Punjabi Pop Music And Docile Female Bodies: Objectification Of Women For The Male Gaze

Editor’s Note: FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth for November, 2021 is Popular Culture Narratives. We invite submissions on various aspects of pop culture, throughout this month. If you’d like to contribute, kindly email your articles to sukanya@feminisminindia.com


My ears unacquainted with dangling hoop hearings were suffering, the paranda braid seemed too heavy to carry and the borrowed mustard-colored Patiala suit sat in a stifling manner on my eighth standard corporeal self, but it would not be sincere on my part if I draw only the uncomplicated, one-sided imposition of femininity, which more or less exempts me from any kind of willingness and responsibility. 

I might not be feeling as oppressed in performing femininity as the picture I have drawn above, because although one part of me indeed felt weighed down, there was another part that was brimming with giddiness when showered with all those compliments. The execution of this whole Punjabi kudi look seemed worthy eventually. 

I am rambling over this memory because this was the time when I was demanded to dance to a Punjabi song, and be as feminine as I could be. This particular song which was all about a jatti (a Jatt woman) narcissistically indulging in her femininity forced me and other girls to imitate everything from her look to her bodily movements, expressions, gestures, and of course her words. Interestingly, This event also marked the first instance of me carefully dissecting the lyrics of a Punjabi song. Punjabi music had always been a part of my life since I come from a Punjabi family but I never paid any close attention to them until then. They had always been hovering in the background, never catching my active interest. 

While mastering the dance steps, I was simultaneously trying to be eloquent in mouthing the song lyrics and replicating the assigned ‘feminine‘ movements that the singer portrayed with such ease. All of us dancers began to discipline our bodies and our psyche so that we could metamorphose our gawky adolescent selves into beautiful, desired women, as mentioned in the song. 

Punjabi Kudi Raftaar new mix song 2019 | Raftaar Music Series - YouTube
Image: Youtube

At that time, Punjabi music (mostly pop and hip hop) was relentlessly carving out its space in the mainstream music culture. For me personally, its ascent was manifested through my non-Punjabi speaking friends and classmates trying to jam to those viral Punjabi tracks in their own ways. On those occasions, I was busy feeling proud that my mother tongue was receiving such wide appreciation. 

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But now in retrospect, the pride has faded. The world is not without exceptions, so aren’t Punjabi songs. Most of these songs have been following a script concerning the representation of women, which admittedly I have noticed quite late. The archetypal woman of Punjabi music can be anything ranging from a gold digger, shallow materialist, domineering manipulator to a cheating slut. Common to all these depictions is her objectification (mostly in a sexual manner )as she exists for the sole purpose of being looked at by the male subject of the song.

Who is in control of this particular image of being a woman? Who should be blamed for perpetuating these dehumanising stereotypes of women, the supply-side i.e. those singers and record labels that manufacture this image? Previously, artists like Diljit and Raftaar, when asked about this, have made it clear that their fans do not take well to songs which present women without these adjectives. So they are just following the market’s logic, they can’t ignore their listener choices and tastes. Should the blame then lie with us, the listeners who are so adamant on consuming these sexist versions of femininity? 

Mombatiye (Official Video) | Zohaib Amjad | Raftaar | Manj Musik | Latest Punjabi  Songs 2018 - YouTube
Image: Youtube

People point out that I am just overthinking or exaggerating to fit things into my narrative. I am often told they are just songs, another harmless medium of enjoyment. So what if their depiction of women is problematic? But it is rather naive to think that the society and popular culture are immune to each other’s influence. Feminist theorists since the 1970s have consistently tried to understand the phenomena of women’s devaluation in the patriarchal society and they have paid special attention to popular representation of genders and their role in cementing the dominant gender ideologies. 

Some of these theories also take into account how female listeners interact with the gendered discourse in pop culture, of which, Punjabi pop music is now a distinctive part. It would certainly not be far fetched to say there is some kind of power relationship between the representation of women in pop culture and the patriarchal functioning of our society. 

It would be hard not to see the influence these Punjabi songs wields, by producing these ‘passive disciplined feminine versions’, on all those female listeners who feel almost obliged to reconstruct themselves according to the patriarchal standards of femininity that these songs are reinforcing. Bartky acknowledges that the “disciplinary power charged with the properly embodied femininity“ does not reside in any one institution, it is “invested in everyone and no one in particular”

Feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky in her essay, Foucault, Femininity and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power uses the Foucauldian concept of “Docile bodies” to explain the power relationship that patriarchy wields in the modern world by focusing her attention on the “Feminine body”. Foucault’s theory of docile bodies explains how bodies can be disciplined through continuous, total surveillance. He uses the metaphor of the panopticon prison, a specific kind of prison where inmates believe that they are being observed the whole time so they take over the job of policing themselves and each inmate turns into their own jailer.

