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What's Le Bal Paris on Netflix's Fabulous Lives? And What Makes It A Regressive Tradition?

The criteria alone to receive an invite to this elite gathering is “famous parents” and “attractive appearance” – two solid, age-old reinforcements of society’s hierarchical status quo that have impeded equality for so long.

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Tanvi Akhauri
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Fabulous Lives Netflix, Fabulous Lives Netflix

I remember it clear as day when tinsel town’s chicest star kid Ananya Panday made her debut at Paris’ Le Bal des Débutantes in 2017. For two reasons primarily. One, because that was the first I had ever heard of this high society event, even though it has been around since 1992. And two, because I had excessively stalked Panday’s social media profiles to gather as much buzz as I could around this grand, dreamy-looking, right-out-of-a-Jane-Austen-novel ball. The prospect of ancient, romantic traditions still existing – in the world’s most romantic city, no less – had excited me. Now, as a wiser me watches Fabulous Lives on Netflix, and in it another star kid Shanaya Kapoor making her debut at Le Bal in the first episode itself, it all seems more regressive than exciting.

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Complete with billowing gowns, delicately-made up hair, and an ornate hall to dance with a partner in, Le Bal seems to be a modern revival of 19th century Victorian balls. But the imitation doesn’t stop at just affectation. Le Bal, like certain social events of olden days in the West, is essentially meant to be the coming-of-age ceremony of girls aged between 16 and 22. Decked in haute couture, these girls, all from global creamy families, partake in this fashion event as a mark of turning into women now capable of being out and about in society. Though Le Bal is marketed as a charity event that donates proceeds to the needy, the bling of the priceless jewels these debutantes don could blind commoners like you and me with irony.

Also Read: Why Do Women Undervalue Their Personal Happiness?

Beyond The Charity, What Does Le Bal Paris Symbolise?

Once described as the world’s “hottest” party, Le Bal is an obscene reminder, even exacerbation I would say, of the class divide that exists in the world. The criteria alone to receive an invite to this elite gathering is “famous parents” and “attractive appearance” – two solid, age-old reinforcements of society’s hierarchical status quo that have impeded equality for so long. It makes one wonder: is there even scope to the change activists and feminists are yearning to bring in areas of false beauty standards, unequal opportunity, and outdated norms when the uber-rich are hell-bent on keeping these traditions alive?

Charity events are welcome. But my grievance with Le Bal is the hoo-ha it creates around masquerading as one. Because in the process of doing so, it is building those very barriers back up that legions of our ancestors had tried so hard to break down. And the worst part is, in the process, it grossly glamourises it all. Take for instance the coming-of-age aspect of the ball. While these pretty debutantes and their cavaliers (and their parents) may find a wistful charm in these traditional labels, couture, and exclusive attention they are being endowed with, the truth of the matter is that these customs are highly sexist and patriarchal.

By marking herself as a member of the “noble gentry” at Le Bal, the debutante is actually showcasing herself as an “available” adult woman now allowed to mingle, ready for companionship, and open to advances from male suitors. Now one may argue that in the 21st century, gatherings like Le Bal are nothing but fun, empty recreations of extravagant traditions, without dated notions. But my question is, can traditions be revived without reviving at least some bit of their backwardness? Didn’t a tradition as regressive as this go out of practice for a reason? Why then must such monsters be brought back to life, and that too so ostentatiously? Only to entertain and appease the rich?

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Why Glamourise Pretentious, Patriarchal Traditions?

The Le Bal, despite being a closed event, is widely publicised. And why mustn’t it? The progeny of royalty, film stars, business tycoons, are all congregated in one place; in exorbitant custom-cut outfits and unmatchable elegance. It checks all the boxes to prompt enthused media coverage. But when photos and videos of it are released into the mainstream – as Fabulous Lives did – it tells young girls and boys everywhere that the world only takes notice when you look a certain way, behave a certain way, participate in society in a certain way. Your way isn’t worthy enough.

Some may find humour in the pretentiousness of the rich class’ self-importance. But beyond the humour, institutions like Le Bal are fervently at work to keep intact social mechanisms that pump life into sexism, poor self-esteem, classism, under-confidence, and low self-satisfaction of the general public at large. And these conditions are too heavy a price to pay for catering to nostalgia-induced Romanticism in the age of equality. It would be a far better idea to let balls and other sleeping dogs lie where they otherwise do: in literature, as a reminder of progress over things gone past.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

patriarchal traditions Ananya Panday victorian ideals le bal paris fabulous lives
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