What do trans people think of trans representation in Indian ads?

Do recent ads with trans people promote older stereotypes and create new ones? Or are they a step in the right direction? We asked the people who should have the last word on this.

April 23, 2021 / 09:09 PM IST
Screen garb of Bhima Jewellers' 'Pure as Love' TV commercial, featuring transgender student and model Meera Singhania (front, left).

Screen garb of Bhima Jewellers' 'Pure as Love' TV commercial, featuring transgender student and model Meera Singhania (front, left).

Bhima Jewellery’s ‘Pure as Love’ campaign with transgender student and model Meera Singhania is the latest in a small but growing number of Indian advertisements featuring trans people. Vicks India, Ralco Tyres, Brooke Bond Red Label and Nykaa are some of the other brands that have woven stories of trans people into their recent ad films. While these ads may tick boxes like diversity and inclusion, what do trans people think of them?

Biraja Mishra, a trans woman from Bhubaneswar pursuing a degree in gender studies, says, “I do not appreciate ads that speak of trans people as sacred beings with links to mythology. We want to be treated as equal citizens, not exotic creatures. Ads may also create the impression that all trans people want to undergo medical transition. That is simply not true.”

Medical transitioning involves a variety of expensive procedures such as hormone therapy, laser hair removal, top surgery, vaginoplasty, hysterectomy, phalloplasty, facial feminization surgery, breast augmentation. Trans people may or may not choose medical transition based on their relationship with their body, access to funds, availability of social-emotional support, or for other reasons. It is a personal matter, and intrusive questions are best avoided.

The insistence on a before/after story undermines trans people’s right to narrate their life experiences on their own terms. They are forced to use a template that cisgender people (whose gender identity matches the sex assigned by a doctor at the time of birth, typically based on genitalia) can understand. This expectation can bring up traumatic family history.

Swarnim, a non-binary trans woman from Patna who is a data analyst, says, “The idea that trans people are finally getting into the mainstream because of these advertisements is completely out of touch with reality. These ads pander mostly to the cis gaze. They portray only those trans persons who have the resources to successfully pass as cis people.”

Trans people may choose to transition only socially by coming out to trusted people, stating preferred names and pronouns, and dressing in ways that affirm their gender identity. Do ads films capture these subtleties and change attitudes about trans people, or do they reinforce harmful stereotypes? Are companies using stories of trans people to sell their products but not hiring trans people? Why is it important that trans actors play trans characters?

Aryan Somaiya, a trans man who is a clinical psychologist in Mumbai, believes that these questions often go unaddressed when the conversation about trans representation does not have trans people at the discussion table. “Trans people are typically shown as ‘goody-goody’ trying to earn approval, or sacrificing their own happiness to be taken seriously,” he says.

Somaiya also points out that ad filmmakers are reluctant to cast trans people in ads that would make consumers question their assumptions about gender binaries. He says, “We do not see trans men in ads for menstrual products or trans women in ads for padded bras. Gender non-conforming people, and non-binary people, who are also part of the trans umbrella, are never part of these ads. They usually depict only hijras or trans women.”

What would a sensitivity checklist for ad filmmakers look like? Trans people ought to be paid for their labour, and not expected to work merely for visibility or exposure. It is advisable to use their preferred pronouns, and always better to ask than assume. Deadnaming, or the use of a given name that they have discarded, is considered offensive. It is totally inappropriate to casually ask them about their genitalia. That is a violation of their privacy and safety.

Q, a trans person from Chennai, and a graduate scholar of care and peace at Trinity College Dublin, says, “I am instinctively and viscerally skeptical of trans and non-binary representation in ads, simply for their politics of visibility. Ads violently attempt to make visible; visibility demands an audience and the voyeur is often an uncritical consumer, whose consumption is of the brand, and therein trans people are co-opted into the imperialism of the product.”

They draw attention to the fact that most trans people in India cannot afford jewellery, and that the Bhima Jewellers ad does not improve the material conditions of their lives. Trans people who earn their living from sex work, for instance, are not considered respectable. They face harassment from the police. The model in the Bhima Jewellery ad occupies a dominant caste and class location, and therefore gets societal approval through marriage rituals.

While many cis people seem jubilant about the fact that these ads are more sensitively made than the Bollywood film Laxmii starring Akshay Kumar, and the web series Paurashpur starring Milind Soman, where these cis men play trans characters, that seems like a low bar.

“I would love to see an advertisement where a trans person is employed without their trans-ness being the central feature of the ad – the melodramatic, emotional fishing rod to reel in a sentimental customer,” says Q. This shift might happen when more trans people are in decision making roles not only as producers, directors, scriptwriters, actors, and members of the technical crew but as CEOs of ad agencies and HR heads actively recruiting trans people.

Multimedia journalist Prithvi Vatsalya, a transmasculine person from Mumbai who is the creator of TRANSPEAK, a podcast featuring trans masculine people, says, “I love seeing trans people on screen, be it trans women or any other member of the community. We have been on the margins for far too long. Even if one of us gets the limelight, it is a cause to celebrate. At the same time, let’s remember that corporates are doing this to earn woke points.”

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect)