Images that proliferate through and in the media pervade society and rapidly act as agents of creating mass culture and influencing mass opinion. Images in the media are internalized by people, consciously and subconsciously, as media acts as an agent of transmission of cultural norms. When a patriarchal society propagates misogynistic images through its media, these images are perpetuated in society.
Issues of representation have been central to most arguments regarding gender equality. Images form imprints in our minds and the symbolic associations they permit form mass controlled thoughts and ideas. Images serve as scripts for men and women to follow, regarding behaviour and thought.
Thus, when women submit to the pressures of the industry and allow themselves to act out the stereotypes that they’re bestowed with, it perpetuates these stereotypes. Most of these stereotypes are harmful, but the degree of harm they cause in society at large and to the individual varies depending on several factors such as who these stereotypes are being represented by/through.
Censorship has been a hotly debated issue, and its opponents make a strong case against it using the argument of restriction on exploration of artistic talent, and thus point out the possibility of censorship emerging as a regressive phenomenon. While this argument holds considerable merit there is no denying that a lot of damage is done through inappropriate gender representations in media.
Songs, character profiles, story lines, dialogues and actual visual presentations individually and in various combinations go to create and disseminate gender sensitive images, some of which perpetuate harmful action tendencies.
A tiny, and comparatively subtle, example would be the Radha song from Student of the Year. The lyrics of the song, when closely scrutinized, reveal a pathologically misogynistic tone. A large part of the song involves the girl complaining about being teased by the man and how despite it not being her fault the blame is still placed on her. Hmm … Does that remind you of something? It serves as a disturbing analogy of the victim blaming scenarios that we’re only too familiar with. The beat of the song and the music that enables it to be sung along conveniently cover up the shockingly disparaging lyrics that form the soul of the song. The lyrics sung by the male go on to tell the girl that she has no existence in and of herself, and that she derives meaning from this man who, on the other hand, could easily trade her in for any of the gopis. Enough said.
Blues Eyes might be a different story. It makes no excuses for its blatantly degrading tone and representation and makes no attempt to cover up its intent. The male persona has no qualms about his solely sexual fantasies of and advances towards the woman.
On a side note, the first time I heard this song was when my eight year old sister was screeching it as she danced into my bedroom. I shuddered. At the lyrics. The screeching I’m used to.
I’m not sure if it’s the subtle representation of misogyny or the blatant exhibition of it that’s more disturbing. The former, at least in the case of the Radha song, goes almost unnoticed for its subversive representation. Thus, the subconscious decoding that this leads to has much more potential for damage by virtue of being relatively uncontested. The latter, on the other hand, while causing much damage because of its inflammatory nature, also comes under a lot of criticism for insensitive content in arguments regarding representation issues. Thus its decoding becomes relatively more conscious. The latter also lends itself more easily to unofficial censorship because its overtly sexual content allows classification along age appropriate bars. I’m more comfortable with my sister singing ‘… panghat pe aake saiyyan marode baiyaan and everybody blames it on Radha’ (…my beloved comes to the well/river bank, twists my wrist, and everybody blames it on Radha) as opposed to ‘ … chhoti dress mein bomb lagdi mennu’ (…you look like a bombshell in a short dress).
While intent is factored in for consideration when looking at issues of representation, it is the reception that is given slightly more attention. While the two aren’t easily separated, there exists a significant functional difference between the two.
However, objectification as a phenomenon is not what the fight is about. Objectification is a necessary by product of the consumer culture, it has pervaded all forms of culture. We commodify and consume everything, even nature. Objectification is not limited to bodies of women, the male body and male desire is just as widely objectified and marketed. However, it is the form of objectification wherein lies the problem. It’s the consequence of the objectification in a patriarchal setup that necessarily leads to violence against women, that is the problem. Desire isn’t the problem, it’s the manifestation, representation and the form of pursuing this desire that is the problem.
This brings us back to issues of representation and debates regarding censorship. It’s a circular argument in many cases, where artistic liberty is used to trump all else. While I remain in favour of artistic liberty that must not be compromised due to censorship, representational strategies that perpetuate a morally and intellectually disgraceful picture of large sections of the community seem hardly progressive to me.
Where the line must be drawn, is as always, open to contestation. As is all else.