Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“Feminism is just saying give me opportunities without judging me for the decisions that I make, the same freedom that men have enjoyed for so many centuries,” Priyanka Chopra explained in an interview last October.
And for the most part, Chopra has done just that, using her stardom to propel from Bollywood movie star to an international icon – a rise that some would call ruthlessly careerist and others unabashedly feminist.
Part of this controversy stems from the fact that Chopra, a powerful actress, is full of all the complications and contradictions that surround ambitious women. She has championed feminism in one breath, but denounced burning bras in others. She has talked about the need for diversity when it comes to her own career in the United States and yet warmly feted the man whose Hindu nationalist party is accused of enabling the transformation of India from a secular to a Hindu state.
And these same divisions seem to exist regarding her latest endeavor: marriage. Last week, the actress of more than 50 films and star of the recently canceled “Quantico,” wed beau Nick Jonas in a multi-episodic wedding, which featured a 70-foot (yes, 70) veil and ceremonies in a palace in Jodhpur and various other venues in India.
To many, it was the feminist marriage of globalist dreams. At a time when America’s xenophobic voices are loudest, Chopra appeared as the glowing exception to the nationalist stay-in-your-lane rhetoric that pervades politics everywhere. After all, Indian starlets with a net worth of $28 million don’t always marry boy-band superstars from New Jersey, but that is just what happened on December 1, 2018.
It all began with Twitter DM’s; he messaged her, and she offered up a phone number, because “her team” could see the messages. It was a power-move, the sort one would expect of a male celebrity whose entourage vets which preening women would get his attention – except that it had been appropriated by a woman, and a brown woman to boot.
There are a lot more details of just this sort: the mere five minutes she could spare to get a first drink with Jonas while a car and flight waited to carry her off to India, all of it establishing her dominance and his lovelorn devotion.
In Chopra, then, we have the ultimate lean-in love. A brown Indian woman, one of the first to have exported her stardom across the globe from India to America, engages a younger boy-band crooner in a cinematic courtship, and never once apologizes for it. The wedding was thus expectedly triumphal and lavish, fitting into Priyanka’s confession of working hard to “spoil herself.”
The championing of this go-get-what-you-want-in-love ethic is not just a speculative read into Chopra’s marital shenanigans; it is a philosophy that she is quite literally investing in. Next year she says she will be helping launch Bumble, the online dating app, into the Indian market because, “It’s the idea of it that I love for India,” as she told Vogue recently. “It empowers girls to take control of their futures. You want a career, go online; pursue the person you want to meet. Choose the kind of guy you like.”
But for others, including some women, Chopra’s get-ahead-how-you-can feminism is unacceptable. Days after the wedding, The Cut published a piece (which it took down on Wednesday) labeling her a “global scam” and alleging that the younger Jonas was “trapped” in the marriage – an unwitting part of a strategic career move passing as a marriage and ambition as love. The piece also took nasty potshots at the length and lavishness of the celebrations, believing that they were a Chopra special rather than the usual traditional stuff that they were. That essay’s vitriol provoked angry responses from brother Joe Jonas and his fiancée, star Sophie Turner.
That sort of critique of Chopra-branded feminism is misplaced, because it fails to target the real holes in her feminist story. A better critique could focus, for instance, on the role she played in “Quantico.” Alex Parrish, the FBI agent, may have been brown, but her agenda, catching terrorists who were often foreign, was a classic case of the American exceptionalist heroine – feminist power wed to the security state. Parrish was a woman wielding the power of America’s terror industrial complex.
The role can, in fact, be considered a stand-in for the allegiance that America now demands of anyone who wants to make it in this land of Trump and money, a heartfelt rendition of the American mantra that deems state power as always good and threats as (mostly) foreign. The “diversity” actress can cross over to the mainstream if she sings it loud and clear, and Chopra has done just that and been rewarded significantly.
Celebrity feminism, related as it is to corporate feminism – the buying of this or that in the name of empowerment – is a brittle beast. Its hollow insides belie its emphasis on the feel-good over the do-good, and female empowerment as part of a clever soft sell. Chopra followed its rules; in an early interview about “Quantico,” she insisted the show was about “empowerment,” although not in the “bra-burning sense” given the latter’s fail status in the marketing of feminist icons.
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Chopra is not perfect – and neither is her feminism. She is, however, a representative of what is possible for women if they set about using everything they have to get everything they want. Chopra has done just that, using everything, looks and love, strategic placement and inventive self-creation, in the service of the goal of becoming a star that shines not only in India but also in America.
Distilled to its essence, hers is a feminism of not giving a damn, grabbing all the power you can, marrying the younger man, wearing the crazy veil and broadcasting for the world to see. In our global moment of reckoning on women’s rights, such fantastic audacity is welcome.
“It is a powerful time to be an artist,” she remarked earlier this year. Who knows about artists, but it is certainly a very powerful time to be Chopra.