Part 1," I argued that the "Oriental fantasy" depicted in this beautiful and seemingly innocuous card from Trader Joe's is in fact representative of a more pervasive cultural trope for elevating certain women to that status of "Diva" through their consumption practices. In this iconic postfeminist scene (available to us in fashion magazines, clothing catalogs, films, TV shows, and even birthday cards!), privileged women (most often white, but not always) express their "empowerment" as cosmopolitan citizens through the discriminating incorporation of "global" fashion, their power over the "natives" in their service, and the apparent contrast between their "modernity" and that static, timeless, interchangeable quality of the (dark-skinned) help.

What is it about sitting perched atop an elephant or camel, covered in jewels and scarves, followed by a retinue of dusky natives that makes The Diva feel so fabulous? Frankly, the only impressions I'm left with of a pungent childhood camel ride on Juhu Beach are the distinct sensations of discomfort in my seat, and an even more discomfiting awareness of class inequality brought about by my status as a tourist in my parents' mother country.

The answer lies not just in the cross-references of today's fashion and media cultures, but rather in the very long history of this fantastical scene. The adornment of the European woman in Indian luxuries, her insertion in the scene of the Oriental procession, and the increasing invisibility of Indians themselves, gained traction in British literature in the late eighteenth century, and became common in the literature and art of the nineteenth and early twentieth. The cumulative effect points to a consistent association of Western women's desires with the Orient and the shifting nature of economic and racial ideologies within the context of European empire.

With the exception of the jeans and the birthday cake, the following could be a perfectly fitting description of the Trader Joe's birthday card:

"... she had arrayed herself in an infinity of shawls, turbans, and diamond necklaces, and had mounted upon an elephant to the sound of the march in Bluebeard in order to pay a visit of ceremony to the Grand Mogul."

Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharpe in Mira Nair's Vanity Fair  (2004)
The "she" here is Becky Sharp, the erstwhile heroine of Thackeray's Victorian classic, Vanity Fair (1848). Mira Nair provides an excellent filmic depiction of this fantastic scene realized at the end of her 2004 version of the film. Becky Sharp's Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy is not idiosyncratic. Rather, it's merely the most famous rendition of an Orientalist scene that circulated in late 18th and 19th-century European culture. This passage comes from the fictional novel, Hartly House, Calcutta (1789), written by one Phebe Gibbes whose son had served in colonial India but who had never been there herself:

"The throne was composed of gold, pearls, and brilliants, and the nabob's dress worth a sovereignty... His state-palanquin followed, and was by much the most desirable object my eyes ever encountered... Four pillars of massy silver supporting the top, which was actually encrusted by pearls and diamonds... who could dream of a mortal female's refusing an enthroned adorer, with the wealth of the Indies at his feet?"

We now know that Hartly House was fictional (it was published anonymously and almost immediately believed to be either the work of a man long-returned from India or of a young girl - the narrator whose voice we hear here). No matter that contemporary critics lambasted the young girl, named Sophia Goldborne in the book, for her mistakes, naivete, and trivialities, Michael J. Franklin has shown that the passage from which the above excerpt was taken was reproduced in history books about India well into the 20th century as a true description of Mughal rulers in 18th-c. Calcutta. What interests me in particular, however, is the last sentence because it points to Sophia's insertion of herself, a white European female, into this Oriental scene. Reveling in the attention paid to her by the nabob (in plain sight of her British fiancee), she writes to her friend Arabella, "I have dreamed alone of state palanquins, thrones, elephants, and seapoys, ever since."

Gibbes humors Sophia's desires, allowing her room to voice her fantasies of consuming the great "wealth of the Indies" that even in the late 18th-century was being drained by a combination of Mughal mismanagement and European colonial expansion and exploitation. She even suggests, I believe, that Sophia's dalliances with Indian men signals her openness to and sympathy toward Indian culture and its peoples, in contrast to the new breed of East India Company colonial servant who maintained a studied distance and disdain for India and its people. 