Foucault believed that this “perpetual self-surveillance”, as a structure, and its effects resonate throughout society. But Bartky, who felt unsatisfied by Foucault’s gender-neutral account, argues that Foucault seemed blind to the different and more intense disciplinary practices that engender the “docile bodies” of women, bodies which are more vulnerable than those of men. We are not automatically feminine because we consider ourselves female, we have to discipline our bodies to turn them into “Proper(read Patriarchy approved) Feminine”. 

Sandra Lee Bartky, at the Vanguard of Feminist Philosophy, Dies at 81 - The  New York Times
Sandra Bartky Image: The New York Times

She further contends, “Dieting is one discipline imposed upon a body subject to the “tyranny of slenderness”; exercise is another. Since men, as well as women exercise, it is not always easy in the case of women to distinguish what is done for the sake of physical fitness from what is done in obedience to the requirements of femininity”

Also read: The ‘Nameless’ Female Leads Of Popular Punjabi Music Videos

All Feminine movement, gesture, and posture must exhibit not only constriction but grace as well, and a certain eroticism restrained by modesty”….”In the regime of institutionalised heterosexuality, woman must make herself “Object and prey” for the man” ….” a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women, they stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment. A woman lived in her body as seen by another, by an anonymous patriarchal other”. 

Punjabi Pop Music (which is no less tainted by the hegemonic patriarchal ideology ) has been playing a role of that “anonymous, informal institution” that seeks to discipline women through their bodies, obviously by playing with their psyches, by “perpetuating self-surveillance”. “It is also the reflection in woman’s consciousness of the fact that she is under surveillance in ways that he is not, that whatever else she may become, she is importantly a body designed to please or to excite”, she adds

It would be hard not to see the influence these Punjabi songs wields, by producing these ‘passive disciplined feminine versions’, on all those female listeners who feel almost obliged to reconstruct themselves according to the patriarchal standards of femininity that these songs are reinforcing. Bartky acknowledges that the “disciplinary power charged with the properly embodied femininity“ does not reside in any one institution, it is “invested in everyone and no one in particular”.

No one forces women to be feminine in any obvious manner but the regulations exist everywhere, always disguising themselves under the natural female urges. People who try to counter this argument often say something along these lines of- “Females objectifying themselves is just a matter of personal preference, not a sign of male dominance”.

Bartky makes it clear that females who are unable or unwilling to submit themselves to these appropriate body disciplines face severe ostracisation in a male-dominated society. A man might feel pressured to fit into “the ideal masculinity”, to discipline his body to become more masculine but what “he” felt can never be equaled to a woman’s urgency of being properly feminine

Pervasive objectification of females in these songs not only reduces women’s importance to their bodies but also instills in them a bodily deficiency when women perceive themselves as less feminine as compared to those women they have been seeing and hearing about in these songs. Bartky also acknowledges “the growing power of the image in a society increasingly oriented towards the visual media”. Not only the lyrics but music videos of all these Punjabi songs also seem hellbent on bombarding us with objectified women.

Punjabi Pop Music (which is no less tainted by the hegemonic patriarchal ideology ) has been playing a role of that “anonymous, informal institution” that seeks to discipline women through their bodies, obviously by playing with their psyches, by “perpetuating self-surveillance”. “It is also the reflection in woman’s consciousness of the fact that she is under surveillance in ways that he is not, that whatever else she may become, she is importantly a body designed to please or to excite”, she adds. 

But Bartky makes it clear that by this feminine body discipline women do feel powerful in the form of attention and some admiration they receive but there is also something “demeaning” that exists in this kind of attention. The kind of status they achieve after every successful performance of femininity always remains subordinate in a hierarchy of gender because it exists in dependence to male affirmation and confirmation. 

So, what must we as feminists do? Continue to listen to these songs that for now seem beyond our control and internalise the tyrannical femininity, or fiercely boycott them? Are we in a position of doing the latter, and most importantly, are we capable of doing it? We must all ponder, because this discourse is important.

Also read: 5 Punjabi Songs That Sum Up Present Day Sexism For You


Damneet is currently pursuing Philosophy honors from Miranda House, Delhi University. She loves devouring literary fiction, philosophical texts and poetry, and takes naps whenever the world seems too heavy

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