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

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“Don’t take me to be a feminist…”

“…because I believe in equality!”

The first time that my school arranged an activity for the first level of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I was in 8th Grade. I did not know then that my clenching of fists when I found out that knitting was the activity decided upon by the teachers for the young girls of our school, something the boys were not really supposed to do, was my first feminist reaction. The boys, and this was the worst part, got an introductory session on web programming (I fail to remember what it exactly was). But what I do remember is sitting through hours of knitting, trying to get my hands to govern threads, with the eventual result of being able to make socks I was never going to wear.

My memory is deceitful, since I may be wrong about having no options. I also remember sessions regarding Disaster management, cartography and an outdoor trekking expedition under the same programme. But for some reason, the memory manifested itself into my mind as a parasitic recollection about how my teachers expected me to want to do certain activities that I might have had no interest in pursuing. And I didn’t. In spite of my clenched fists, I reckon I did nothing about the rising anger that I suppressed for not very long after this.

In 11th grade, because of a misguided sense of ‘feminism’, I wrote out a 200 word poem about womanhood and spoke of it as much as I could. I was young and naïve, trying to convince people that a woman need not be identified by her relationships with a man. I am ashamed of digging out a poem such as that, but the truth is, the washing-machine whirl that I felt in my stomach every time someone told me to ‘relax’ was a very potent, albeit harmless, thing. When my favourite English teacher read the poem, she asked me if she could keep a copy, and to say that I was happy is an understatement. And then, she said something that has stayed with me for the past 3 years. She said, “This poem is very insightful, but I hope you do not turn out to be a feminist.”

I am pretty sure she isn’t reading this, but I suppose I could safely say that I turned out to be a disappointment to her. I identified with feminism, and even now, I can safely say that feminism is a very relevant and potent concept in certain parts of the world, especially India. Patriarchy is not what it once used to be, it is not the concept of men being superior to women, but that men and women are not equal. Whether it be the taboo against male nurses, or men as primary caretakers, or the thought that rape is the worst thing that could happen to a woman, it has always been my opinion, that feminism could be a solution. As could ‘masculinism’, if there was such semantic availability. And unfortunately for feminists, there is not.

Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, recently distanced herself from being a feminist. That, combined with her insistence of having an incredibly short maternity leave and her Vogue photo shoot, fuelled the anger that a lot of feminists were waiting to spew. What feminism, ergo, has become now is a much privileged remnant of what it needs to be. A woman will not be ‘supported’ by feminism if she is too sexual (playing into the sexual showcasing that the media desires), is a home-maker, or even if she is ‘setting a set of expectations from working mothers that are too unrealistic’. It has become about only breaking the stereotype and doing nothing but that, even if it is something that the woman has wanted. The scrutiny that Mayer’s photo shoot underwent itself is proof that gender ideas are not very clearly understood world over. It is, though, a real concern that a man in her place would not have been a part of glamorisation of such sort.

I have realised over the course of a few years that when asked if someone is a feminist or not, the most common answer I have received has been negation combined with a claim to egalitarianism. It used to annoy me endlessly, when I realised I couldn’t be angry with the sense of a perception. I could, however, be angry with the origin of the idea. Media (and feminists themselves), have been trivialising and antagonizing feminism itself. That is obvious when a feminist will question a woman’s decision to forfeiting an education for other pursuits, or when Lily (from How I met Your Mother) claims that when she wanted an easy-bake oven, her feminist mother bought her a ‘boy’s toy’.

So a few weeks ago, I was on the fence about being able to identify with feminism at all. One question that always needs to be asked about any –ism is that of relevance. How relevant is feminism today? For the first-world, I would have to happily admit, there is not much relevance to a movement that sought to bring legal equality in a world where that has almost been achieved. The first world is open to women who are fond of sex, open about their sexuality, even (to a very huge extent) understands the fundamental nature of humans to discriminate. For their own good, they have been saved.

India, on the other hand, has faced severe criticism about how genders are viewed. In several parts of our country, there is a clear distinction in the number of girls and boys receiving education [1]. If the basic building block for society is flawed and biased in its service to a different gender, how are we, as a nation, supposed to further ourselves? There are several other concerns that India faces when it comes to gender issues, whether it be discrimination against men, or women. The fact that prostitution (organising prostitution) is not legal in our country poses a lot of threats to the children and adults that have been victims of sexual trafficking, and most of these adults are women.

