The ‘common scold’ which used to exist in the 17th century is still very much present in today’s’ society. However, with time, we’ve learned how to conceal it, keep it under wraps. It’s easy for us to move on with our lives thinking, “We don’t have it half as bad as our grandmothers or even mothers used to. People back then were so barbaric in nature.”
The moralistic discomfort with the ‘Modern troublesome Woman’ is still very much relevant. May it be the news that we consume, the cinema that we watch or the literature that we read. This is even worse when it comes to societies who have always been patriarchal in nature and held clear notions set when it comes to women.
While we have been able to achieve a woman President and a woman Prime Minister, it doesn’t mean we’re any better than other patriarchal states when it comes to the depiction and portrayal of women. From policing of women’s bodies, clothing and sexual practices to dismissing behaviour labelled as ‘slutty’ or being called ‘crazy’ or being told to ‘smile more’ – women everywhere have it the same. We realise that there’s still this mental pressure on women to act a certain way. Women are still punished for being too brashy, too ambitious, or even loud.
In the midst of pervasive patriarchal cultural norms, there have been many forms that have challenged this. Let’s take into account pop culture. While frequently criticised for its representation of women, it’s not fair to say that pop culture hasn’t been able to empower women also. Be it icons such as Miley Cyrus or Madonna, both have had allies who have cheered them on. It could be Samantha Jones from Sex and the City who people fell in love with for her raw sexuality and standing in solidarity with her girls or our dear Fleabag.
What these reflect is that to woo a woman, you need to coerce and sexually harass her to the point where she finally says ‘YES’.
When it comes to women in India (Or Asia in general) our fight is not just limited by being liberated sexually and financially and having equal pay. Some of us still fight to get an education. In fact, some of us still fight to be born. This hasn’t been made easy by popular culture either.
Women are always treated as a commodity in India – glaringly emphasised by songs like Makhna with lyrics such as – ‘tujhe diamond jaise sambhal kar rakhna’ and lays emphasis on the fact that women are nothing but just a piece of coal, a commodity and something to be owned. Another example would be the song ‘Naah’ which goes on to tell a story about how a girl is dating a guy just for his money, giving in to the stereotypical ‘gold-digger’ narrative about women. What is worse is that women in the video are objectified and merely just used as props.
It becomes more relevant when we look at religious scriptures and epics. In the Mahabharata, for example, Yudhishthir gambles Draupadi away, as if she is not an autonomous human being but his possession. In the Ramayana, Sita has to walk through fire to prove her ‘sanctity’ and be accepted in society – only to get rejected by society again.
Although things are starting to look brighter in pop culture, women still have a long way to go. The disease called Kabir Singh happened to Indian cinema. There have been numerous movies which have confused stalking with ‘love’ and toxicity with ‘possessiveness’ (another condemnable trait). What these reflect is that to woo a woman, you need to coerce and sexually harass her to the point where she finally says ‘YES’.
Even in yesteryear cinema, consider Biwi No. 1 or Gharwali/Baharwali. Women are divided into two categories – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ woman. A good woman is that of humble nature, religious and modest in nature. She’s the ‘perfect’ wife to her husband. The bad woman is the wine-drinking, short-skirt wearing ‘homewrecker’ who is too ambitious for her own good. By the end of the movie, the women usually reconcile with their husbands or the ‘bad’ woman repents and realises where she went ‘wrong’.
Another major portrayal of women in rom-coms is when the guy says, “You’re not like other girls.” This is supposed to complement and highlight how she is different and doesn’t come with unnecessary drama or is the ‘cool’ one. A perfect example of this can be seen in Kuch Kuch Hota hai, when while describing Anjali, SRK says, “Anjali… Doosri ladkiyon ki tarah toh thi hi nahin. Who toh bas hum ladko jaisi thi.” As though being like men is such a great accomplishment.
In another instance, the female lead can also be quoted saying, “Main unn stupid ladkiyon ki tarah nahi hun, jinke peeche tum bhagte ho.” This generalises women to such a ridiculous extent. Bollywood has a successful track record of pitting women against each other to satisfy and ‘win’ the male lead. Another example of this can be Karan Johar’s contemporary Student of the Year in which the anti-heroine uses her sexuality on the man she is after and the female lead constantly berates her for that.
A good woman is that of humble nature, religious and modest in nature. The bad woman is the wine-drinking, short-skirt wearing ‘homewrecker’ who is too ambitious for her own good.
Another major theme in popular culture has always been about suppressing the sexuality of women. Although now a few movies like Veere di Wedding and Lust Stories and even advertisements from Durex are shedding some light on it, the topic is still frowned upon. Commercial media has been unable to capture the essence of women as sexual beings as acknowledging this would result in rejecting the prevailing misogyny and that’s a risk many are unwilling to take. Women are always supposed to be ‘pure’ and pious and be in touch with their morals.
The bottom line for women in popular culture remains the same. They’re not portrayed in a complex dynamic, but rather as props to the hero or to satiate the male gaze. However, what if fails to recognize is that popular culture has a tremendous influence on our society. It’s time that women are explored as layered characters as opposed to being seen in binaries such as goddesses or vamps.
If we reinforce cultural stereotypes in films, advertisements and various forms of pop culture, we should not be surprised if they play out in real life. Women, now more than ever, are ready to talk about their sexuality, take on roles and experiment. It’s time that expectations of flawlessness from women are dismantled and we progress towards a culture in which women are celebrated for speaking up rather than be silenced and punished for having a voice.