image used under fair use
by Rajshekhar Sen
Is Murphy Brown really a tramp? This was the distasteful front-page headline of the New York Times on May 21st, 1992. Murphy Brown was a fictional sitcom character who got pregnant out of wedlock and decided to raise the child on her own
In 1992, during the US election campaign, the then-Vice President Dan Quayle referenced the fictional TV character in his campaign speech to make a point about family values, which created controversy for both the politician and actress for obvious reasons. The Bush–Quayle ticket went on to lose the election. Candice Bergen, the actor, went on to win the Emmy that year, paving the way for many other such characters to play such a role. Over the years some may argue that single motherhood is seen in the US as a normal event and not a divisive political issue.
According to a 2014 PEW report, the share of U.S. kids living with only one parent stood at 26%, up from 9% in 1960. And the share in households with two parents who are living together but not married (7%) has risen steadily; it was 3% in 1990. As stated above, one is certainly not arguing that one event changed how Americans saw single mothers, but this did lead to other TV shows like Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City in the 90s, and many others subsequently, which portrayed such a family without creating any stir. Now, while there is no correlation between the statistics, one must agree that what the show portrayed was big enough for politicians to decide to play it for votes.
Dan Quayle and Parasocial Relationships
So why was it so crucial for Dan Quayle to play it up? Perhaps, the answer lies in what psychologists call our “parasocial relationships,” which can be defined as something that a person feels while consuming any media. One of the greatest examples would be how most English speaking (and other) millennials identify with a Hogwarts house and the characters from the Harry Potter books and films. The modern cultural phenomenon of expressing personal opinions or one’s state of mind via memes can also be seen as us engaging in parasocial expressions. Remember that media consumption is relatively recent in human history, so when we are presented with a person-like individual via video or audio media, our brains respond as if we are engaging in a real-life social situation. Now, we know that these people are actors and are not real, but most of us develop an emotional attachment to these characters and react to what they do in very human, emotional ways.
So, when Murphy Brown gets pregnant and decides to keep the child, some of us who have started to like her as a human being react to her as we would have reacted to a family member doing this with either complete acceptance, or with anger or some other emotional reaction. This also opens a window for us to see the larger world that we cannot normally see and trains us in developing future social norms. Therefore, in 2020, no one in politics would think of making this a political issue in the US because this has been normalized by TV, cinema, and real life. This is also why people often demand diversity in popular culture, like having a protagonist from the LGBTQ community, which fosters a parasocial and then a social relationship in society.
Parasocial experiments in Indian context are probably the Suraj Barjatya films that first showed wedding rituals like the sangeet, mehendi, and what not on separate days, which was not common in Indian weddings before those movies, but have now become a part of middle class wedding rituals.
Stereotyping Muslim Men or Love Jihad in India
Now let us come to India and the Tanishq controversy. While a lot has been written on the merits of the controversy, let us look at why in the narrative of the conservative Hindu right does this advertisement cause so much heartburn. First of all, let us all agree that the rate of interfaith marriages in India is abysmally low, even as the media frenzy around the real or imaginary “love jihad” is disproportionately high. Moreover, one might be tempted to ask: Why should it matter if a thirty-second advertisement depicts an interfaith marriage? No one would be up in arms if the ad showed unicorns, for example, which are arguably as rare as interfaith marriage. The answer lies in our subconscious reaction to parasocial relationships, just like it did for Dan Quayle. After all, such a depiction forces you, even if for thirty seconds only, to see the people of Muslim faith, especially the men, not as the marauding savages out to Islamize India, but as real human beings who can fall in love and treat people around them well.
The idea that Muslim men are out to get our women is not new. In fact, Charu Gupta, in Sexuality, Obscenity, Community: Women, Muslims, and the Hindu public in Colonial India (2005) writes about the Hindu–Muslim riots of the 1920s where the stereotype of a Muslim man as lustful was propagated through pamphlets and newspaper stories reporting incidents in which they were accused of abducting Hindu women, and marrying and converting them to Islam. Gupta provides a list of these incidents in Uttar Pradesh, where she maintains that some cases may have been true. But even instances of the elopement of Hindu women were depicted as abduction, perpetuating the myth of Muslim men’s wanton behavior toward Hindu women. “Hindu masculinity had to be built in opposition to the ‘other’ [the Muslim].”
Similarly, Akshay Mukul in his book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, chronicles how the first edition of Kalyan, the Gita Press periodical, had an essay on the Hindu–Muslim samasya (problem), and by the 1940s was writing graphic details about the rapes of Hindu women by barbaric Muslim men (See pages 234–235). The notion of Muslim men out to get Hindu women is a recurrent theme in the narrative of the Hindu right, and this notion has seeped so deep in the psyche of the Hindu right that the UP state government gave directives to its police cadre to counter love jihad.
