Sunday, July 19, 2009

Ms. Magazine's Cover Appropriates Hindu Imagery

Above is the most recent cover of Ms. Mandy van Deven on the Bitch blog tore this apart for incorrectly appropriating Hindu imagery - rightfully in my opinion - and Veronica I. Arreola of the same blog disagreed:

I've always viewed the multi-armed image of motherhood as relating to an octopus. Again, growing up ignorant of Hindu deities, the octopus or spiders, especially in cartoons, were seen as having an ability us humans didn't have - extreme multi-tasking. And today's moms are pushing the boundaries of multi-tasking.
An octopus? No. This is not supposed to be like an octopus. Octopus' arms are fluid and unwieldy. The top two hands are in a specific position that is meant to recall the way people in meditative stances hold their arms. Additionally, each hand is definitively grasping an item, much as the Hindu goddess Durga does here:

The Ms. cover is definitely mimicking this. Both women are facing forward, with their arms and bodies fully turned towards the viewer, and each arm is in activity. There's no way the Ms. cover is supposed to be a fucking octopus.

Arreola further writes:

So is the image on the Ms. cover a slap in the face to those of Hindu faith? Perhaps. But it's also the best way to depict the life of a today's mom. I'm not a student of Hindu deities, but were any of them also multi-tasking mamas? And I'm being totally serious with that question. I don't mess around with goddesses.

Well, that's inconsiderate.*

"I'm sorry, there's just no other way to perfectly express this!" is a tool of the oppressor to preserve their privilege. People frequently cite this kind of logic to justify their use of blatantly ableist language like "lame". I believe I remember saying exactly this to a friend to justify my use of the word "gay" when I was about 12. It's just, you know, a cultural touchpoint. It's just, you know, how you describe this idea.

Just because something is commonly seen in popular culture does not make it an okay reference to reify. No, not even if you're doing it to support moms. Come on. Privilege blinds, and appropriation in imagery and language is not okay if you're on our side.

When you know something is racist, as Arreola does, when you know something is wrong, you need to fulfill your creative duties and find another, less tired point to echo. You don't defend it and say that it's totally okay because that's just how we say things!

Women can be shown to multitask with hydra heads, or with blurred hands doing many things, or... I don't know, something. There's no need to mock and appropriate the imagery of a religion that millions of people currently practice.

This is not a comparison I thought would be likely, but Ms.'s cover above reminds me of this widely criticized cover from the National Review:

I like Ms. I have a subscription (thanks, Mom!) and it's definitely worthwhile. But this is retrograde and insulting and obtuse. I'm sure there's good material inside, but this is a poor way to package it, and it does not need defending.

Cross-posted at Womanist Musings

*I used the word lazy originally here. Since Ms. Arreola is Mexican (something I did not know until she posted in the comments), this constitutes racist word choice, and I have accordingly changed it. My apologies.


  1. Nice post!

    What's even more annoying about the Arreola's response is that she's also reinforcing this sort of Mythic Mama Bear whose overwhelming duties puts her at the center of feminist discourse. What I mean is that while one of my concerns as a feminist is making it easier for women to have families as well as creative, enriching careers, hobbies, and various pursuits, I also see that as the kind of problem that comes with a certain amount of privilege-- or even when it addresses privilege accordingly (suburban, bourgeois values), it still manages to essentialize the feminist experience into this Mamahood of worry, self-doubt, and embodiment of all the ideals of motherhood.

    Meaning, not only can you appropriate what you want because you're an over-worked mama, nobody dare counter that because you're wielding mamahood as a defense against any critique of your actions. It's like saying, "When you're a parent, you'll understand." Except, it's become, "When you're a parent, you'll understand my feminism."

  2. Thanks for mentioning my post! I completely agree with you that Ms. doesn't need to be tossed into the dustbin for making this mistake. It'd be nice to see them weigh in on this conversation, wouldn't it?

  3. wow...I am shocked at how my words get twisted to fit others agendas. I would never say "Wait until you're a mom" to understand my feminism. My multi-armed life began way before I ever got myself knocked up.

