By Tanvi Misra
I’ve had a variety of reactions to being called “exotic”. I’ve rolled my eyes at the dude at the Philadelphia college bar who used it as a pickup line. I’ve sighed in a Chicago classroom when a classmate said that my “exotic” appearance would definitely get me a job. I’ve laughed awkwardly when my white, American ex-boyfriend called me that because I wasn’t sure where the joke ended and the fetish began. A couple of weeks ago, I ignored the salesmen who yelled it at a London street market. But most surprisingly, I’ve often been called exotic in India—the place I’ve lived most of my life.
Usually, not always, but usually, it’s meant as a compliment. So why does it annoy me? Two reasons: it’s unoriginal and it’s ignorant. Unoriginal, because after scraping the barrel of his/her mind, the person came up with the most obvious, superficial thing about me. It’s ignorant, because the person has chosen to overlook or ignore the problematic historical context of the word.
Source: Oxford Dictionaries online
My problem with the word is pretty well encapsulated in the first example sentence of its definitions in the Oxford Dictionaries: “exotic birds”— creatures to be gawked at, be taken as trophies, be tamed or be saved—that’s what I feel like when people call me that. It’s uncomfortable.
It’s impossible to go on without mentioning Edward Said at this point. His book Orientalism was key in articulating the problem with the word. It was a milestone in postcolonial and feminist studies, crucially influencing the discourse in both those fields.
Among other things, the book explained the justifications for colonialism of the “Orient”—the East—by the “Occident” or the West. The “orient” and its people were characterized as irrational, exotic, erotic in comparison to the occident, which was rational, familiar, moral and just, explains feminist scholar Charlotte Weber.
The word “exotic” helped Western men and women distance themselves from non-western women by making them the “other”, Weber says.
It also objectified them, painting them all with that one brush stroke. Non-western women of all colors, sizes, ethnicities and nationalities suddenly became flattened projections of the western gaze. Either we were all Princess Jasmine caricatures, swishing seductively in veils, or geishas, passive and pouring tea. Either way, we all needed to be—no, were begging to be liberated. If the liberator felt like a bit of adventure, he would strut in, strip the veils, “liberate,” and strut out. That we were “asking for it” remains a justification for the rape and exploitation of women of color today.
Still, when I’m in America or the U.K., I can explain it. I can see that calling me “exotic” is sometimes attempt to exclaim that I am foreign. It’s not surprising and I can explain why it bothers me if people are interested.
What I don’t get is people calling me that in India—a country that runs the whole gamut of physical features. That’s why every time I hear it there, spoken by well-meaning friends and family, it confounds me.
Of course I’m not the only one. On Facebook, I got some interesting responses when I asked women their experiences of being called “exotic” abroad and at home.
Priyanka Chopra, a beautiful, darker-skinned Bollywood actress is a great vessel through which to talk about reasons of why someone might be called exotic in India.
The New York Times just published a profile on the actress, who recently released a music video with Pitbull called “Exotic”. In an interview, she was quoted saying she liked being called that, presumably by Indians and westerners alike.
The lyrics of the song and the music video made me question why a woman who looks more like the majority of women in India would like being labeled “exotic”? And also, how does that affect how people see women who share her skin color and her Indian identity—like me?
The explanations I’ve come up with assume the existence of a colonial hangover—especially in former colonies like India. Maybe it’s inevitable. We, as Indians, have internalized the aesthetics, language and to some extent, even the “western gaze” as Said described it.
My evidence includes but is not limited to the Indian film industry. In Bollywood, the dominant aesthetic is that the leading ladies (quite like the “wanted” brides in matrimonial advertisements in Indian dailies) be tall, slim and most importantly, fair. So the truth is, if Bollywood were its own country, dark-skinned Chopra would be a minority.
Perhaps unwittingly, she doesn’t know she is using problematic language to sell herself to a western audience, as well as an Indian audience fatigued by the fair faces in Bollywood. Or perhaps, knowingly, she has decided to reclaim the colonial term to survive in that industry and some might even argue, to advocate throwing out the fairness creams and embracing dark-skinned beauty.
I’m not sure.
All I know is that for women, such as myself, who like standing out but are tired of being irredeemably different in the places they call home, celebrities calling themselves “exotic” is not doing any favors.
This article was previously published here