In a recent vitriolic article (here), Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean of the Yale Law School, suggests that Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, could never have been crowned Miss India, because of her decidedly brown skin. Indians, you see, prefer light skin. So far so good.
First Miss Rangappa presumes that Nina Davuluri looks “well, Indian” as she points out. In doing this she contributes to sidelining already marginalized people of India – for instance those from north-eastern states such as Shillong, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagpur, Assam, who ‘fail’ to look as Indian as Nina Davuluri. The region continues to be politically sidelined, and this aesthetic sidelining: you don’t look like ‘us’ – whoever us is –prevails in regard to people from northeastern Indian states, particularly women (see this). It prevails even as some rejoice that America is teaching India to value its beauty in the trope of dark skin, flawlessly long hair, and impossible huge eyes. Ironically, while somewhat subverting the idea that to be fair-skinned is, well, to be fair, this just reinforces the idea that there is a singular way to look Indian, and Miss Nina Davuluri because of her dark brown skin, is it. This is no less problematic than the hateful tweets that did the rounds when Miss Davuluri was crowned, declaiming her to be an un-American Miss America because she doesn’t look, as was claimed, representative of Americans.
Secondly, the euphoria of a Miss America of Indian origin misses the more hidden reason for why women like Miss Davuluri are often perceived to be beautiful in America and other Western countries – we are objects of exoticization. Is this so different from the colonial tropes most acutely described in interactions of Europeans with others, particularly other women – beautiful in their foreignness, and adequate as sexual partners, but never as wives (some of some of Somerset Maugham’s fiction on this makes for wonderful reading). Even though people of Asian origin are the global majority, their aesthetic value in the West continues to reside in the idea that we look different, and that contributes to our beauty.
Third, in suggesting that Miss Davuluri could never have been crowned Miss India, we are applauding one country (America) at the expense of another (India) with decided overtones of the neocolonial rhetoric of a progressive country versus a country mired in stilted traditions etc. What makes this claim even more maddening is that it’s not even true. In 1994 Sushmita Sen, a dark skinned Bengali, beat out Aishwarya Rai for the Miss India title. In recent years there has been a spate of ‘dusky’ beauties in modeling and acting (and frequently both, since that’s how it goes) in India including: Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone (here), Bipasha Basu (here) Diana Hayden, Lara Dutta, Nandita Das (here), Rani Mukherjee, Kajol (here) amongst others. Even in earlier decades decidedly brown-skinned actors like Smitha Patil (here) and Shabana Azmi graced the silver screen and were widely recognized as beautiful.
Before getting too excited about the ways in which America has shown India how to value beauty, let’s take a minute to think about what it means to buy into this discourse.