Several countries are still even unclear about unconditional women’s suffrage [2]. Almost all nations have granted suffrage for women, but there are still nations that mandate a male guardian (whether it be a father, brother, husband or even a son) for legal proceedings. Maybe there are people in the world, even in India, who may think and rightly so, that feminism is no longer relevant to society, but this just is not true for all parts of the world. The media that the generation I belong to relates to the most, is the internet. The global framework that the internet has provided each and every one of us, makes sure of the fact that we know more about the world but less and less about our immediate surroundings. The very fact that there is doubt about the relevance of a school of thought that encourages nothing but equality, in a country that has proved how gender roles have been governing the society, is evidence of misplaced information. And as long as there is need for an apparently angry woman who just needs to stop taking everything too seriously and ‘chill’, to stand up for any kind of oppression based on inequality, there is need for feminism.

[1] http://iussp2005.princeton.edu/papers/52184

[2] http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/suffrage.htm

Other references:

  1. http://www.cgdev.org/doc/books/lewis-lockheed-eduCaseStudies/lewis-lockheed-chapter5.pdf
  2. http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/11session/A.HRC.11.6.Add.3_en.pdf

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.

Thoughts on Pornography

Almost two years ago, I heard the interesting bit of information regarding pornography and college. The LAN share (accessible through any DC++ type software) has more than 8Tb amount of pornographic videos and images. I reckon it must have increased by now. Apparently, owning a lot of it was even cool at one point. The “churan” that everyone boasted of, was everywhere. A look at the recent releases on any of our hubs will give you insight into how much porn is being consumed by the people on our campus. There are a few select people who upload this porn, and I wonder if they have even seen all of it.

This has come to my notice because of a variety of personal reasons. More than one important person in my life has admitted to have realized that porn is actually not much different than self-harm, at least for them, and that it is a problem for them. None of them are against pornography by principle, but to say that pornography has no effect on how you behave on a daily basis, is a gross misconception. This article gives enough insight into how pornography does in fact affect real life relationships, and even the overall behavior of the person who might have a problem with it.

To think that anything that brings you enough entertainment has no repercussions, would be bad mistake. This holds true for smoking, excessive drinking and even exercising, and porn is not off the list. All of us, including me, grew up with a taboo against pornography, with various lies told to people around me about why one should not indulge in it. One popular rumour was that masturbation is likely to make you go blind. I had a friend who believed this up to 12th grade, and I was stupid enough to think that it was extremely dull of him to believe this. But one thing it did accomplish was to keep him off the porn.

To start off, I want to tell the reader that for a person to admit they have porn addiction problem is an extremely difficult thing to do, considering our surroundings. Even people who watch porn everyday might not really think they have a problem. Nicotine, alcohol and even weed might be “addictive”, not porn, they might think. Porn is not a chemical that your body gets used to. But the truth is that addiction can be physical (when the lack of the chemical in your body gives you various symptoms like shaking of hands, urge to consume that chemical, insomnia, anxiety, stress, and even nausea), and also psychological (when you just cannot help it). I have heard around me people being extremely judgmental about any sort of distress pertaining to the mind. Whether it is depression or addiction (even physical), people are extremely non-understanding and think that people who are depressed or addicted, lack self-control. The truth is, however, that these issues may be genetic, or have a history behind them. It is not as easy as self-control. For depression, the go-to advice is to just be happy, or not to dwell on whatever makes you sad. For other types of addiction, it is to just stop. Addicted to nicotine? Just stop. Addicted to alcohol? Why don’t you stop? Addicted to pornography? How is that even possible?

To anyone who has even a slight interest in psychology and empathy, it is clear that addiction is a more deep seated issue. For people who have never been addicted to anything, it makes no sense. For them, it is as simple as not doing something because they don’t want to. People who have never undergone depression, also, never understand what it is like. Depression, I suppose, must be a horrible state to live in, to know that what you feel is probably not justified but you feel ache regardless of your life circumstances. Which is not to say that the people who do not understand are to blame; that is the environment we live in. Whenever there is some discussion related to suicide, I have personally heard remarks that suggest that they made an extremely stupid choice, and they were an idiot for not thinking of their parents, or that they (this is a personal favourite) were overreacting. No one can be bothered to understand what it is like to be chained up inside your own brain, knowing full well that a person sometimes knows that their life is too good to actually be depressed about, which actually makes it worse.

