The conundrum of female sexuality on the big screen – how does feminism deal with Bollywood item girls?
Feminism for me is essentially freedom. It is the freedom to do as you choose and the radical notion that all human beings deserve equality. Feminism in India, although often misguided or misunderstood is still gaining foothold through the numerous educated opinions on social media and the number of female celebrities and sports persons who are standing up for their gender in a bigger way. I refer to only celebrities and sports persons because they have a wider influence on people than our journalists, authors and hardworking activists. Today, young female actors in Bollywood are asserting their individuality and talking about the gender gap in the industry. Female sports persons are being recognized and valued for their efforts. There’s still a long way to go, but at least we have taken the steps.
Now comes the really tricky part. What do we think about item numbers in movies? Are we saying that it is sexist? Yes. Does it objectify women? Yes. Is it exploiting a woman’s sexuality to gain viewers? Yes. But do we ask the women to stop? Erm. Can we? Feminism is all about equality and the freedom to choose what to do. So, if a woman chooses to do an item number, can we really tell her not to do that? It’s her sexuality. It’s her body. She has the right to wear skimpy clothes and dance on poles and feed the frustration of the masses if she chooses to. That is part of our fight.
Then again, item numbers sexualizes the female body and makes it just something men would jerk off to and sometimes women too. It goes against the fight we believe in. We do not believe it is right to have a woman dancing to satisfy the sexual urges of a hundred who are leering at her on screen. And no, the Shah Rukh Khan ‘Dard-E-Disco’ item number was not an answer to female item numbers. It was reverse sexism and a poor one at that. He did not have men dancing behind him. Even Shah Rukh Khan needed skimpily clad women dancing behind him to prove how sexy he is. Also, do you really think sexualizing men is the answer to sexualizing women? Then how are we different from the very masses we are fighting against?
There is also another side to this item number conundrum. The moment a female actor shows skin on TV and does item numbers, the media tends to dismiss her thoughts on feminism. Recently when Deepika Padukone attacked Times of India for posting a news item about her cleavage, the prompt reply, the Bombay Times editor gave her basically said that because Deepika has shown skin on screen voluntarily, the newspaper has every right to sexualize her body henceforth. It was weird reasoning, but hundreds of people do that in India on a regular basis. Leading ladies are cursed on twitter on a daily basis. People find it their right to be able to call a female actor a prostitute because they’ve seen their bodies dancing to sexy music. That is not even the worse part of it. The editorial piece in Times of India was written by a woman. A woman who had risen to a considerable position of power in a male dominated and sexist industry. The fact that a woman who knows the struggle of a woman in the media and journalism would write such a scathing piece is surprising, but not ludicrous. You know why? Because we expect it.
The truth is that you cannot really dissect this situation and come up with a right or wrong. Women who choose to star in item numbers are perfectly justified to do so. Why? Because they have the right to. Feminists who think item numbers are extremely sexist and objectifies women are also right and they have the right to think so too. But can we really say that women who star in item numbers cannot be feminists? Can we invalidate all their arguments because they show skin for a living? Today, young actors like Sonakshi Sinha, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma are standing up for themselves, starting a discourse of feminism in Bollywood, and that is commendable. They are also facing lash backs and being called terrible names for as little as laughing at a roast while John Abraham, Shah Rukh khan, Aamir Khan and Salman khan among many others who take off their shirts as often as Arnab says the Nation wants to know, are respected, adored, cheered for their opinions.
The dichotomy is huge and staring us in the face. There are so many questions that come up with this situation. Do we undermine male sexuality on-screen? Do we think it’s not a big deal if men are objectified? Do we think it’s a just answer to objectify men as much as women? Do we penalize women because a female body is much more scrutinized and held up on pedestal as much as thrown to the dogs? Do we feel women who have bared it all have no right talk about feminism? Do we really think the true feminists are the ones who have no blemishes on their record and are ‘respectable’ women? The answer to all those questions is a resounding Yes.
Now think about it. How do you feel? Introspect. Are you above the judgment calls? You might tell yourself you are fair, but are you really?
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