By Varsha Panikar
Illustration by @sushantkhomz
I often hear people say, “Why do labels matter? We are all the same. Isn't it dividing us further? Adding to the confusion!” The problem is the default expectation we have of people, as a society, is heteronormative and binary. Almost every TV show and film is straight so children like me grow up knowing what is expected of us as cis/het-identities. The media is one of the most powerful vehicles in the promotion of beliefs, moulding of attitudes, values and lifestyles. Its network penetrates the entire globe, shrinking it and injecting new ideas and hopes, and most times to systematically oppress, exploit and provoke.
Let’s be honest, the Indian entertainment industry has never been the vanguard of positive depictions of gender, sexuality, or any group of minorities.
Luckily for me, I grew up reading a lot and consuming a lot of world cinema, all thanks to my mother, who shares my love for movies and books. At that time, world cinema was new to cable TV, and our favourite thing to do was to watch movies every weekend. Now, I know world queer cinema wasn’t always the best either, but there were some good films, after the 90s, where they didn’t show us dying in shame, as an object of audience’s pity. One of my oldest memories is of us watching ‘Boys Don’t Cry’. I remember seeing my mother weep through the whole film, and towards the end, she said something, which stayed with me, “The world is terribly unfair. Why can’t we just let people be? I don’t get it.”
I don’t get it either.
Why is it considered so awful to think differently, to be yourself without violating someone else’s right to be who they choose to be? Why is it anyone's business to tell me how to live my life, what to wear, what to learn, who to love, who to pray to, to not pray at all, or to take away my choice to live my life on my own accord?
The answers to these questions may require more inquiry and a whole other discussion, but what I want to draw focus on is this sort of reaction from elders, friends and the world around you, the kind I always got from my mother - this is what shapes a child’s world view and politics. We are constantly bombarded with information, in forms of media, music, art, books, education, the behaviour of people around us; and the type of information we get is what shapes our mind, our emotions, our empathy, our confidence and sense of self. I was fortunate to have a mother who did not force religion or the world's biases onto her child, but the majority of the folx around me were not.
Having a representation of who we are and who we could become is vital to our social and emotional development - both as children and adults. Being able to identify with characters we see, hear and read about is just as important. I am not saying that necessarily everybody needs to see themselves represented in every book and film, but we need that sense of connection in what we consume as an audience.
When you see someone like yourself portrayed, it gives you hope and tells you that you are not alone, and you are not abnormal. Someone once said, “It is hard to be what you can’t see”. This is why visibility and representation are crucial in popular media and culture.
The ‘right’ visibility, ‘who’ tells the story, the ‘lens and gaze’ through which those stories are told are even more essential, because it creates a much-needed shift in social consciousness, though a voice and perspective that has had these experiences and knows what it’s liked to be in these marginalized bodies. It changes attitudes and knowledge around different identities, inspires people and gives them courage. It affects a huge group of people on a personal level, a group of people who are still rendered invisible, misunderstood, and surrounded by hostility and persecution.
Throughout my life, people have attached labels to who I was, and those labels reflected and affected how they looked at me and how I looked at myself.
These labels weren’t always negative, but they did set an expectation and affected the goals of my life, which weren’t my own. The negative ones, no matter how unabashedly I rejected them, went and hid deep under my skin and stayed there to haunt me, and manifested into fear, self-doubt and self-loathing. It wasn’t until I reclaimed those labels, that I was over able to identify and eventually, overcome the damages it had caused. The labels we use to describe each other are the result of assumptions and stereotypes.
Perhaps, as humans, we can’t help categorizing and labelling people, animals and things, as if to avoid chaos at the supermarket shelves. Or perhaps, it is our constant need to identify our surroundings and compartmentalize them in our thought bubble, for the sake of our sanity or survival.
Or perhaps, it’s just the fear of the unknown, the different, the unfamiliar. Or maybe, it is a kind of arrogance or the belief that some are better, more normal and more acceptable than the others, furthering the systematic divide between ‘us and them’. Hence, for better or for worse, labels represent and influence our identity, which is often beyond our control. The same labels have also been used to oppress people for far too long, which is why it is imperative to reclaim those labels and to rewrite the narrative that comes with those labels, especially in the current socio-political scenario.
