Time Out of Mind

'The times they are a-changing...'- sang Bob Dylan, icon of anti-establishment radical politics of the heady late-1960s and early 1970s. Leading dreamer for a world without borders, he was one of the leading voices speaking for a harmonious world order. Dylan was part of a powerful wave of activism that included student rebels, leftists, feminists, pacifists and anarchists.

The times have changed, though not quite in the way Dylan and his comrades envisaged. During the last three decades, consumerism and greed have crossed all barriers. At the same time, borders and boundaries have become increasingly hostile. There is more violence, racism and injustice, rather than less.

Dylan too is a changed man. Recently - at the age of 62 - he advertised a line of women's underwear and bras for Victoria's Secret (a US-based lingerie concern). He seems to have stepped smoothly from singing of how `she makes love just like a woman' to eyeing lovely young women in various stages of undress on public television. For the ad campaign, the song `I'm sick of love', from Dylan's Grammy-winning 1997 album `Time Out of Mind' was chosen for its music - not its lyrics. Dylan fans are reported to be disappointed and angry with him because of what they see as a betrayal of erstwhile ideals.

Has Dylan turned from dreamer to voyeur? He seems to identify with common vulgar fantasies. No longer crooning for a better world, today he symbolizes weary compromise rather than idealist youth. Dylan had predicted he might cave in one day - that he was not invincible - `You're looking for someone who's never weak/ But who's always strong/ It ain't me babe/ It ain't me you're looking for/ I'll only let you down'.

Closer home, George Fernandes (former Defence Minister) has transformed from fiery young socialist to Establishment politician, corruption et al. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan - yesterday's angry young man - now - at the magic age of 62 - sells anything from paan masala (chewable mixture with some tobacco) to Pepsi or Coke; and even chocolates for a company accused of having worms in their product. A whole generation of anti-Establishment activists now works in run-of-the-mill Establishment jobs. Only a small number still try to keep the flame of dissent alive.

Does idealism stand little chance in the contemporary world? Or had we been mistaking the image for reality? Perhaps Dylan was never a visionary at heart. He just happened to write good lyrics and sing them well. Bachchan was just an actor, and Fernandes simply another politician.

How else would you explain that the Dylan who sang, `How many roads must a man walk down/ Before you can call him a man?' is the same man who today eyes women wearing sexy lingerie on TV. Of course, he got a lot of money for doing that. So did all the lovely young women who advertised for the sexy lingerie.

There are links here waiting to be drawn - between consumerism, sexism and sexual violence. Implicit in the advertisement is the image of women as desired objects, man as consumer. Man the hunter, woman the hunted. Man the voyeur, woman the victim. Can we question the present market-and-media ethics that turns women's bodies into consumer objects?

Consumerism manipulates people's desires. The prevailing ideology is that one should be able to acquire all one wants. Desired objects become commodities - available to the highest bidder.

Bodies are for sale: image and reality. Modelling - nude or semi-nude if required - is one of the few ways for women qua women to make money. Male desire is aroused by this display of titillating female bodies. From passive viewing to active buying is just another step. Bodies advertised on television - or others like them - are available in the real marketplace. Sex work is a fast-growing service industry.

Sex all over the world is still considered to be Labour for women - and pleasure for men. Obviously there is something not quite natural about the construction of sexuality if it is a commodity on sale like any other.

Women are learning to wear less and less in order to be appreciated. Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat claims that exhibiting her physical assets was the only way an ordinary woman like herself could make it in glamorous Bollywood. High-circulation daily newspapers discuss the 'oomph factor' and present 'mirchi (hot chilli) meters' comparing various `sizzling' females. Images of nude women, vulnerable and seductive, are doing the rounds on computer, television and cinema screens. Are we returning to the time slave traders would make a woman open her mouth to count the number of teeth she had, and feel her muscles to ensure she could do the work?

As China turns towards the market, its women who make a beeline towards cosmetic surgery to sculpt their figures and faces into desirable shapes and contours. Have we really moved very far from the days when Chinese ladies' feet were mutilated to fit into two-inch shoes? The privileged male gaze still seems to determine and dictate ideal female form, image and behavior.

China has turned consumerist. Our communist parties are not far behind. East Europe and the erstwhile USSR are actively ushering in capitalist market forces. Perhaps left-radical politics was never radical enough. Marx couldn't quite comprehend the significance of women's unpaid Labour - even as he indulged in a sexual liaison with the family maid. Lenin could not follow why Rosa Luxemburg or Clara Zetkin (socialist leaders) discussed issues like marriage, love and childbearing with women workers. It was left to socialist feminists to point out that for a just and equitable world order we need to overthrow not just capitalism, but also patriarchy. So long as patriarchy persists, left revolutions cannot succeed.

Patriarchy persists all over the globe. Our emotions and fantasies today dip into globalize reservoirs of male-defined fantasies and ideology. Recently, former US President Bill Clinton revealed in his biography `My Life', that he did have an affair with Monica Lewinsky - which he had earlier categorically denied. Having confessed, he excuses himself, dismissing it as a mistake that should never have happened. His book sells like hot cakes, the media excuses him and men at large are reassured that they do not need to take responsibility for their own sexual behavior. Patriarchy has always allocated sexual rights to men and responsibilities to women. Does this ethical code still hold, even among progressive and enlightened people?

Dylan had once asked -`You're invisible now/You got no secrets to reveal/How does it feel to be on your own/ With no direction/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone?' It may be fair to turn the question around on him. On the other hand, it may not be fair. For Dylan is simply one of many.   


More by :  Deepti Priya Mehrotra

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