Of course, as we all know from colonial history (or from Lagaan), the latter attitude won out among the British in India, but interestingly, white female desires of indulging in the luxuries of the East, did not cease. What did change in that regard was the presence of Indians in the fantastical scene; they become all but invisible, serving only as the servants and harem girls in the background, those whose labor and arts functioned to make the procession possible, give a certain "local color," and, most importantly, elevate the European female by comparison. 

A British Memsahib in India
In her travelogue, Scenes and Characteristics of Hindostan (1835), Emma Roberts is concerned that her young female readers are influenced by colonial narratives and an Arabian Nights-obsessed popular culture to emigrate to India, fantasizing of "bales of gold and silver muslins, the feathers, jewels, carved ivory, splendid brocades, exquisite embroidery, and all the rich products of the East, on which our imaginations luxuriate when we read of an Indian marriage." The fantasy is based on marrying an European nabob (that is, not an Indian man but rather a white man who has lived in India long enough to accumulate great wealth but be "corrupted" by its luxuries and practices) "who saw service is the days of sacks and sieges, and who comes wooing in the olden style, preceded by trains of servants bearing shawls and diamonds!" 

If for Gibbes Sophia's desire for Indian luxuries and her wish to become a nabobess signals a positive openness to India, in the nineteenth century, such female desires were seen to be mistaken at best, unproductive, illicit, and dangerous to the colonial project and society at large at worst. By the time Thackeray writes Vanity Fair, the scene has come to stand in for the destructiveness of excessive female desire in general - that is, having nothing really to do with the specificity of daily life in colonial India, female emigration, or marriage within Anglo-Indian society in India. Becky's Arabian Nights fantasy is meant to signal the extravagance of her ambitions, her cold-hearted matrimonial calculations, and her essential triviality. 

"Mr. Joseph Entagled" (c. 1861)
Illustration for to Chapter 1, Thackeray's Vanity Fair: "And before he had time to ask how, Mr. Joseph Sedley, of the East India Company's service, was actually seated tête-à-tête with a young lady, looking at her with the killing expression; his arm strecthed out before in an imploring attitude, and his hands bound in web green silk, which she was unwinding."  Image scanned by Gerald Ajam and captions by Tiaw Kay Siang and Sabrina Lim.
So how then does the "Oriental scene" transform from an essentially negative symbol of female desire and frivolity into a putatively positive one of female empowerment? Two points here: 1) we can discover hints of such a shift in Vanity Fair itself (after all, Becky emerges as the novel's most compelling character) and 2) the difference between the notion of excessive female desire based on the consumption of "exotic" luxuries and the notion of female empowerment through the very same behavior are not as diametrically opposed as they may first seem. In fact, postfeminism traffics in the same essentialist ideas of nineteenth and twentieth-century femininity that feminists so powerfully contested: affinity for luxury, fashion, and glamor at the expense of sober rationality; proclivity for all things domestic and for interpersonal relationships, the flip side of which is the need to despotize underlings; sexual innocence and hypersexuality; and a tendency to control and manipulate men in order to gain access to goods. 

The Real Housewives of New York in Morocco
(Thanks Kim Feig!)
The difference of course is that in this postfeminist moment, these "natural attributes" are celebrated as critical for acquiring celebrity, fame, wealth and status - those things which seem to most loudly proclaim success in our wired postmodern capitalist society. Rather than hindering the formation of social ties (read: patriarchal relationships), female desire and its attendant practices of consumption are believed to promote individual achievement and facilitate socioeconomic mobility (through the interlinked phenomena of social recognition, control over the labor of a retinue of marked yet invisible "others," and heteronormative marriage). What is telling, however, is that once married, the Diva often finds herself at a loss: she is expected to continue representing the socioeconomic success of her family, while at the same time refraining from many of the practices and activities that earned her special status in the first place. That is, she is expected to submerge her narcissism under her concern for the well-being of her husband and children, refocusing her desires and consumptory practices on the establishment of the home and the needs of her family. And what then does the fantasy of her escape from this confining sphere of domestic celebrity look like? Why a trek across the "the Orient" of course!