    And it's sad that if I ask a question to readers, it's labeled lazy. Oh well, another lazy Mexican here!

  4. Wait, I'm confused. Being a woman who juggles work, children, school, household responsibilities, and lastly, my own needs, somehow makes me priviledged? Let's see, I grew up homeless and without either parent raising me, but I suppose that since I "do it all" that somehow means I'm doing it all while sitting on a lily pad?

    Don't you think if I were "priviledged" I'd be juggling only what I want and hiring others to do the rest? That's just about the most shortsighted feminist analysis I've ever seen.

    And as far as "you'll understand when you're a parent" - well, all I can say about that is we all learn something when we become parents, and there is no way in the world that your feminist ideals won't be challenged and adjusted when you make that brain-altering life change. It happens to the best of us. There are just some things that cannot be known without empirical wisdom.

    I wasn't offended by the cover. I sometimes think Bitch magazine is just looking for something to bitch about - and they secretly hate women on the other side of childbearing.

  5. Veronica, I had no idea that you were Mexican. My apologies. I will edit this post for better word choice and put a note reflecting that.

    However, I stand by the rest of my comments.

    I'm also not sure where you're getting your claim that I said you said "'wait until you're a mom' to understand [your] feminism." Those words do not appear in my original post.

    I'm not sure how I am otherwise twisting your words. I think that Ms.'s cover is racist, and I disagree with your rationale for why it's the only way to express the idea of the business of motherhood despite the racism of the image.

  6. Ooops, sorry, Veronica, I didn't realize that you were responding to Miranda. Sorry, again (I just woke up from a nap and am fuzzy).

    TheFeministBreeder, privilege comes in many different forms, and one form of oppression does not negate other forms of privilege. For instance, a poor black woman may suffer from race, class, and sex discrimination, but benefits from cis and heterosexual and able privilege. A transgendered man who grew up rich and suffers from OCD operates with male, white and class privilege, but suffers from transphobia and ableism. You might read more on existing with both privilege and oppression (as just about everyone does) here.

    Also, Bitch Magazine wrote in support of this cover as well as against it.

  7. @RMJ - so are you saying that we are all priviledged in one way or another? If that is true, then what is the point of accusing someone of being "priviledged" to begin with?

  8. @TFB: Yes, everyone has privilege. (I encourage you to read the pieces linked in the original post and in my comments for more on this).

    Privilege comes in disparate forms, and sometimes even from those who experience the kind of oppression they are decrying (this is called "internalized ___ism" and is evidenced by women like Sarah Palin).

    It's important to point it out - not accuse others of it - because such actions often go unnoticed or undiscussed, and every instance of privilege is worthy of pointing out. Privilege operates below the surface and is not contained to folks saying racist slurs and keeping women from voting. It is systematic, and a part of all of our lives.

    One way to begin to dismantle it is to point it out where you see it instead of letting it continue on without being called out. If it's not called out, then it will perpetuate itself and replicate itself again, and again, and again.

  9. @TFB: If you'd like to read more on how I try to be responsible for my own privilege (of which I have a great deal):

  10. OK you young'uns - this is an appropriation of an appropriation. This image directly refers to the pilot issue of Ms., included as a pull-out section of New York Magazine, then one of the few trendy glossy magazines. That image from the November 1971 teaser issue was referring to Hindu iconography of the Goddess (Kali/Durga, with a housecat rather than a lion). The image was meant to illustrate one of the articles, "The housewife's moment of truth". The free-standing official first issue came out in 1972, with Wonder-Woman on the cover.

    1971 pilot cover:

    Perhaps Ms. should have explicitly stated the historical reference of the new cover to the first-ever cover(maybe it did, I haven't seen the issue), while acknowledging that it is a ripoff based on (local minority) religious iconography.

