City City Bang Bang, Columns

The beauty lie

So was it all it took to change, even if temporarily, the Indian outlook towards Pakistan? An attractive young female foreign minister comes visiting and everyone falls over all a-gush? It is easy to understand the attention she generated and the interest she evoked, but the reaction didn’t stop there. Most editorial comments suggested that she represented a shift in the Pakistani attitude and that she was a ‘breath of fresh air’ that helped change the climate surrounding the dialogue. In other words, her contribution was seen to be substantive, even if what created the most impact was her appearance. Now, it is entirely possible that Hina Rabbani Khar is a gifted leader and the Indian reaction was based on a realistic assessment of the progress made in talks between the two countries, but given the presumptive nature of judgement on what has been a stubbornly intractable subject, it seems much more likely that the media in India was seduced by her looks, and extrapolated her influence. Interestingly, glamour has translated into presumed effectiveness, instead of being consumed on its own.

The extent of coverage her looks and fashion sensibility garnered tell us a thing or two about the current media and societal discourse. At one level, it just reinforces what we know about news today- that it is increasingly a consumer product catering to the reader as a paying consumer, without an overriding sense of responsibility towards the objective coverage of important news. The difference between big news and small, the important and the trivial is dissolving; it is not just a question of making news more entertaining, but the growing belief that the trivial and superficial is in fact significant. Celebrities are no longer covered with a knowing we-are-doing-this-for-the-ratings attitude, but with the belief that what they have to say will significantly impact our world.

The other interesting part of the reaction to Khar is the attention given to the brands that she surrounded herself with. No description of Khar was deemed complete without mention her Birkin bag and Jimmy Choo shoes. The brands were seen to be an intrinsic part of who she was, an accessible elaboration of her persona that we needed to acknowledge. The consumerist thrall surrounding this description seems to point towards the idea that brands radiate an aura that multiplies the effect that any person has on others. By wearing these brands, it is as if she communicated a willingness to play in an arena far removed from the world of politics and diplomacy. By most accounts, all that the fact that someone bought a handbag worth several lakhs of rupees says about the person is that they are rich or daft or both; there is no special skill or personality trait required to go to a shop and buy a bag so why should it make any difference to how we see her? In some ways, by articulating our reaction in the language of brands and consumption, we are acknowledging the extent to which a culture of consumption has taken root in India.

But by far the most important aspect of the media frenzy surrounding Khar is the fact it reveals a lie which we routinely tell ourselves. That beauty does not matter, that outward appearances can be deceptive, that the surface is less important than what lies within, that depth is valued more than gloss. We know from our everyday lives that this is simply not true; we believe that it should be true but know in our hearts that it isn’t. In every walk of life, from the most trivial to the most important, from beauty pageants to Presidential election, youth and appearance make a difference. Our yearning for youthful leaders, for instance is as much about regarding youth as harbingers of hope as it is about seeing more telegenic faces on our screens. The current disgust with the sleaze in politics has as much to do with how our politicians look as it is with the actual level of corruption that we see around us. The desire for ‘clean’ politics describes not just a character trait, but also points to what kind of physical appearance we would ideally like our leaders to sport.

And yet, guilt about pursuing physical beauty has historically been ingrained in us. We think nothing about lavishing our minds with all kinds of attention and investment; we do everything possible to cultivate our mind and realize its potential by ceaselessly enhancing its capability. But when it comes to our physical appearance, we think of any attempts to enhance it as being irredeemably shallow. Advertising has understood this lie, among others that we tell ourselves. The difference between politics and advertising is the former lies in the name of the truth while the latter tells us deep truths in the guise of a lie. Hina Rabbani Khar’s triumphant tour to India was an exercise in advertising masquerading as politics. That we are so susceptible to it tells us about our readiness to embrace the culture of consumption. It also tells us that we have begun to stop lying about who we are and what really drives us. Of course, whether that is good news or not is open to debate.