Written by: Jessica S Persaud
Bollywood movies are something most of us grew up watching. As children, we obviously aren’t critically analyzing the underlying messages of these films and sometimes, in our adulthood, still don’t.
Bollywood is infamous for something called “item songs." Item songs can be described as a song and music video in the film that centres around the presence of a beautiful female dancer, sometimes with the addition of mildly suggestive lyrics. Item songs are highly glamourized and usually have no contribution towards the plot of the film.
The item girl in the song is usually not a part of the cast of the film and just there for the song.
Item songs are infamous for the presence of the male gaze, female objectification and circles around the debate of them being degrading to women, empowering or both.
Arguably, the answer to this is that it is neither degrading nor empowering, but subjectively both. The idea that item songs are empowering come from the thought that a female dancer dressed provocatively has taken liberty and ownership of her body and her sexuality. She possesses somewhat of a power over these men, switching the stereotypical gender roles. However, it is also arguably degrading since there is heavy presence of the male gaze and the video strongly depicts the woman as a sex object— true intent of whether it was meant to be sexually objectifying or sexually empowering is unknown.
If we further analyze this, yes, it definitely is an amazing thing to see the representation of Indian women on screen and in media who are openly expressing their sexuality and having ownership over their bodies and sexual autonomy.
A double standard is still present behind this representation. The same behaviour that the general public is praising the item girls for, they would also ostracize the everyday South Asian woman for. If this type of sexual liberation is allowed and void of taboo on screen, then logically, it should also be the same for South Asian women in public space as well. However, this is not the case. It can be accurately said that South Asian women in the public spaces do not get the same treatment as women on screen; ultimately the intent of the hyper sexualization in film is not truly for sexual liberation and autonomy, but to cater to the male gaze. To understand the history behind this and the root of the issue, we would have to look at the colonial influence.
Prior to being colonized by the British, ancient India was a sexually liberated nation.
Throughout the process of British imperialism and colonization, they introduced and enforced conservative Eurocentric and patriarchal values that have ultimately left a lasting impression on South Asia— it has become the cultural norm. Colonization in India introduced the rise of conservatism and the extinction of originally sexually liberating values. Things that are taboo and stigmatized now once weren’t and became this way due to British rule in India, and ultimately led to the erasure of sexually liberating Indian values.
The result of this created a conservative society with sexual discourse being highly stigmatized. This ultimately led to how South Asian, but specifically Indian society and government, has tried to regulate sexuality and enforce censorship across the nation. In the South Asian diaspora, this mindset is present in the ways that sexual discourse is socially stigmatized, but in India itself the social stigma has also become a part of the legal system as well. In any scenario, when something is restricted from a group of people, they find any means to get around it. This creates a lack of education and knowledge around sexual discourse.
The impact of the lack of knowledge has highly contributed to India’s rape culture and sexual violence issues.
A leeway of sorts has been created to include soft core sexual content and make it accessible. Indian women in society could not exhibit such behaviours that women in film exhibit, as it is morally wrong for women to own a sense of such sexuality and autonomy. What this does is leave the overly sexualized women in film as an on-screen fantasy for male viewers, while not letting this pedestal for women become a reality in Indian society.
Women in the public space do not have the autonomy that films can portray for a woman, although it is argued that these women lack sexual liberation as well. If the intent is for the male gaze, then they too, are not free from patriarchy.