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 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|
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)
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!)