I, however, digress. My talking about depression is so that I can bring a little more empathy to what addiction is. If you, the reader, feels that porn is an issue for you, this might help clarify your doubts. Of course, this is just a blog, and not academic quality, but it is easy to understand and not off the mark.

My main agenda in writing this was two-fold. One is to make sure that people understand that the viewing of porn is not without repercussions. It affects a person’s energy, if done in excess. A quick burst of pleasure is psychologically distracting. Masturbation, as I can tell, is an activity of boredom and deflection more than anything else. Either a person is bored, and has nothing to do, or that they feel that the activity of masturbation will distract them from whatever it is that is making them feel stressed out. This might actually be precisely why the more stressed a person is, the more susceptible they might be to develop an addiction – for porn or even addiction. Smoking a cigarette after a long, hard day, is similar to masturbating at the end of the day. This might actually be a good thing, everyone needs to unwind, and an orgasm is definitely supposed to make you happy. However, according to the NoFap (more about this later) community on Reddit, sex is supposed to make you happy, not masturbating. The end result of sex with a loved one is relief from stress, but with masturbation, it is generally a feeling of guilt and disgust, especially if it is done in excess.

But what about people who view porn, just not regularly? Let me be upfront about this and tell you that while you may say you know this, sex in real life is nothing like pornography. “Of course I know this”, people tell me. All of my friends tell me they know this. But is this true? I really doubt it. No one knows what they don’t know. If you have never had a sexual experience, how do you know whether or not something is real? A woman’s body does not look anything like it is shown in those films. And I do not mean the size and shape, I even mean the texture and the clothing. And this is true for the men as well. The reactions are also extremely fake, and what a woman might enjoy in bed are also screened and scripted. It is not a huge exaggeration to say that every person is different, and has different tastes, and this is generally not something that porn really keeps into account. Objectification is a real issue, and nothing is more objectifying than turning the woman into an item of sexual pleasure. This extends into real life when people (not just men) make comments about a woman’s body parts in their own right. “Her legs are hot,” or “Her breasts are large” or “The shape of her ass is weird”. I am sure you have had heard someone make comments like these before.

Not just this, I know way too many people who have used porn as means for sex education because apparently that is just not something that young adults should be taught when they are teenagers. There are major misconceptions of people regarding sex even in college, and the only place they can solve this is from pornography. I wish there was a sex education column or a club in college which might help people understand sexual urges in a better way. A lot of students need this to get their questions answered. But the truth is that our college even blocks sites on the basis of “SexEducation”, so this concern is definitely legitimate. The recent debates about whether serious sex education should be a part of school curriculum will tell you how lightly our country takes the issue.

The truth is that it is not difficult to obtain hardcore pornography these days. It is a few clicks away. This means that everyone (especially post puberty) has seen some sort of porn in their lives (this may vary with gender). My point here is not that pornography is bad, or that it causes sexual harassment or even rape, but that it is not just an innocent production. Of course, there is different kind of porn available online, but all of it does feed into the unhealthy obsession of young teenagers for sex and orgasm. Overall, it is not entirely a bad idea to refrain from watching any kind of porn at all. For encouragement, here is a success story from a subreddit that I have realized is a place of acceptance and understanding.

Reddit has an amazing community for people who are depressed, as well as for various kinds of addictions starting from gaming (another underrated addiction), to pornography. This is the link to their NoFap community, where different people (men and women) come with different goals (like not viewing porn, not masturbating, and even not having an orgasm at all) but a common agenda – to make the lives of themselves and their loved ones much better. As the story tells you, it is a more freeing experience than you might understand now. I’ve read very interesting anecdotes from people who have been either addicted to porn or are currently in that state, and a thing that also got my attention was the fact that they think that pornography is making them feel entitled to sex. As if it was a commodity that the person they are doing it with has to enjoy, because that is what porn tells them it will be like. The truth is, however, that the person in real life that they will eventually experience it with, will be a person in their own right, who has feelings and emotions and inhibitions about what they want to do. Before one can learn them, how is sex supposed to be a good experience? In fact, in reality, most first-time sexual experiences are a big let-down, because everyone expects to feel good, and they realize that the person they are with might be shy or refrained.

