March 8, 2012

by Nivedita Menon

Excerpts from my forthcoming book Seeing Like a Feminist (Penguin India/Zubaan Books

Have you heard of ‘nude make-up’?

This is what it is:

‘Nude makeup looks are all about your skin looking fresh and dewy, without looking like you’re even wearing any makeup. All you need is eyeliner, mascara, nude lipstick, and a highlighting blush that will give your skin a natural-looking glow.’[1]

The whole point of nude makeup clearly, is to spend hours painting your face in order to make it look like you never touched it at all.

The maintaining of social order is rather like that. It requires the faithful performance of prescribed rituals over and over again throughout one’s lifetime. Complex networks of cultural reproduction are dedicated to this sole purpose. But the ultimate goal of all this unceasing activity is to produce the effect of untouched naturalness.

When one ‘sees’ the world like a feminist though, with the gaze of a feminist, it’s rather like activating the ‘Reveal Formating’ function in Microsoft Word (what an earlier generation of WordPerfect users knew as ‘Reveal Codes’). The feminist gaze reveals the strenuous, complex formatting that goes on below the surface of what looked smooth and complete.

What do I mean by feminism? A feminist perspective recognizes that the hierarchical organizing of the world around gender is key to maintaining social order; that to live lives marked as ‘male’ and ‘female’ is to live different realities. But simultaneously, to be a feminist is to imagine occupying the marginal position with reference to every dominant framework. For instance, any possible female reader of this post would be in a relatively powerful position with regard to working class men she interacts with daily – the auto rickshaw driver, the janitor, the domestic servant; and if she is an upper-caste Hindu in India, or white American anywhere, with regard to men who are not. At the same time, she would experience her relative powerlessness as a woman if faced by a man in a position to attack her sexually, regardless of his class or caste position; or when she compares her life choices and autonomy with those of a man of her class. Needless to say, it is not only ‘women’ who can adopt feminism as a political stance and way of life, but men who choose to do this have to be taking a stand against the privileges that they could otherwise take for granted.

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