If the jumping off point to describe anyone’s “gender bending” style is “Harry Styles-inspired” – completely ignoring and essentially both cis- and straight-washing the global and local histories and realities of androgynous and genderfluid fashion – then you’re already off to a rocky start.
Vice India’s latest cultural piece on Indian fashion influencers Komal Pandey and Siddharth Batra positions them as pioneers of “gender bending fashion” – the catch-all terminology used to describe cis girlbosses in suits and cis men in skirts. But more than that, apparently Pandey and Batra are also “gender bending” gender as we’ve been conditioned to know it. This, apparently, can be credited to Batra being allowed to play both cricket and with toy kitchen sets as a child. Frankly, that just sounds like a kid being allowed to do more than one thing; queer, trans and non-binary kids have been allowed to do far less and have still come to the conclusion that gender binaries suck.
This isn’t to say that Batra deserves the hate that he gets for playing with fashion the way he does, or that it’s invalid in any way. Everyone’s just really over influencers feeling like their enlightened path to pushing back against boundaries, couched within the safety of their social and financial privilege, is somehow novel, radical or worth even writing about. Trans women and the hijra community in India “bend” and compel us to re-evaluate conventions of gender everyday, by merely existing and doing amazing community and education work – with very little online or monetary love to show for it. Crafting a story then around how an influencer finally started to empathise with women, after being “ogled at” in his girlfriend’s skirt for a few minutes, just seems especially trite.
And because this article really focused on Batra’s and Pandey’s more Western fashion sensibilities, why was there no mention of when it was first quite revolutionary, and scary even, for women to wear suits, shorts and pants? Where was the mention of Western male musicians of the late 60s and onwards who went out there and donned peasant blouses and flowy pants, zany, out-there latex onesies or floral baby doll dresses just because they were trying to do something bigger than themselves? Why is there not even the slightest mention of the actual garments or assistive clothing that gender-diverse people wear, like binders and jock padding, and how that’s contributed to a sense of self and a sense of style? What about the drag queens, the butch lesbians, the ‘cross dressers’, the gay men and trans people in India and abroad who have actually revolutionised high and street fashion because it was truly part of their gender expression and identity to do so, and not some gimmick to beat a social media algorithm? Instead, all we’re saddled with is an irrelevant fun fact about how heels used to be a status symbol for Persian men, trying to unsuccessfully pass as historical analysis. This is all you get when an article attempts to frame wearing “opposite gender clothing” as groundbreaking.
Focusing on how Pandey and Batra make out in their videos and what that says about what the modern young adult Indian wants to see on their screen would have probably been a much stronger, albeit similarly cringe, story. At least that’s something we can actually give them credit for. But to run a story on how they’re “taking on centuries of gender norms” – as a deliberately gender and sexuality-ambiguous, societally palatable couple – when there are many queer, trans and non-binary Indian influencers who do this for a living (but also for more than the likes), during Pride month of all months, is actually incredibly insulting. If anything, for the lack of actual effort put into just thinking the idea through.
What’s most unfortunate is that lost in all of the haphazard analysis and pointless quotes is the actual star of this piece, Neel Ranaut. They’re referred to as a “genderless fashion influencer” by the anthropologist interviewed for this piece, but with no clarification from Ranaut, we’re taking this identification with a lot of salt. Introduced only at the very tail-end of the piece, Ranaut is a self-described “village fashion influencer” from Tripura who uses elements of their every day to recreate actresses’ red carpet looks from literal scratch. All they got was a couple of lines at the end. If that isn’t the most apt metaphor for how predominantly cis, straight media outlets completely miss the point and credit cis, straight people for something queer and trans people have been doing better forever, we don’t know what is. It just seems like it’s not even enough to pluck at the lowest hanging fruit anymore, media outlets just want to run with anything they find in the dirt.