Thinking about the Social Categories of Race, Gender, and Class in a Global Context as Expressed in Nina Paley’s Motion Picture “Sita Sings the Blues”

An essay I wrote in 2015 for a class taken through SUNY Empire State College titled “Mythology and Modern Life” that was developed by Dr. Menouka Case, Dr. Allison Craig, and Dr. Ayana Jamieson, and which was taught by Dr. Batya Weinbaum.

Sita Sings the Blues copy

Please click the link to view the film.

http://sitasingstheblues.com

When attempting to write about Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, I find difficulty in attempting to write about the intersection of either race or gender along with age, ability, or sexuality as presented in this cross-cultural animated picture. Part of my difficulty in expressing an analysis is in knowing that both race and gender are social constructs where boundary lines are often ambiguous. That is to say, the classifications of race, gender, and even social class, are shared symbols across cultures, but these symbols are not necessarily weighted by the same values and they do not necessarily represent the same meanings across cultures. In terms of mythological studies, those different meanings can be thought of as distinct cultural schemata or different discourses. For these reasons, socially constructed categories such as race and gender are relevant in people’s lives, but because of cultural distinctions the values and meanings associated with these categories may differ, making writing about cultural others within the context of socially constructed categories difficult.

Sita Sings the Blues is an animated picture that combines various cultural productions in order to portray the breakup of Paley’s own love relationship. Included in this mix are portions of the Hindu epic, The Ramayana of Valmiki, jazz-blues style musical tracks produced in the U.S. during the 1920s, and a Betty-Boop style characterization of the main characters in the Ramayana. So too, there is a representation of a working-class Jewish-American woman and her husband, who I presume are heterosexual because of their relationship, but perhaps not. Furthermore, there was no representation of children or the elderly in this animation, and neither were there any differently-abled individuals. Perhaps, I think, Paley might consider individuals who identify in these categories as not relevant to her own story.

As far as analyzing in the context of race and gender, I do not know how to make such a determination in the context of Paley’s production. Specifically, assigning a meaning for femininity and masculinity (gender) to the characters in Paley’s animation is complex. I could see where the female characters in Sita Sings the Blues were in contrast to one another. From my perspective, I see Sita’s clothing as revealing and the Jewish-American woman’s clothing as conservative, but that understanding is based on my own cultural schemata. So, does clothing style speak about gender? I do not know, because it could also speak about traditions dictated by weather and climate conditions. I also see that Sita is more submissive than the Jewish-American woman, but that is perhaps related to each individual’s degree of reliance on a man for an economic means of survival. Specifically, women in the U.S. often have the ability to support themselves, whereas life in other areas of the world where Hinduism is prevalent may have fewer employment options, and thus are dependent on their husbands. So, does the submission to a man reflect femininity and gender? I do not know. Perhaps it reflects a certain set of power dynamics in relation to a certain economic reality.

Furthermore, I do not know which race these animated Hindu and/or Jewish individuals might be. This applies to the category Americans, also. Likewise, is jazz-blues music racial? I do not know. It has roots in communities of the enslaved African-Americans in early U.S. history but is not limited to the African-American community today. The racial quality of the Betty Boop character is interesting, too. The Betty Boop character is patterned after a white-skinned performer named Helen Kane who’s show style, in turn, is patterned after African-American singer Ester Jones (Baby Ester) performance style. So, is Betty Boop racial? I don’t know. Perhaps it is best to say that the symbols that Paley chose for her animated story represent the complexity of attempting to understand and explain racial and gender categories. For this reason, I choose to write by contextualizing in cultural and ethnic categories and that of male-female relations as I understand them, rather than assigning and discussing ambiguous racial categories or assigning gender meanings to a culture and individuals with whom I am not familiar.

