The Venus Flytrap: Doting On, Then Dethroning

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The social media world (which is a world, but not the world) recently officiated the dethroning of a celebrity who had made social justice a part of her branding. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and actor Priyanka Chopra was unceremoniously “cancelled” when comments she made after being called a hypocrite by an audience member at an event went viral. Chopra had expressed pro-military views, which she did not recant or explain. She was no doubt caught off-guard when asked to comment on global politics at a beauty conference, but her response was weak for someone who had been associated with activist causes for almost a decade.

But Chopra’s recent comments were consistent with her prior choices and actions. Consider her track record – promoting fairness creams, making anti-black statements both on film and to the press, slut-shaming women in a commercial for a dating app she invested in, posing on a magazine cover with an anti-refugee message on her clothing, and so on. The real question is: how can anyone be disappointed?

There are so many songs with lyrics that are variations of the idea that people will build you up just to tear you down for a reason. The backlash came largely from the same people who had pedestalised Chopra.

Could it be that the nature of the hivemind – which is ultimately conformist because a notion loses its edginess the moment it gains traction – continuously demands sacrificial lambs? It just so happened to be Chopra’s turn. If you noticed, a fresh pedestal rose simultaneously, extolling Ayesha Malik (who had called Chopra out). If Malik chooses to remain visible and outspoken, she will eventually be dethroned herself. There’s no such thing as an #unproblematicfave.

As I watched the angry posts against Chopra roll in, I found myself fighting the urge to join in more. I’d already said my two-paisa, wondering how her dubious choices had been acceptable up to that point. I’d never been a fan, although I’d really liked when she spoke about finding love as an ambitious woman. I didn’t have anything to add. So why did my fingertips itch? Holding back, I understood that all of us online that day were being provoked into expression, fueling one another. It’s a scenario that repeats itself, sometimes several times a week. Chopra fumbled when asked for her opinion in an unexpected context; meanwhile, we the online citizenry have made it our second nature to form and share opinions even when none are asked for.

The Greek god Cronus ate his children because he feared being overthrown by them. What happens here seems to be a kind of reversal, in which the devout devour their gods. They replace them with new ones, then repeat the ritual.

To install someone on a pedestal is to give our power away. When they are knocked down, its our own power they lose. Imagine what we could do if we fostered things that matter, things we didn’t feel like breaking because somewhere deep down, we are afraid of what we are capable of achieving ourselves. It’s not only the power we misattribute, but the disappointment when it appears to be misused too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 22nd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

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