Film, television and everyday sexism

You know things have reached an all new level of wrong when a major (albeit very senseless) prime-time television reality show trivialises and mocks sexual harassment, by way of a distasteful and un-funny prank (which Zee News very politely calls “the tamasha“)  Of course I was not surprised that a show like Bigg Boss scripted this in, but that the prank was played by Parineeti Chopra, who has previously been very vocal in fighting everyday sexism and gender stereotypes, irked me.

Incidentally, just earlier last week, one of the contestants Ali Quli Mirza had been admonished for crossing the line and touching Sounali Raut inappropriately, and I found myself wondering if maybe all was not lost with Indian reality TV. Could it be that the show with currently the largest audience in the country is actually trying to be the voice of reason and administer small doses in understanding alien concepts like personal space, consent and drawing the line? It was nice to see Bigg Boss put on his peacemaker hat again and question Ali’s propriety, only to receive his totally classic reaction, “But she’s friendly with me, puts her arm around my shoulder and often horses around in jest.” Read: if she is okay what that, what is a little flick on the knee/thigh, under a blanket? Why would she mind that?


I was a bit shocked (pleasantly) to see lessons in taking no for an answer, in respecting a person’s personal space and boundaries of comfort, and need for privacy on personal issues, was being meted out on a show whose very basis is to violate privacy, display the very raw and human tendencies to erupt over the things we do, and instigate every day tussles — a lot of which tend to be of the sexist kind. Contestants are constantly getting into lengthy debates and fights over distribution of house duties. In the first week, women are always reigning the kitchen, and seen shirking tasks like sweeping the garden lest their skin gets tanned. Several tasks allotted to them demand physical strength and it is as common to see a male contestant step in and volunteer his might, as it is to see a woman step back because she doesn’t think she’s strong enough. But to pull a prank of the sort Parineeti Chopra, Salman Khan and the team did on Ali Quli Mirza — accusing him of touching Parineeti inappropriately — was an all new low.

There’s a series of short films being made by Vogue and several Indian filmmakers, addressing various issues under the #VogueEmpower banner. They were relentlessly shared, applauded and praised all over facebook and twitter for being bold and effective. But I watched them (I’ve seen two so far, don’t know if there are any more) both with a slight discomfort.

This is the first one:

And here’s what I find slightly worrisome. I understand the film depicts an unreal situation, and ideal, a utopic world, a filmi rendition of Take Back The Night. A scene where everything is typically going against the woman pictured. She’s clearly in a place “she shouldn’t be” — it’s late, the street is deserted, it’s evident she’s been out partying — and meets with the expected fate — a bunch of leery men in an SUV, who are deliberately made to look like predators just waiting for her to turn so they can attack.

I understand we live in times where we’re wont to look at all unknown men with more than just a little suspicion. Especially if it’s late at night and you’re a girl all alone. Heck, I know the first thing I do when I’m driving home by myself at night is to get into my car and lock the doors. When I get home, I make sure to look around before I unlock the door, get out and dart from the car to my door at an unreal speed. But, is it so difficult to put that stereotype aside even when we’re talking about a utopic reality? Aren’t we somewhere reinforcing the message that all men are to be feared, and it is truly unnatural to expect a bunch of men on a lonely road to come help you?

The second film troubled me even more:

How many of you thought it was all going well until the last scene, and were left thinking WTF just happened? Why are we fighting one kind of sexism with another kind? Why couldn’t the film end by just addressing the fact that crying is not a sign of weakness, instead of portraying (and reinforcing) the fact that women are often subjugated and made to cry and therefore the weaker sex? Why confuse the message by bringing in another about domestic violence? The end detracted completely from the beginning, and troubled me with the implied message that girls cry because they’re made to cry at the hands of men. By mixing the two issues (both important in their own respect) of challenging the “boys dont cry” notion and ending with “boys make girls cry”, I strongly felt the two stereotypes inherently feed into the very sexism the video ironically tries to fight.

I wonder if somewhere we’re becoming a little numb to women’s rights issues. Is it possible that the constant stream of outrage has dulled our sensitivity to it. The sheer conspicuousness of everyday attacks, sexism and violation has perhaps made it passe? I also feel it has skewed our understanding of these issues, and our reactions range from slightly strange to downright twisted.

It is not uncommon to see the words feminism and women’s rights being bandied about a little too flippantly all over social media. And in many cases feminism has come to mean being on the woman’s side = putting men down = getting one up on the opposite sex. I’m troubled by this.


11 thoughts on “Film, television and everyday sexism

  1. Pingback: Because nothing breaks the silence like controversy does | hAAthi Time

  2. Hey, great interpretation. :-)
    I completely agree that the message in ‘Boys don’t cry’ ad is convoluted and kills the purpose altogether with that kind of ending, but we sure do need parents to STOP saying ‘Boys don’t cry’. I’ve seen parents saying it all the time. Some even go to the extent of saying “Are you a girl?” to mean insult. It’s pretty lame. Surely, every boy who has grown up hearing ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ obviously doesn’t go on to engage in domestic violence, but when they grow up feeling their tears will be laughed at, sure affects ones psyche. So, if these companies can do a bit more research, talk to young boys and adult men who’ve endured that stereotyping and then put together a piece on how it has affected them (or if it has at all) will be a good message.


