Slumdog Millionaire and the Ideology of Beauty

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It's that time of year again:  time to gather materials, write up the letter, and update my vita for my annual merit review.  It's an angst-provoking period that's usually mercifully cut short by other deadlines.  In a culture where the profession of humanities instructor is being steadily devalued and the economy's on the skids, it provokes more than angst--it summons a shiver.  "Tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up only 35 percent of the pedagogical workforce," as Stanley Fish mentioned in his New York Times blog recently, and those numbers are shrinking as universities and colleges rely more and more on adjuncts, "part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals," as Fish writes, which is a travesty, given that they've worked to gain the same credentials that tenured and tenure-track professors have.  By overproducing Ph.D.s, academic institutions have created a huge labor pool that enables departments to be extremely selective and exploit the rest.

This makes me sad and worried for my underemployed colleagues and for my students, who work so hard, are so bright and talented, and love literature so much.  Some of them are deft, inspiring teachers, too, who could do a lovely job helping people in other fields appreciate and enjoy the poetry and drama and fiction that can otherwise seem opaque.  Well, I'm worried.  Fish ends his essay fairly blithely:  "I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess."  Surely he's being ironic about such self-centeredness, right?  Right?

Many thanks to my old friend Jill from Trinity who sent me the link.  And for Jill's own post about fat and feminism (which coins the useful terms "sexbot" and "fuckability standards"), click to her blog.

Okay, very quickly:  So James and I saw Slumdog Millionaire at The Ross the other night (it's still playing there, oh ye citizens of Star City).  I enjoyed it very much--it's sweet, important, clever, heroic, and visually wow, and it managed to make my heart beat fast at the end, even when I knew what was coming--and had various quibbles with various aspects and various admiring things to say as we walked home in the falling snow.

But the one useful contribution I think I can make to the discourse mushrooming in its wake is this.

Much has been made of the film's rags-to-riches narrative and the fact that it was released in the United States, manufacturer of the American Dream, before it was released in India, that dream's new heir apparent.  Supposedly, the story has appealed to U.S. audiences because we're still lingeringly invested in that dream, which now is slipping away from most people's grasp, as it has always been out of reach for most people of color and most poor people of all ethnicities.  (Kudos to the film's producers and investors for planning to funnel some of their profits back to the slums of Mumbai.)

So here's just a small thought.  In old versions of the dream, the beautiful, wealthy woman represented the grail, the seal of success on the protagonist's quest for upward mobility.  Daisy for Gatsby, etc.  Even in the beloved S.E. Hinton novels of her adolescence, laments Michelle Tea in Without a Net, the cool gang boys pined not for their fellow poverty-stricken female companions but for the society girls, groomed and clean in twin-sets and pearls.

In this regard, Slumdog Millionaire takes a giant leap forward, for its hero's only goal--his only reason for competing for the big bucks--is to reconnect with Latika, the impoverished girl he left behind.  He is pure, noble, a Galahad of the gameshow.  In Slumdog Millionaire, Woman, though goal, does not function as wealth-trophy, not as a symbol of having climbed at last that ladder to the moon or whatever folderol Fitzgerald was so invested in. 

Hurray!  You don't have to be a rich girl to be desired, loved.  Poor girls can be loved and brought along, not left behind forever.  Progress!  Right?

But in terms of feminine beauty, Latika is just as much a prize. 

The young woman who plays her, Freida Pinto, had been working as a model in Mumbai for two years when director Danny Boyle plucked her up for her film debut.  Her beauty is the kind people might call "classic" without specifying that they mean "classic within a Western tradition."  Her looks have cross-cultural appeal (read:  they're not alarmingly Other to white eyes).  She was picked for her beauty.
In contrast, Dev Patel, who plays Jamal, the male lead of the title, was chosen as a talented actor, one able to carry a film; he has been drawing attention since high school for his moving dramatic work, which is what he trained in.  But he's hardly the looker Pinto is.
In fact, he sort of resembles a British-Indian David Schwimmer:  endearing and appealing, yes.  A sweet boy.  "Classically" handsome?  Not so much.  Neither is the young man who plays Salim, Jamal's crooked brother.  I'm not sure there were any "classically" handsome men populating the screen.  (Maybe Irrfan Khan, the police inspector?)

I wouldn't go so far as to speculate about the sexist beauty ideologies of Danny Boyle, the director, or Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplay, or the guy Vikas Swarup, who wrote the original novel on which the film was based, or anyone else involved. 

I would just note for the record that Latika is a sweet and passive love-object, a sexualized token passed from one male character to another.  She can only be saved by Jamal's cleverness and endurance; she's still a beauty token, the reward at the end of his quest.   I would also note that folks are agitating for Boyle to share his Oscar nod with his female Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan--who's all too happy to step modestly aside.  (Hmm, a pattern?  Perhaps that's the kind of woman Boyle prefers.)  I would wonder how long it might be before a heralded narrative of male transformation includes a woman who is as ordinary-looking as the man himself.

And finally, I would note the film's one notable divergence from fairly straightforward representations of time.  Of course, the narrative structure relies on flashbacks to Jamal's childhood, but those are visually straightforward and clearly signaled.   Occasionally, a flash of Latika as forlorn child is inserted, in case viewers cannot tell from Patel's milky expression that he is Thinking of Her.  But the one moment in which the filmic representation actually moves backward in time is at the very end.  At last, the lovers are together.  All shall be well.  Jamal leans to kiss Latika's facial scar (imposed when she's disobeyed her most recent owner/master, and inflicted--whew!--without distorting any of her features).  As the kiss is bestowed, the film suddenly flashes back to the moment in the train station when Latika is recaptured and cut, and then rewinds back through the brief scene to the moment when she is standing in sunlight, looking up adoringly at Patel.  She is unmarred again, her skin pristine.

This, I think, is revealing of the director's ideology.  The film doesn't rewind to undo Latika's rape by Salim, or her years of forced sexual servitude to the gangster Javed, or her various abandonments and privations as a child.  (As if anything could.)  Rather, Jamal's kiss, the gift of love, restores her to perfect beauty.  Jamal's kiss symbolically restores her to a state that functions for the pleasure and consumption of himself and others, not for the benefit of her own subjectivity.

Hawthorne couldn't have made a creepier statement.


Faye said:

Joy, I wish you the best of experiences with your your former (and hopefully future) student, I feel very privileged to have had you as a teacher.

I also saw Slumdog Millionaire this weekend and really enjoyed the film. Just to make one small point that I did feel was positive about the love Jamal had for Latika...there was never any indication anywhere that her having been raped or horribly used by men throughout her young life made an ounce of difference to Jamal's vision of her as perfect...or necessarily to what she thought of herself. Having lived through such impoverished childhoods, there was never any suggestion that the poverty or evils forced upon them changed who they were as human beings, altered their value as individuals or made a difference in what they deserved in life or their right to be loved. I liked that.

February 2, 2009 5:29 PM

Onely Author Profile Page said:

Joy--Excellent post. Those same things bothered me about SlumDog, but I was not able to articulate them to myself the way you have.

Did you read the book Q&A, on which the movie was based? In the book, Latika ends up saving the day as she, having become a high-powered lawyer, swoops in to save Jamal when he's accused of cheating on the game show. But in the movie, Latika is passive. So basically the filmmakers removed her power in the adaptation, and they are being rewarded for that product with talk of Oscars, etc.

I wrote to Feministing about this, also, in a panic. = )

Just one more reason to disdain the Oscars, in my opinion.


February 4, 2009 10:32 AM

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