Although sometimes this psychological fear also comes out in almost comical fashion, if not for its darker connotations, like in the words of Yati Maa Chetnanand Saraswati, head of a Meerut-based outfit called Akhand Hindustan Morcha, who claims that Muslim men are sensuous and better at satisfying a woman’s desire. Therefore, if a Hindu girl experiences intimacy with a Muslim boy, she falls madly in love. The Tanishq ad conflicts directly with this mindset, and at once antagonizes and baffles the Hindu right.
Duly, Tanishq dropped the advert because of threats and abuse from the Hindu right, including from an advocate of the Supreme Court. However, going back to the parasocial hypothesis and the stereotype of Muslim masculinity, since the right holds the political and cultural levers of power, it is perhaps all the more important for artists to keep pushing the boundaries, if for nothing else to hope that this sparks some conversation and some examination within the country. This becomes even more vital in a country that has, over the years, become heavily segregated. Case in point: Gujarat Distributed Areas Act (1991): this act prohibits the selling of property from a Hindu owner to Muslims, or vice versa, in areas deemed communally sensitive by the state government. Currently, over 40% of Ahmedabad comes under the purview of this law, in addition to Vadodara, Godhra, and even areas in Bharuch, which never saw any violence even in 2002. This has in part led to one of the largest Muslim ghettos in India, Juhapura in Ahmedabad, sometimes referred to as Pakistan by the locals. Juhapura now hosts 400,000 Muslims. There have also been other documented cases in larger and mid-tier Indian cities where Muslims have been denied housing by the housing societies, furthering ghettoization. Due to this, many Hindus and Muslims rarely get to interact with each other and form any personal bonds, which furthers the idea of otherization within both communities, but especially in the Hindu community, for it is almost impossible for the 15% Muslims in India to go about their daily lives without encountering some Hindu in different comparative positions of power—and just like parasocial relationships, develop what psychologists call “contact hypotheses.” the Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport discusses it in the book The Nature of Prejudice (1954). Allport shows how contact between different groups reduces prejudice, especially in a group setting where the members of two different groups have equal status. But this last point of “equal status” is vital, as it can be very hard to achieve, as we have seen with the struggles of Dalit students for dignity on campuses in India, even in the most liberal or radical of them.
Universities are spaces where different people come together from different walks of life. If supported by an appropriate curriculum and strenuous efforts by administrators and faculty, such locations can raise awareness and encourage more people to accept difference. This is why colleges that take an active stance on this, like JNU and Berkeley, are often directly attacked by the right wing. However, if there is no radical curriculum, or the focus is on very specific tasks of developing technical and medical knowledge, and there is no encouragement to engage politically unless students themselves do so, then such liberalizing effects are not seen. This is what we see in technical and medical colleges in India.
While the right in India looks at JNU, TISS, Jadavpur etc., as dens of anti-nationals, where professors poison the minds of our youth, when one understands contact hypothesis and the lack of it in the larger country, one starts to understand why these places are the way they are. Even in the US, universities are seen as having a liberalizing effect on people, and places like Berkley and Harvard are seen similarly with reservations by the American right. One might, however, ask why we don’t see the same effect at least to some degree in the technical and medical universities in India. The reason could be that for better or worse, these places often encourage people to focus on very specific tasks of developing technical and medical knowledge and do not have any scope for students to engage politically unless they themselves choose to do so.
The Other Tanishq Advert
To sum up, the Tanishq ad hurts the sentiments of the right because, even if unconsciously, and just for thirty seconds, it still tried to engage the viewer in a parasocial relationship with a community that is consciously being othered by them. And while a thirty seconder would in no way foster a parasocial relationship in a country that is extremely segregated, these little moments of finding commonality are the only way to create windows of unity. The Right will always hate diversity because it directly impacts the curated world that they live in and want everyone else to live in, be it through the Tanishq ad, the Surf Excel advert during Holi last year, or any other attempt, and yet that is what is needed to slowly pull people out of the invisible cult that surrounds us.
Lastly, picture this: an advertisement where a Hindu family has a Muslim daughter-in-law, and the Hindu mother-in-law organizes an event for her. At the end, both of them recognize that the culture of the daughter-in-law (Islam) is now part of the Hindu family. Will this hypothetical advertisement go down well with the right-wing Hindutva crowd in India? I suspect not. After all, do you remember the Surf Excel advertisement where the young Hindu girl protects her Muslim friend from Holi colors when he is going to offer his prayers, something that also sparked extreme Hindutva outrage?
So, as we have been saying, it seems the problem was not with the specific advertisement, but with the idea of normalizing a community as human beings. Just think how dangerous that is?