Gender expression has seen a very huge shift in the contemporary narratives, especially in the film industries – both Hollywood and Bollywood. From Jaden Smith wearing a skirt to Ezra Miller being a gender fluid Playboy bunny, and closer home in Bollywood – with Ranveer Singh wearing a kimono on the cover of Vogue, constantly pushing the boundaries of how masculinity is viewed within the gender binary in the public eye.
Gender fluidity and expression is essentially how an individual chooses to express the gender(s) they identify with – and how they interpret that expression as. Prominent artists in the west are exploring how gender expression is fluid and what their interpretations of postmodern gender expression are. The way that discourse with these ideas has then panned out has, to a large extent, challenged the restrictive gender binaries. These sartorial choices seek to question the preconceived restrictive notions of what can be defined as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’.
These postmodern expressions have something very pertinent to convey – that expressing what feels good doesn’t have to conform to being ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. It has become about breaking through toxic and confining interpretations of gender expression and finding strength in expressing whatever makes you feel comfortable and confident. Breaking these moulds to bring forth alternative ways of how gendered expression can be conceived has created a lot of public talk on how can newer ways of viewing gender be found.
Prominent artists in the west are exploring how gender expression is fluid.
In the West, this has been very prominent for a while, with stars like David Bowie and Prince starting conversations with their clothing choices. Recently it has gained much more traction, with more and more stars increasingly shedding their skins and being more candid about the way they choose to express how they are and what makes them feel most comfortable. These often directly engage with and challenge binaries – having a gender fluid Playboy bunny has been previously unheard of and hence attracted a lot of conversation.
Closer home, Ranveer Singh constantly engages and challenges the restrictive gender norms glamourised within Bollywood – with an attitude that reflects that masculinity can be redefined to what the individual wants without the toxicity that confines it. He seeks to engage with the restrictive ideas of what it means to be a ‘man’, and as a result he has become an icon of redefining masculinity and its expression in a more healthy and confident manner.
Bollywood is still grappling with questioning and exploring this expression – there are almost no actors who question these restrictive boxes of gender norms that the industry has set. With the exception of Ranveer Singh, who perhaps is able to do so because of certain privileges – no actors or others within the industry seek to challenge the toxic restrictive norms, or explore the spectrum of gender expression. This sort of gender fluid expression is almost completely absent in regional cinema as well.
However, Ranveer Singh hasn’t been immune from criticism – with his expression of unconventional masculinity has come backlash. In a society that is still apprehensive about wanting to step out of the conventional set of toxic binaries simply because anything beyond it is seen as taboo or morally wrong, his expression of masculinity has been the butt of jokes, ridicule and heavy criticism from those who cannot perceive gender being expressed in ways other than those rigorously conditioned within society. This is very reflective of how patriarchy and toxic masculinity functions – the engrained beliefs of such aggressively bound stereotypes leave no space for anyone, even a privileged man, to step out of the gender binary in their expression without patriarchy immediately perceiving it as negative and becoming averse to something that challenges its toxic conceptions.
Ranveer’s expression of masculinity has been the butt of jokes, ridicule and heavy criticism.
This raises an important concern; if a privileged man with his level of social capital and is unable to express himself without being privy to heavy backlash, will women ever be able to even think of challenging these notions without realising that their agency to express themselves will do them more harm simply because patriarchy rejects these notions with a very aggressive hand?
The answer lies in the way these restrictive binaries bind women and their expression: a woman is expected to act a certain way in the limelight and to be perceived or present herself a certain way. Failing this, she draws much more ire than perhaps a male counterpart would. This is very reflective of the gender disparity that continues to exist and how that trickles down into restricting gender expression.
Even though alternative gender expression is condemned by patriarchy, if a man chooses to challenge them, he receives lesser backlash that if a woman does so, simply because gender profiling functions by putting women down and morally dictating how she should function at ever point in her life – putting forth a set of rules which she has to follow, which when defied, she is heavily criticised for and broken down just to get her to yield to what patriarchy and its toxicity deems right of her. Gender expression for women is largely dictated by what the society deems acceptable with its binding preconceived notions, and not what the woman might feel most empowered by.
It’s not hard to see how the smallest of conventionally gendered defying expressions are engaged with negatively. An anonymous female member who identifies as gender fluid tells us about how gender expression outside of the boxes of gendered stereotypes is still misunderstood and dealt with negatively. “For the longest time, I had trouble trying to identify myself, so I tried to find comfort in clothing because I feel they make very strong statements. However, at home nobody understood why I dressed masculine or wanted a crew cut and I was unable to express myself due to problems at home.”
This charts an often confusing and negatively perceived course for those who then explore their identities outside of the gender binary and its restrictive functioning. “Over the years, I’ve realised that this expression is something I feel comfortable in and that I don’t have to conform to any rules. Though I still face problems finding clothes I see in the women’s section – because I don’t always identify with them.”
Given the direction in which the current contemporary discourse around gender is headed, it does become pertinent for industries like Bollywood that have so much mass appeal to become more representative and progressive in the way that they convey gender expression. Most importantly, it is now, more than ever, pertinent for the Indian film industry to become inclusive in how they portray their people and their stories.