Regardless, I am subscribed to the NoFap community simply for the heart-warming success stories that people share. Most of them have to do with healing relationships with their spouses, immediate family and even their friends. The benefits and the goals vary from person to person, but NoFap has made me see pornography in an entirely different light. And I hope that other people will agree with me on this eventually.

What men like

I absolutely love coming back to college, and it has been a while since I felt sad while leaving home. I do, however, feel extremely dreadful thinking about the bus journey to college. The constant sleepiness and headache for 4 long hours evoke a sense of dread in me that I cannot seem to get rid of. But the worst part out of all of this is the movie that they play in the tiny television. I generally seat myself in the front seats, because it gets tumble-ful (if that is a word) in the back seats, and have to handle the immense noise that the television makes. I try to drown it out by playing loud music in my earphones, but today, due to bad battery life of my phone and earphones that only play in one ear, I got to see the most amazing movie that Bollywood has released in 2014 – Yaariyan.

I was hoping the bus driver’s friend would play Highway, it was a movie I wanted to see when it was released, but couldn’t. Now, some movies are so bad they are good (like Aap ka Suroor starring Himesh Reshamiya), but this movie was so bad it was quite simply bad. Here is what happens in the movie in a gist. I will not even begin to say how sexist it was, because it will a complete waste of breath.

Lakshya (Himansh Kohli) comes to this magical college, the location of which is completely unknown, where a lot of strange, non-collegy things happen. This may include a girl called Jiya constantly licking lollipops in the most pornographic way possible (I have to say here, the use of double entendre by the director is flawless), nerds identified by full-rim glasses and pigtails, and Australians (all of whom are exceptionally evil and believe in cheating by the mere fact of them being white; this film takes the freedom fight to a completely new level). This movie contains everything, and I am not kidding here. Does it contain a convenient friend that suddenly enters out of nowhere dying while protect the honour of the college, you ask? Check. Does it contain this very college losing because they cannot concentrate on a bike race because of said death, you ask? Check. Does it contain a son not loving his poor, helpless, widow mother enough? Check. Does it contain a guy falling into a high-ass waterfall, jumping out of it, and finishing a race by climbing onto the roof of a college? Check. What does this movie not have?

Also, two minutes of silence for the Australians who have been shown in such poor light, that they might as well forget their chances of redemption in India. They are the most vile, cheating, and ruthless people on the face of the earth. All they want to do is steal horrible songs by some Indian band which got formed out of nowhere and began writing music, because yes, writing music is that easy and doesn’t require any real skill at all. I apologise to Australia, the entire goddamn country, because that is what the film made me want to do.

This movie gives us a very clear idea of what men like once they are in college. This is what the story writer thinks, not me. So this fresh-faced young boy comes to college and finds himself among women of two kinds. One who dresses skimpily, gets drunk, kisses boys and licks lollipops (and conveniently begins to play the electric guitar eventually), and two, the nerdy girl with glasses who wears shabby clothes, does not drink (because sanskar) and does not want to kiss a boy or lick lollipops. That is the full extent of the variety of girls in the film. The boy is torn between choosing what he wants. There is that girl who is so morally loose that all he wants to do is pretend to be drinking out of her cups due to exceedingly tasteless camera angles, and there is the girl who is the perfect girl because she does not drink alcohol, but who is ugly as fuck (by ugly, I mean, glasses and curly hair, nothing else). This Sophie’s choice only has one solution. Makeovers. Make the ugly girl look sexy, and the problem is solved! But the director must have told the wardrobe-handler (or whoever does this kind of a job) to make sure to make her look sexy only in a wet salwaar kameez (because, well, sanskar). But do not, and I repeat, do not make her want to kiss him yet. Make her want to kiss only when he forcefully grabs her in front of the entire college, and then kiss her. Perfect love story!

Let me also please spend a few words to tell you exactly how bad an actor Himansh Kohli is. Very. Extremely. Excessively. Frightfully.

I advise you to go watch The Xpose. At least it will make you laugh. This movie couldn’t even do that well.

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.