Coming back to where we started. “Why do labels matter? We are all the same. Isn't it dividing us further? Adding to the confusion!”. I understand and hope that this idea comes from a place of well-intending individuals, but let’s do a reality check! The fact remains, we are not all the same. Yes, in a perfect world I wouldn’t need my labels. In a perfect world, everybody would love freely, be themselves without the judgement of others, but step back and understand that this isn’t a perfect world. People are being killed, children are left homeless, people are assaulted, and much worse - all because of their labels. The cruelty is endless and still ongoing.
We live in a world where you are assumed to be straight until further notice.
We live in a world where anything that deviated from the norm is mislabeled and misrepresented. So until we live in a perfect world, I need my words and I need my labels. Until the world is free of intolerance and discrimination of people because of age, disability, ethnicity, origin, political belief, race, religion, language, culture, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and other grounds - the labels will exist. As long as we need to have these conversations in the world, the labels shall continue to exist.
Self-labelling and self-loving
As someone who identifies as many things, labels have given me the strength to proudly declare my identity, to be able to talk about myself, my lived experiences so nobody else gets to label me broken, bad, unnatural or any number of other words that for some cruel reason have been deemed as acceptable to refer to a living being.
We’ve been socialised to think that differences are the cause of all conflict. Labels aren’t the cause of inequality - people are. The fact is, oppression and inequality are systematic and deep-rooted in privilege and power, and without labels, we can’t have these conversations about differences, because it's hard to talk about those differences without words to indicate those differences. Labels give us a place to start, as a way to reclaim power and spaces, bring focus on to the marginalised, build and define a safe community, and to boost awareness about the diversity, genders, races and minorities. It has brought comfort and closure for many and has been used as a tool for resistance and change.
Now I don’t claim that there isn’t a single label that can describe the full scope and the complexity of me as an individual, or that it hasn’t in certain moments made me feel as though I was being forced to simplify who I was, or that I was being forced to adhere to a set of criteria that may or may not be entirely adequate for my own mental and physical being. However, over time I have come to realise that labels can often feel polluted because we load them up with images and stereotypes, the ones we are trying to break, while in essence, they are simply terms we use to describe a few set of facts. Perhaps, it is the same as some people shying away from calling themselves feminists, because it is often associated with being ‘man-haters’, which it isn’t. I failed at explaining this to use**_menrule007, but that’s a story for another time.
I think it is also important to realise that a lot of their value depends not on the term themselves, but-how carefully and conscientiously we employ them. Labels don’t have to define us or limit us to the point where we cease being anything else, but they can be insightful in understanding our own identity and place in the world. Over time, I've realised, that there are certain things I’m comfortable calling myself, and others that I am not, and guess what? Those things may change over time, and that’s OK.
Labels can be as fluid as the human experience they describe. Even though labels are deficient and sometimes tricky, I do like to see both sides of the coin, and it is only fair to examine how labels have been helpful to me, and though they may seem like they can frustrate, confuse or divide us, they have helped me clarify choices - choices that I now utter with pride and confidence, and relish, dearly.
Obviously, I could go on. We could all go on, but I’ve learnt that words are never enough to capture the variety and complexity of life, that they are fallible and can be misused, that beyond a point they cannot transcend, but it would be a folly to assume that they don’t hold value.
The same is with labels. They are the tools we use to describe who we are, and the world we live in, and if we use them well, they can be used as a catalyst to bring about change or simply be cathartic, as they were for me.
Labels gave me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of solidarity in a world, where I always felt out of sorts.
It took about three decades for me to understand that what I was feeling was something a whole lot of people felt, even if on a varying scale. More than anything, it gave a word for what I was feeling, while I was questioning my own identity. Maybe it was all obvious to some, but to me, it was a huge revelation. It changed my world! With that, I'll leave you with a few labels I feel comfortable and proud to wear.
South Asian / Indian / Brown / Poet / Atheist / Feminist / Non-Binary / Pansexual / Survivor / Storyteller.
Varsha Panikar (She/They) is an independent non-binary filmmaker, poet and visual-voice artist from Mumbai, India. They like to tell stories by blending the medium of poetry, performance, art, moving images and sound. Driven by an unyielding desire to constantly create, regardless of the medium, they like to do a bit of everything; from brand advertising, independent audio-visual projects to delving into the sphere of art, poetry, writing and performance. They go by the pen-name 'fromtheafterglow' and regularly write other non-fiction and fiction pieces on their blog. They are also a voice-over artist and enjoy performing their poetry and writing live.
You can read more about them and check out their work here: https://www.varshapanikar.com/about