Into the Woods: Giving “Snow White” a New Meaning

I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:

Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”

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Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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The Indian Culture Tamasha

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A couple kissing inside a police van while they were being taken away by the police from the protest site in Kochi. Photo: Josekutty Panackal/Manorama

Recently after the vandalising of a restaurant in Kozhikode (Kerala) by the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (the youth-wing of the BJP) people in cities across India have taken to protesting moral policing, with protests being titled ‘Kiss of Love’ (it even has its own Wikipedia page!). From there on what came about was a competition between the progressives and the conservatives of this country regarding who knows the Indian culture best. A similar competition erupts every time the religious right in our country declares homosexuality or short dresses as against Indian culture. Progressives try to reason with Kamasutra and the temples in Konark and Khajuraho. But what they do not understand is that every time they fall back on that mythical creature  called the Indian culture to validate actions of people living in modern societies, we lose and we lose big. This Tamasha, this charade, that the progressives and conservatives play is dangerous and does more harm than good.

In the case of trying to rationalise LGBT rights in India, Devdutt Pattanaik asks two questions that liberals and progressives need to answer before we begin educating the cultural vanguards about liberated sexuality in ancient India.

… how does attitudes towards homosexuals in ancient India affect modern-day attitudes? Is our approval or disapproval of same-sex affection and intercourse dependent on ancient values?

And further adds a note of warning:

… we must remind ourselves that the ancient sources that censure homosexual conduct, also institutionalised the caste system and approved the subservience of women.

While we accuse the conservatives of cherry picking from the scriptures to forward their parochial agenda, we often ignore the part where we cherry pick from the same set of scriptures to justify our rights. The intentions might be different, but the consequences of both are the same. It affirms the status quo.

Let me make it clear about what I think of those citing religious texts and mythologies. You endorse one quote, you endorse everything that comes with it. So for instance, those who cite the Kama Sutra for the different techniques of kissing to validate people’s right to display affection in public are also, in my eyes, endorsing the fact that the work was written by Vatsyayana primarily for savarna men. They are endorsing the fact that women were, except for young brides for the sake of their husbands’ pleasure, were considered unworthy by Vatsyayana to read and learn Kama Sutra. And also regressive and horrible prescriptions like the one on how the wife of one’s enemy is to be used as a tool for revenge, or Vatsyayana’s admonishment of homosexuality, or his categorisation of non-vaginal sex as the job of a kliba (eunuch) or a prostitute. So my dear progressives and liberals take it on the chin and accept the fact that when they say something like “not our culture”, it probably is true.

We need to realise the fundamental flaw in justifying human rights with texts and philosophy written thousands of years ago. It doesn’t help in anyway to bring in change, instead it strengthens and affirms the status quo. This reminds me of that one tweet by a Muslim feminist in response to those claiming that one doesn’t need feminism when there is Islam: I know Islam gave women rights a thousand years ago, but can we please have them now (paraphrased). Human rights cannot be reasoned on the grounds of an outdated idea. It needs to be justified on the grounds that the beneficiary of these rights is a human being and hence totally deserve to enjoy it. Anything else is just not good enough.

P.S.: For those who still feel the need to validate their public display of affection with Indian culture, here is what a friend of mine has to say: “Since I’m Indian, anything I do becomes a part of Indian culture.”