    The essay, "The Housewive's Moment of Truth", is a very famous early second-wave essay, and reflects the relatively narrow focus of the white middle-class author and predominantly NYC-based readers of the trial issue, enclosed in a very much white middle-class urban trendy-consumer magazine. The gist of the essay is "married/coupled women, don't assume responsibility for all housework, parenting, etc - lower standards to necessary rather than perfect cleanliness etc, then pick half of the work and give hubby the other half."

    PS, I am not all THAT ancient, but I was a senior in high school when the pilot issue of Ms was an insert in New York Mag, and since my parents got the magazine, I remember the image well.

  11. Believe it or not, Nancy, I actually knew that! I've been reading Ms. a long time, and I've always loved magazine covers, so that stuck with me. I had a paragraph mentioning it, but could not find the original image and so did not mention it. Thanks for chiming in!

    I agree that they should have clarified the reference, but I think that the problems with the 2009 cover stand. Also, I think that the former cover is a lot more respectful - the woman is illustrated and is blue, as many Hindu goddesses are. The one in the 2009 cover is just plain white, which constitutes erasure.

  12. As for using religious images in non-religious contexts, in the great majority of cases I don't have a problem with cartoons, images, stories that challenge received religious doctrine, present the Deity or incarnation in a modern setting to make either a theological or a secular point (what would Jesus drive?), and so on. If you believe in God, why should you feel the need to defend God against some mere humans? I have never quite gotten the concept of blasphemy being taken seriously as a threat to religion (as opposed to taking it as just plain rude or ignorant). I am excepting speech and images that are intended to incite violence against other people.

    We are in big trouble if it becomes taboo to question religious belief, practice, doctrine. The believers are in trouble because questions stimulate wrestling with the meaning of their faith. Faith without doubt is likely dead, mechanical, ritualistic. The skeptics are in trouble because religious belief and practice is often the source of oppression and not liberation.

  13. Nancy, for me it's a question of who's doing the mocking/appropriation. If it were an Indian writing the story the cover represents, and an Indian woman on the cover, this would be completely different because it comes from a place of knowledge and oppression, being critical from the inside.

    The use above co-opts this knowledge and applies it towards ends that are not critical or even relevant to Hindu. It diminishes the traditions of Hindu to a single image, used in service of white feminists.

    It's great to question faiths, but when you're questioning another's tradition, you need to be careful.

    However, that's kind of beside the point. This image is NOT used in the context of criticism - as I said above, it's used in service of exploring the concerns of white women. It's co-opting traditional imagery for something that has nothing to do with the religion, which is reductive, appropriation, and dismissive.

  14. Well, I hate to argue with you again, but I disagree with your general thesis.

    First of all, images and symbols are arbitrary and ambiguous, and Hindus contain no more ownership of symbols than white men have over the image of Jesus. The image of God/Jesus has often been portrayed as black, white, and every color in between and yes, even as a female, which totally contradicts the traditional white image we've all come to know. Is that kind of co-opting bad? No, it is simply what that image means to that particular group of people. There is nothing disrespectful about it - on the contrary, I believe it pays homage to the original meaning.

    Second, I think we really need to call a spade a spade here and recognize that the real issue that some "modern" feminists have with this imagery is that there was a baby in the picture. Childless feminists seem to be agitated anytime a modern woman is depicted as a Mother. There is a general anti-baby tone among many "modern" feminists because they believe that being a feminist somehow means rejecting the ability to create human beings in their bodies and then feed them from their breasts - two abilities that I consider nothing short of super-powers deserving of celebration and ceremony. To these "modern" feminists I ask one simple question: Exactly where do you expect future generations of Feminists to come from if the Feminists aren't breeding them?

    I personally think that we are not nearly far enough along with our feminist fight to have the luxury of squabbling over differences in opinion over ideological symbolism. Every single day in this country, women are laying on operating tables being surgically raped by obstetricians, and then being forced to license their baby's health off to a formula company instead of using their bodies own ability to provide superior nutrition for free. The feminists who have time to argue over this have been hoodwinked into ignoring the real issues that strip our autonomy and health from us every single day.