Thus, feminist artist Nina Paley used the medium of a motion picture in order to explain the breakup of her own marriage in a production she named Sita Sings the Blues. Paley created the animation by superimposing popular 1920’s U.S. American jazz-blues musical tracks by singer Annette Hanshaw along with a flapper-era Betty Boop type characterization of the Hindu goddess Sita onto portions of the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana of Valmiki. In this way, Paley explains the contemporary plot of a working-class U.S. Jewish-American woman scorned by presenting the story’s main theme as the mythological story pattern of betrayal as she envisions it occurring in parallel events of various times and places past and present. That is to say, in the production of Sita Sings the BluesNina Paley interpreted various cultural productions and then she combined and reproduced them in a new work that is meaningful to her in the context of her own life and circumstances at that time, emerging as a cultural s/hero in the end.

I can see that through the critical perspective of a feminist and producer of animated pictures, and in the aftermath of the breakup of her marriage, Paley saw instances of male domination and female oppression in portions of the Ramayana of Valmiki as well as in certain Hanshaw recordings, and she presented them as a theme of betrayal in order to create Sita Sings the Blues. From Paley’s perspective, she sees an example of spousal betrayal when Rama rejects his wife Sita because he questions her purity and virtue after the evil Ravana abducted and held her, attempting to seduce her. She supports this idea when she inserts Hanshaw’s track “You’re Mean to Me” to explain her take on the virtuous woman’s perspective of spousal rejection.

Interestingly though, Paley included other perspectives on betrayal in her work. She showed that in purity cultures and from a male perspective, a wife’s chastity is necessary for a man’s own standing in his community. The fact that Sita spent time with another man without a chaperone placed her feminine virtue (chastity) in dispute. The need for an idealized perfect image for one’s own identity would be especially true for the leadership role of the God-king Rama, who symbolizes the ideal man in traditional Hindu culture. If the community perceived Rama’s wife as a less-than-virtuous, Rama’s own community standing and image as a virtuous leader would likewise be compromised.

A third perspective is offered when a trio of shadow puppets discuss the perspective of the supposedly evil Ravana. Ravana, they say, was not portrayed as a typical villain in that he did not harm or force himself on the beautiful Sita, but rather he patiently waited for her acceptance of him. From this standpoint, whether Ravana can be perceived as good or evil is in dispute. Ravana can be seen as virtuous because he set a standard for ethical conduct in times of group conflict. We can further contextualize this idea by considering that abduction and rape is a common occurrence in ethnic and national conflicts (war). The role of Ravana in the Ramayana of Valmki is interesting in that it disrupts the good/evil dichotomy that is often present in Western s/hero’s journey story patterns.

Thus, Paley used her production to analyze and communicate about love relationships – hers and others. She did so by following a typically indigenous story cycle pattern, one that extends from a place of community. Furthermore, Paley’s portrayal of her personal s/hero’s journey avoided stereotyping individuals and cultures by pigeonholing them into good/bad us against-them-dichotomous categorizations. Instead, because her personal story transcends race, class, and national categories, so too, do the characters in her motion picture. She included different discourses (i.e. she included various class and ethnic/national as well as both male and female perspectives) into her production. Paley developed her own personal story within a context of a globalized vision of culture and then sent an animated representation of it back out to her larger world-wide community so that others could benefit from her particular contribution to the Ramayana story.

Others see strong feminist symbols in Sita, too. For example, in the article titled Sita in Valmiki Ramayana: A Feminist Archetype, author G.R.K. Murty suggests that contrary to popular Indian feminist sentiments that see Sita as an “overly-submissive wife who committed suicide for an ultimately untrusting husband” (citing Hirst and Lynn, 2004) we can perceive her as a feminist archetype instead. Thus, Murty proceeds to provide evidence, taken from the Ramayana epic, portraying Sita as an assertive “commander at ease” who speaks as the voice of dharma (the Hindu law governing individual conduct), optimistically debating against male chauvinism with endurance and self-respect (Murty). In this way, Sita stands in opposition to male control and domination but does so with feminine grace and charm. However, even as Murti embraces Sita as a positive feminist symbol, others argue a contrary point.

For example, self-professed common man and layman, Hetal M. Doshi, in Feminist Reading Of Indian Epics: Exploring Sita And Draupadi Through The Current Perceptioncontends that Sita may not have been the victim of a patriarchal society as is often argued by feminists. Doshi asserts that women, through three distinct phases of feminism, have already achieved equality with men. He suggests that Sita, a person of “delicate gender” insisted on going into the forest against the will of Rama, who did not appreciate this because he felt it was his “duty” to keep Sita out of the forest and therefore out of harm’s way (Doshi). This is an interesting idea, and likely a common idea amongst Indian men. That is, it seems that violence against women is so normalized in Indian society that men feel that they have an obligation to make special provisions in order to keep their wives safe, while at the very same time they perceive equality between the sexes.

