Three things happened over the last couple of month’s that led up to this post. The first was the release of the movie Dirty Picture. The second was the entry of Sunny Leone into the “house of the big boss.” The third was a series of blog posts and television talk shows about the safety of Indian women in our metropolitan cities. It triggered several lines of thinking that I felt are worth reflecting upon. What message does the use of the word dirty in Dirty Picture pass on to the generation who are not yet old enough to be allowed into the theater to watch it? How does the average Indian family explain the concept of an adult entertainer over prime time television dinner on the weekend? Why do we as a society feel so surprised at rape and other gender crimes against women?
The morality and values of a society are passed on from generation to generation, and each generation accepts what it finds relevant and discards what no longer works and then passes it on. Even though we are from the land of Vatsayana, we have perpetuated a culture of sexual repression. There are two aspects to this repression – the first is a denial of female sexuality and the second is a don’t-speak rule about sex as a natural healthy urge. As a result, most Indians grow up learning about sex from their peers, from pornography, or from abuse, either as a victim or as a perpetrator. Much of this learning is erroneous and based on myths and stereotypes.
Silk Smitha was not the first Indian woman to openly flaunt her sexuality. Screen goddesses from the early days of cinema have done it, but with due deference to the menfolk, knowing that their sexuality was only to please or placate the male. Silk was the first to be openly sexual for the pleasure it brought her, often with what bordered on disregard or contempt for the male. While the moral police will be quick to point out that it does not make her a cultural role model, her cult status cannot be explained away to large percentages of submissive males alone. In many ways, she, along with other actresses and celebrities, freed the Indian woman to express herself as a person with intimacy needs and a right to sexual expression. This is in direct contradiction to the jejune diet our male-dominated society would have us on, and hence, in order to get the masses into the theaters without raising anybody’s hackles, the film is named Dirty Picture.
What a masterpiece of social engineering and political marketing! The Dirty disclaimer keeps moralists at bay. How can you object to a so called dirty picture that is called Dirty Picture? How can you object to a positive portrayal of female sexuality when it has already been labeled as dirty? How can you not be grateful to the makers of the film for having re-inforced the myth of sex and sexuality as being dirty, something that one needs to not talk about, not think about, and not long for? Ekta Kapoor’s Dirty Picture has gone on to be a hit nationwide, something that Deepa Nair could not do either with Fire or with Water, and there is a lesson to be learned here. The bottom line of the film is that a woman who dares to live life on her own terms can never be happy, and that is perhaps the secret to the acceptance of the film by our culture. The audience comes out raving about Vidya Balan’s performance but subconsciously glad that the tale turned out the way it did. And the subject of sexuality, or female sexuality, continues to be branded as dirty!
Just when Bunty and Babli thought it was safe to let the kids go into the water, came Sunny Leone into Big Boss. I have heard about Big Boss and even tried to watch a few episodes in earlier avatars but have failed to appreciate why millions would want to watch a group of squabbling roomies week after week, season after season. But then I have never understood what makes people watch serials which are really nothing more than fictionalized versions of the same thing. I must confess that I have never heard of Sunny Leone till the Big Boss thing happened, and even today, it is unlikely that I would recognize her if I bumped into her in the streets. I especially like the fact that she hails not from the pornography or the blue film industry but from the adult entertainment industry. I think this is revolutionary for our society. In one stroke, we have given the adult entertainment industry a certain social acceptance that no pornographic content or blue film maker could have ever aspired for. Sex for the sake of pleasure is now officially an acceptable value. Little Bunty and Little Babli will now be able to discuss adult entertainment with a straight face with their parents.
Another masterpiece of hypocritical marketing of double standards! The adult entertainer tag assures universal viewer interest - those who like women are attracted for obvious reasons, while those who like men are attracted to find out what she has that they don’t. Young viewers are attracted because they are not yet adults, while the older generations are attracted to remind themselves how things used to be. What is of interest though is how superficial this sheen of liberality is. How comfortable would our families be discussing adult entertainment across generations or even within generations, or lets be frank, even between the average man and wife? How calmly would we be able to introduce a close friend or relative as an adult entertainer to others? Just like Dirty Picture, here is a forbidden topic that pretends to have been outed, but is still firmly ensconced in tradition and taboo.
And finally, there was the expected but futile media explosion after the slutwalks, the dirty pictures, and the gender crimes against women. Just like AIDS or malnutrition, we as a society feel compelled to visit these questions periodically. Whether we find answers or whether those answers translate to meaningful use are also nothing more than questions to be visited periodically. Let us look at what we ingrain in our minds ( I include my generation, and my parent’s generation, and I can only hope that the future generation makes a change) as we grow up.
Boys who cry are sissies. Girls who don’t cry are tomboys. Boys study to become professionals, and while they are studying they develop proverbial manly habits. Girls study and then become homemakers, so while they are studying they need to learn to cook, sew, wash and nurse. Singing, dancing, and embroidery are preferred while rock climbing, drag racing and a hectic social life are not. A virgin adult single male is a wimp if not gay. A sexually active adult single female is promiscuous and a person of loose morals. The examples of how we discriminate between the genders are endless and almost all are disempowering to women. The media too portrays women as objects rather than as people. Nine out of ten films made in our country have a non-existent role for the female protagonist but a meatier role for the item girl. Recent films have managed to roll the item girl into the virtuous heroine, a generic package meant to titillate the male gaze and turn the female gaze into self pity or anger while doing a perfect balancing act between being Chammak Challo and Chikni Chameli on one hand and Sati Savitri and Mother India on the other.
The social response to crimes against women is to ask the women to behave and dress appropriately, and almost never to question the male behavior. This is not a new development, it goes right back to our mythologies. The woman is expected to carry symbols of being a possession, be it the mangalsutra or the sindoor, while the male is exempt from any such stigma. Without addressing these inequities and double standards, it is unreasonable to enter a discussion on why women are at the receiving end of injustices. Just as anti-corruption laws are being delayed and thwarted in every way possible, attempts at discussing gender inequities, especially in our society is dead-ended by the stale excuse that we are a conservative society and that such matters do not need to be discussed, since our men are descended from the ideal man, and our women do not need to be brought into such discussions. We are so cool.
These three developments might not be lifechanging for our society, but they are milestones. We have invited female sexuality and gender inequity into our living rooms through the television and the DVD player. Regardless of the fact that it still is veiled behind the purdah of hypocrisy, it is a beginning. And in many ways it is a good time for this beginning. We are now aware of the downside of aggressive feminism and how it damages relationships and family bonding. We have seen the futility of trying to gender-neutralize biological and social functions of the sexes. We can choose to take the best of what right thinking people over the world have fought to achieve over the last several decades and discard what has been proven to not work.
1. I believe that gender equality is not the same as feminism.
2. I have not seen Sunny Leone or the current season of Big Boss yet. As a matter of fact, I am not even aware if it is still running or if she is still “in the house.”
3. I believe that there are some things that men are better at than women and vice versa, but then that is purely my subjective opinion.
4. I believe that creative erotica is not the same as pornography.
5. I believe that the only answer to hate and victimization is compassion and acceptance.
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