    *phew - that probably shoulda been my own post, but I couldn't help but respond here*

  15. First of all, images and symbols are arbitrary and ambiguous, and Hindus contain no more ownership of symbols than white men have over the image of Jesus.

    First of all, no, it's not. Symbols are invested with thousands of years of tradition and mythology. And I think that Christians often react very harshly - and with good reason, sometimes - when Jesus is appropriated in a disrespectful way.

    Second, I think we really need to call a spade a spade here and recognize that the real issue that some "modern" feminists have with this imagery is that there was a baby in the picture.

    Whozawhat? We're having a conversation about race, and you want to make it about the baby that no-one has mentioned?

    I'm SUPER offended that you would imply that I'm anti-baby. I am 23 years old and not ready for pregnancy or a child. That does not mean that I am anti-baby, anti-baby's health, or anti-mother. Your comments here are extremely disrespectful to my own agency in my body.

    My feminism is very largely rooted in my mother and in my childhood. Don't make assumptions about my attitudes towards children and mothers.

    I have NEVER, EVER, EVER said that mothers are not doing valuable and important work, and especially not in this post. I frequently post about not wanting to be a mother, needing the option to have an abortion, etc because I am personally not ready to be a mother.

    If you have issues with my other posts on children and pregnancy today, you need to take issue with them in other posts.

    You are derailing this thread and centering this comment around your concerns and experiences. Your comment was extremely inflammatory and hurtful.

    This is the last response you'll get from me on this thread. I'm turning on moderation for this post, and any future off-topic comments to this post will be deleted. Stick to the discussion of religion and race, as in the original post, please.

    If you want to discuss babies/motherhood/pregnancy, please take it to one of the many other posts on this blog on that subject.

  16. Using Hydra heads would ALSO be cultural appropriation by your argument, just a different culture.
    I don't agree that using an image is ALWAYS cultural appropriation. Appropriation is an act of removing something from someone's use. The reason this image is powerful is SPECIFICALLY BECAUSE it is understood, within our own culture and worldwide. It in no way prevents Hindus from continuing to use it.

    In fact, I would suggest that the use of this image is respectful to Hinduism. It is portraying an image of the Mother Goddess. It is recognising the awesome power of this image, not deriding it.
    If we were to use a Hydra to portray Motherhood, what would we then be saying about it? That Moms are dangerous, vicious monsters?
    This image recognises the sacred within the act of Mothering. It calls all Mothers Goddesses while also questioning the way we envision that archetype and how expectations can harm us.

    Perhaps what makes you feel uncomfortable is the portrayal of a basic female choice that you have personally decided is completely unpalatable, as an issue of central importance to Feminists. Motherhood is foundational to the shaping of a Feminist consciousness. Basic standpoint epistemology will tell you that your lack of experience of how Mothers are systemically discriminated against means that your voice has limited authority. I would also suggest that unless you are a practicing Hindu, your thoughts on the use of this image also have extremely limited validity.

    As a white woman, I would never presume to speak about the experience of Racism. As a non-Mother non-Hindu, you should not presume to speak of how this image should or should not be interpreted. Your response should be limited to asking the Hindu community how they feel about it, and asking Mothers how they feel about it. To presume otherwise is assuming privilege, and YOU are appropriating a voice.

  17. Folks, I'll cop to any and all privilege. I am a problematic gal.

    I'm bowing out of this thread. I'm going to approve comments that relate/respond to this thread directly in some way. Please have specific examples of things I or others have said if you're going to address motherhood.

    If you've got something to say about something I've said elsewhere about mothers, say it in that post, not this one.


  18. Changed my mind. Un-modding. Writing a post this week about my problematic attitude towards motherhood. Have at it.

  19. Well, since you've un-modded, I just want to say (and forgive however this sounds) that I think you're displaying an incredible amount of maturity and thoughtfulness by recognizing that this an issue worthy of self-exploration. Being challenged, especially when you are conflicted about something, is not an easy thing to sort out. But I'm looking forward to your reflection on this. If only everyone in the world could take a step back and cool down the way you have, the earth would be a very different place. Brava.


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