Objectification in advertising and Indian cinema: The culture of sexual violence

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The Default

I have been asked why I take so much offence at everything more times than I can count on my fingers. Close friends have asked me this, and it is a question that has, in its own nature, made me feel quite uncomfortable, and I have had to ask myself whether I have had the justification to raise questions regarding thoughts that deeply unsettle me. One instance of this question came up when I was slightly critical of a play that I saw being performed in college, and my friend asked me why I couldn’t just leave the sexism aside and just enjoy the comedy. I will come to this later.

I also recently came across this video. Although this video has very low production value and is quite poorly made, what came across to me was the exceptional presence of women on the screen. I am hoping people reading (and watching) this will feel similarly. This parody trailer made me realize that the overbearing presence of women on screen like this is not what audiences may be used to, even if the audience is a feminist who tries as hard as she can to not attribute characteristics to either gender. Every time we see more than a few women on screen talking, it is different and gives it a feel of a romantic-comedy (‘chick-flicks’), while this is seldom noted when the same thing happens with men. It is normal to watch men interacting on screen, but not women. No wonder so many movies fail the Bechdel test.

This is not to say that the Bechdel test is a test to disregard a film, but it is evidence to a much more compelling problem in media today. This is true especially for Indian cinema, where there is glaring difference between how actors of gender are treated. The female characters are commonly bland, uni-dimensional and mere plot devices, if not dancers in an ‘item-song’. Most movies have a male lead who is the driver of the story, and the female character is a device used to pleasure the audience gaze. The dancers (mostly major actresses of these times) use sexual suggestions to grab the attention of the audiences, and one may argue that this is just a healthy sexual expression, something that women have lacked in India for a long time now. But there are two responses to this:

  1. This healthy sexual expression is only done by these ‘item-song’ dancers; the leading women characters are still virtuous, virginal and coy. This tells us that even if there are women expressing their sexual interest, it is still not a desirable quality in a woman that you are supposed to admire. These women are nice and wise, albeit with some quirks. This is much unlike the leading men who have had areas of grey, and not just black and white. There is a dearth of what I call ‘imperfect women’ in the cinema today. For example, it is common to see a male pursue a female romantically in movies, but that kind of forthcoming nature is rarely seen from women.
  2. When an actress that I suppose is a decent actress does a role that has no value as such, it makes me want to take her less seriously, something that I don’t like doing, but is a personal preference. Amazing actresses have had still to do songs that appeal to nothing but the audience gaze. The song “Ram chahe Leela”, “Chikni Chameli”, “Shelia ki jawani” and many others solve no purpose other than for the movie and the song to sell. These are definitely things that the audiences prefer to watch, but this in itself should be a concern since there are talented actors (both male and female) who have to resort to bland musical performances to earn popularity. I would repeat again that this would not be a problem had there also been other kind of movies running mainstream. My only concern is, after all, a lack of variety.

Exceptions do exist. I suppose Queen handled the idea of a female lead extremely well. But, Indian cinema is based on the idea of escapism. India is dirty; show the audiences beautiful beaches which are spotless. Sex is a taboo to be talked of; show scantily clad women and resort to voyeurism. That said, the movies which do have female leads, them being female is a major selling point of the film, as if being female is a shift from the normal. Why is this so troublesome to me? I also watched this video a while back, too. The video is not flawless, the study more so, but it does reveal to us a worrying thought. That people will start to believe what media will tell them. It made me extremely sad to watch the video where kids as young as in the video, were falling trap to standards of “goodness” and “badness” in particular races. This is true for gender as well. For example, if a child sees that being virtuous and rejecting every notion of sexual interest by the innate nature of it is what a woman is supposed to do, that is what he/she is going to learn. Young girls will learn to inculcate these qualities, and boys will look for them in girls. Another example would be the lack of variety in superheroes. Most superheroes are male, and the female ones are generally an extension of the already existing. The female heroes that come to me from the top of my head are Catwoman and Wonderwoman. These women share the characteristics of being wise, intelligent and composed, while the male superheroes have a variety of characteristics, even being goofy. These are then the characteristics I assign myself, even though it is actually perfectly acceptable to be goofy and silly. This lack of variety is extremely evident in Indian cinema as I already mentioned.

You can look at the clothing sections for children, and the girls’ clothing is predominantly pink, red and purple, and the boys’ clothing is blue, green and yellow. There is a major difference not just in terms of clothing, but also in terms of toys. Building sets, car sets, train sets, even Legos are still marketed as boys’ toys, and dolls, baking ovens are still girls’ toys. And then we wonder why there are still less women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Gender behavior will guide us about what traits are admirable and what aren’t. I have anecdotal evidence too. A girl, someone who is intelligent and academically potent, told me that she did not believe that “girls were dumb” until she was narrated an incident by a male friend about a girl who did not know simple mobile phone operations. Or that when a male friend ordered green apple vodka, everyone else said it was a “girl’s drink”. Which brings me to my most important evidence; the play that I watched in college.

The play was a musical one, riddled with the idea of a guy in college trying to find a girlfriend for himself. It included the supposition that the Teaching Assistants pay more attention to the female students during lab hours, and not enough to the male students. A line that also stayed with me was when a male TA asked a female student why she had put curly braces (in a piece of code), she replies with a cloying, “But curly braces are so cute!” The stereotype blew me away; and to people in denial, I’d ask if there was any chance a line like that would have been given to a male student. Eventually, the said TA did find a girl to go out with (one of the students he was partial with), and when he asks her to be his girlfriend explicitly, she rejects him (which has since been perceived to be such a bad thing). This does also fit in well with the entire idea of males being “friend-zoned” by girls, as if sex and a romantic relationship was an entitlement.

I will not go into the details but the end of the play saw the line (in Hindi), “Girls are like jeans, and friends are like underwear. Even if the jeans come off, the underwear will save you from embarrassment.” The play made me angry; mostly because it made me feel alienated. There were several girls in the audience, and there was nothing in the play that I could relate to. They even claimed by the line subtly that girls and friends have to be mutually exclusive groups; a notion that made me feel even worse because I would like to think I have the ability to be a decent friend.

I have been told I was reading too much into the play when I confronted a few people with my thoughts, and I cannot deny this. I am truly reading into the play, but I do not regret it. I would have not have a gender related problem with it had it only been about relationships and sex, even so from the male’s perspective, since then the issue would not be about gender stereotypes. But that is not currently the case. The main issue here is that there is a severe lack of voice from the side of the women, and I wish I had the creative excellence to do something about it. But I know that even if I could, it would barely be popular simply because it is not something the audience is used to seeing. If there would be a female student pining for a male in just the same way as the play showed, there would be no question of how accepted that kind of behavior will be. The solution can only come from people making these plays, to try and bring a uni-sexual voice into the entire conception.

Wo-man has always been an extension of man. To be a man is the default, to be a woman is a defect. Hence when a woman is asking for equal representation in arts and media, it is asking for something that doesn’t exist by default, something that needs to consciously be provided. To finally clarify my position further, I would quote Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex:

“In the midst of an abstract discussion, it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true’ thereby removing my subjective self from the discussion. It would be out of question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary since you are man,’ for it is understood as a fact that being a man is no peculiarity. “

The only way to battle this is to create a medium where it is not necessary to ‘leave your brains aside’ to enjoy a show, and to be critical is not undesirable, but a habitual reaction.