Tag Archives: colourism

The Venus Flytrap: Enough of Enid Blyton

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The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.

Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.

Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.

As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.

Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Deeper Shade of Brown

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I probably wouldn’t have watched the new live-action Aladdin remake, but it was the birthday girl’s outing of choice. Social media had prepared me to cringe at just how problematic this beloved movie from my childhood really was, full of Orientalism, cultural conflations and racist tropes. But there I was with tears streaming down my face during the “A Whole New World” sequence, smudging the 3D glasses and my real glasses both, moved by the surrealness of watching the song in a new rendering. Briefly, I forgot the different sort of pang that had come earlier – seeing that Princess Jasmine, unlike her animated counterpart, was light-skinned. I was surprised by how hurt I felt, grasping then just how powerfully her original incarnation had impacted me.

As far as princesses go, it was 2009 before a black girl, Tiana of The Princess And The Frog, was illustrated. Amazingly, brown kids like me had Jasmine back in 1992. She was a rare representation. Not of brownness per se, but of darker skin (the actor in the remake is half-Indian: technically brown, but light-complexioned). Jasmine, the cartoon, was properly brown, “like dosas, samosas and stikki chikki”, as the title of a children’s book on skin colour goes. This was why I was also vividly drawn to Esmeralda, from the often forgotten The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Brown like caramel and sapotas. Brown like me.

My skin tone is the kind that gets bleached out in sunlight and in smartphone selfies (there’s a historically racist bias in photo technology, some of which remains in play with manufacturers today). I prefer my true colour, and I wish to be visible as a darker-skinned woman who is achieving things, going places, and yes, is even attractive. I want to claim and share the space, the void really, caused by colourist erasure. It is currently over-run by light-skinned brown celebrities criticising racism in the West but promoting fairness creams and practising casteism in India.

An international publication once adjusted the settings so much on my portrait (which perfectly captured my true tone) that I looked positively pink. Bubblegum pink. Someone must have thought they were doing me a favour, like how people are quick to say like it’s a compliment, “Don’t worry, you’re not so dark.” Conversely, any fetishizing of dark skin takes me right back to the creepy man who told me when I was little – “Black Beauty. Like that book you’re reading instead of talking to me.”

But I am worried. Even today, many children do not have enough positive acknowledgments of their appearances. This includes all non-normativity in: skin colours, body sizes, hair textures, the shapes of facial features, heights, (dis)abilities, illness-related conditions, amputations, scars and more.

There’s a feminist twist in the new Aladdin and it can’t compensate for the whitewashing of the iconic original Jasmine for me. Despite all that character’s flaws, she was a way for some (though not all) darker-skinned children to see ourselves as being at the centre, admired. She was beautiful. For those of us who didn’t know we were too, it meant the world to be shown a reason to believe it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 13th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Laying It Out In Lavender

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“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” goes the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Well, Aishwarya Rai is just 42, old only by the punishing yardsticks of the entertainment industry. She looks fabulous, but wouldn’t be forgiven if she doesn’t, or if she looked beautiful and aging. On the red carpet at Cannes, she appeared whimsical, winking at the camera in a lavender lipstick like it was the most natural thing in the world, while the world itself looked on aghast. The often-forgotten title of that poem is “Warning”. In it, a woman trapped in a conformist lifestyle promises to misbehave in her elderly years, and wonders if she should start practicing; she begins with wearing purple.

Why is a woman putting on a cosmetic so temporary that she’ll only have to blow her nose once into a tissue to have most of it come off the subject of debate? “Debate” was a word actually used in headlines (why were headlines made because a woman wore a cosme… never mind). In one article, several inquiring ladies gave the shade a shot and found that that particular lipstick, by a brand that Rai is an ambassador of, does not retail in India. Their trip to two stores seemed to yield no equivalent, which led them to concoct the colour themselves through mixing white and purple eyeliners with a concealer base on their lips. They didn’t like the effect (their photos don’t have too many smiles, which may have made a difference).

Which brings us to this ridiculousness: how does white eyeliner exist when a lilac lipstick, which is stunning when offset by the dark skin of so many Indian people, can’t be readily found? For local manufacturers and franchisees, my sapodilla skin is probably the swarthiest tone they consider. My even more dark-skinned friends must either fork out several thousand rupees per product for elite brands like MAC or Inglot, or forego skin cosmetics altogether. Similarly for more deeply pigmented colours which will stand out on an array on eyelids and cheekbones and lips. This isn’t simply about whether people can afford it, or even a hyper-ethical question of whether any of us should wear makeup. Beauty standards are enforced by diminishing not just diversity, but self-esteem, as envisaged and enacted through self-presentation.

Here’s the thing: Rai may have made ill-advised fashion choices in the past but when it comes to this lipstick, my guess is it was neither faux pas nor advice. Some L’Oreal executive would have held out a palette of options and suggested a baby pink to go with the floral print on her dress or a bright scarlet to go with the blood-boiling rage against the system. Rai wore violet because she wanted to. Maybe her child liked it. Maybe she was making a subtle homage to the queer rights movement, whose emblematic hue is purple. I’d like to think that the Jenny Joseph poem was the most plausible reason. After decades of being micro-managed and body-shamed and made complicit in the way other women are manipulated and devalued – through a pastel smile, was she issuing a powerful warning?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 19th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.