The reality is that the prevalence of violence toward women in India is epidemic, in particular, sexual violence. A report by A. J. Plus in the online news outlet Aljazeera dated July 24, 2015, discusses the role of an organization titled The Red Brigade in bringing about a greater awareness of sexual violence toward women in India since the brutal attack, gang-rape, and murder of a 23-year old student from Delhi that occurred in 2012. Film producer David Hamilton and Indian-Canadian director Deepa Mehta are also bringing the violence against Indian women crisis to the national stage in their film production titled Water. Water focuses on the violence perpetrated on the widows of India during the 1930s. The film ends with a commentary informing the audience that the situation still exists with more than 23 million widows living in India as of the 2001 census. According to an October 24, 2014 article by Colin McNeil in the Canadian news source Metro News, the producers originally planned to film Water in the city of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, but because of violent protests and death threats, Hamilton and Mehta decided to film the production in Sri Lanka instead. It seems that some Indian individuals did not wish to have the violence of Indian culture on display for the world to see and they used violence to solve that problem.

Interestingly, Paley and others received similar threats for her more positive and balanced portrayal of Indian culture as present in Indian mythical tales. For instance, Kirk Semple of the New York Times reports on July 21, 2011 that community organizer Rohan A. Narine received death threats for attempting to “unify the young members of the Indian and Indo-Caribbean diaspora in southern Queens” (young Sikhs and Hindus) by bringing them together at a showing of Paley’s work so that individuals in “the two dominant religions” could “get to know each other” and network and “develop a political voice” (Narine). According to Narine, some of the messages he received were violent citing the film as abusive and insulting toward Hindu gods. Paley has received similar threats.

Paley’s production, then, presents her personal betrayal mythical tale in a way that conforms with normative western notions of the s/hero’s journey tale. Specifically, a working-class white Jewish-American woman who was rejected by her husband after spending a period of time apart, emerged the s/hero in the end, a victorious goddess in love with herself. Interestingly, Paley also included an indigenous story cycle pattern in that her production; it is indigenous in that is it extends from a place of community, it is inclusive of many perspectives, and Paley avoids stereotyping as well as the good-versus-evil dichotomous s/hero’s journey that is common in the West. Paley’s complex story, as well as Sita’s, transcends race, class, and national categories as well as time. The ways in which others perceive these stories, however, are entirely dependent upon their unique schemata or worldview. Some see good in these stories, and some see bad, while others perceive balance of multiple perspectives or different discourses.

Works Cited

Doshi, Hetal M.1, hetaldoshi123@yahoo.com. “Feminist Reading Of Indian Epics: Exploring Sita And Draupadi Through The Current Perception.” IUP Journal Of English Studies8.4 (2013): 81-85. Humanities Source. Web. 30 July 2015.

McNeil, Colin. “Deepa Mehta: Making Water under Fire.” 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://metronews.ca/scene/1192753/deepa-mehta-making-water-under-fire/&gt;

Murty, G. R. K.1, grkmurty@iupindia.in. “Sita In Vālmīki Rāmāyana : A Feminist Archetype!.” IUP Journal Of English Studies8.4 (2013): 67-80. Humanities Source. Web. 30 July 2015.

Plus, A.J. “The Red Brigade: Rape Survivors Fight Sexual Violence in India | Al Jazeera America.” Rape Survivors Fight Sexual Violence in India. AlJazeera, 15 July 24. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/24/the-red-brigade-rape-survivors-fight-sexual-violence-in-india.html&gt;.

“Sita Sings the Blues.” Sita Sings the Blues. Web. 7 June 2015. <http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html&gt;.

Hamilton, David (Producer) and Mehta, Deepa (Director). 2005. Water. [Motion Picture]. Sri Lanka: Fox Searchlight.

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