I remember when the song Sheela Ki Jawani became a hit. I was a teenager and immediately downloaded it. Not only was it incredibly catchy, but I played it at the gym in hopes that it would keep me motivated through my workout, because at the time I was thinking, “What girl doesn’t want a body like Katrina Kaif?”
I grew up in the US and learned Hindi from many Friday nights spent devouring Bollywood’s endless library of films. I watched these movies without a critical eye, without questioning them, and as a young girl, media is the one thing that should always be questioned.
It was only after I moved to India a couple of years ago that I realized the impact that these films have not only on young viewers, but on most Indian and NRI audiences as well. I noticed that most films over the last few decades weren’t sending positive, socially conscious messages, especially on topics like masculinity, body image (item songs don’t belong in the gym), and, specifically, gender equality.
I’d like to focus on the last topic, because it is the most glaring problem in media. Bollywood movies and the Indian media as a whole have been quite sexist. Female actors have been “objectified” in these movies for far too long, and have not been given diverse roles that depict women as strong, independent, and central to the film.
What is “objectification”? Oxford Dictionary defines it “the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.” Sexual objectification is therefore looking at a man or woman as primarily an object of desire.
Let’s go back to Sheela Ki Jawani. At the first listen, it seems like a female empowerment kind of song. However, what is actually happening is quite ironic. Katrina’s character is portrayed as a strong-willed dancer, but the purpose in this song is not to make her feel more empowered, but to serve as “eye candy” for male viewers.
This song seemed to set off the entire second generation of “item” songs. Nearly every mainstream actress became a scantily clad bar dancer/entertainer in at least one movie since 2000, and I don’t know if these actresses felt “empowered” when they agreed to shooting them.
But I am a woman all in favor of women embracing their sexuality and fearlessly flaunting it. Women should be proud of our sexuality, and if these actresses felt comfortable flaunting what they have in the item songs, it’s completely fine. But I doubt it.
Unfortunately, these songs were not created as an avenue for female sexual empowerment. They are entirely for male entertainment.
This constant sexualization of women in the media leaks into society. It has an impact on young minds. These songs are literally called “item songs”, and it has been common to hear men cheaply call women that they find attractive “items”.
The irony of all this is that if real women show even the slightest bit of skin, attempting to attain that independence and free will, their safety is compromised and they are considered “immoral women”. But, the same people who call these women immoral seem to have no problems watching Sheela dance.
This is not the say that male actors have not been objectified at all. They definitely are; in every movie, their sex appeal is important to draw in the female audience, but this is not their entire purpose. They are more integral in moving the plot forward than the female actors. They are the quintessential “heroes” that save the women with their wit and muscles. There is also a problem with how male characters are shown in movies, but that is for another article.
Of course, the film industry has noticed the power of its voice in this time of socially evolving India. Female actors are advocating for stronger female roles, accurate representation, and for much greater issues, like women’s safety in the country. I am hopeful that media will change positively. Society echoes it, especially in this country. The more it advocates for gender equality by uprooting the sexism in its movies, the more society will realize the necessity of accomplishing it in India.