    1. I’ve also seen enough of the opposite, where girls who don’t necessarily express the typical emotions expected of girls are accused of “trying to be macho” — we’re so obsessed with fitting every damn thing into a box. Our emotions included.
      As for research, I dont think these videos are even aiming to make a difference, if they did they’d go about it in a slightly more indepth manner than just this skimming the surface shit that theyve tried to pull off. These days PSAs just aim to “go viral” and these films (and this entire rubbish vogue empower hashtag-campaign) has ticked that box and passed the test with flying colours.


  3. No equality of the sexes will be a near possibility if it is looked at as an “us and them” problem. Portrayal of men as the leering gang of thugs or the dominating, wife beating coward is doing such a disservice to the many men who will go out of their way to help you out. I don’t know frankly where they wanted to go with the first video. I feel like making streets safer in the middle of a dark night is not a women’s issue alone. This same gang could have shot at a guy or robbed him if they found him stranded somewhere alone on the road right? Is only a woman vulnerable here?

    They went somewhere with the 2nd video and then got the whole point wrong again. I was recently reading Brene Brown’s 1st book, it is about shame and how it affects women and a big point the book made was that society as a whole has some definitive standards of how a woman or a man should be and any deviation from that is bound to inflict shame on individuals. Be it a woman who isn’t very feminine or a man who cries they’re all being subjected to unfair stereotypes. Boys can cry is such a worthy PSA to pursue because in the end the rage that initiates domestic violence in marriages stems from a place of fear or insecurity that has not been freely expressed. Not that the makers of this video even got that connection because ultimately they reinforced the dumb stereotype of a man who contains his anger, his fear, his tears and anything he feels so that he can be the ultimate picture of manliness for everyone around him. Every time PK has cried in front of me, I will admit that it has shook me up a little bit because we never think of it as normal when a man cries. Its really scary what’s festering inside some of these men who don’t express themselves.

    I agree with you when you wonder what an actor like Madhuri Dixit is thinking when she endorses something as dumb as this. Sometimes I wonder do these people live in a different world from us. Any educated woman would take offense to these campaigns I would think.

    Oops – This turned out to be a long comment .. Sorry :D


    1. The way feminism is talked about on fb and twitter is largely as an us and them situation. Its sad but true. I have started deliberately withdrawing and keeping from getting into engagements online — debates and comments — whenever I see something like this that agitates me. Simply because I realise very few people really think about anything in depth before saying something in a comment or a status message. It is the nature of the medium, and while it has made these issues more mainstream and accessible, and has increased peoples awareness, it has also diluted it to the point of shifting the very focus itself. These “viral” videos and the way they were profusely shared and even lauded, is proof of that.

      I think if Brene Brown came to India to research shame, she’d be able to write ten books about it :-/ you’re bang on in what you say.


  4. aprawriter

    I couldn’t agree more with your last few lines! “I wonder if somewhere we’re becoming a little numb to women’s rights issues. Is it possible that the constant stream of outrage has dulled our sensitivity to it.”
    I also think that so many views from all sides and counter-points and everything else has caused us to lose sight of the core issues.


  5. Thank you. I am quite tired of explaining to people what my problem with the ‘start with the boys’ video was. It got forwarded to me by so many people who I thought were rational and level headed. That made it worse.

    I believe it is very important to correct social behaviour by sending out that message. People need to understand why boys should be allowed to cry. Why crying is not something only girls do.

    I thought it started out quite well. But the way it ended (so abruptly at that) made me really go WTF too! The end message that came out was very wrong. It deviated from the issue completely. All people may gather from it is the message that boys who are fed with such ideas in childhood have a higher likelihood of being abusive to the women in their life. Sigh.

    You’ve explained it so well. Do you mind if I forward your post to a few friends?


    1. Thats exactly my problem. It started off going one way, and by attributing crying to something women do under the subjugation of women, it not only failed to address the issue it started with, but also reinforced another unnecessary stereotype that we could do without. The two arent directly linked, and to make a sweeping generalisation like that was just silly. I dont know what the likes of Madhuri Dixit think, before the endorse such flippant efforts in PSA. Do they not have even the slightest integrity to the message theyre going to be associated with?

      Please go ahead and share the post, if it is meaningful to you :)


  6. OMG, Yes! Thank you for writing about this!!!

    I’ve lost count of how many fucking morons have sent me this whole “Start with the boys” video because I have a son. What makes them think by telling my son “to not cry like a girl” will automatically make him a wife-beater?!?

    Why can’t we just let some things go, for heaven’s sake. We did not have a perfect upbringing but we turned out fine, a little weird but fine. My husband was always teased (even by my dad) when he was little boy for hiding behind his mother’s saree or whining “like a girl” but I can assure you he hasn’t even had a violent reaction even to strangers, let alone his wife.

    If anything, I find the whole attitude of Indian parents laughing off their kids “beatings” as silly. Our family thinks we are overly harsh with our son when he “beats” us or the dog in frustration. We send him to a corner with a very loud and clear NO. We don’t tell him “only girls beat others”


    P.S. Sorry for the mini rant :D


    1. “What makes them think by telling my son “to not cry like a girl” will automatically make him a wife-beater?!?” — exactly the wrong kind of connection I think the video has alluded to, by mixing the two issues. Bah.

      Im not even saying let it go. Sure, we are at a point where we definitely need to be very aware of what messages we give our children, boys and girls, and teach then basic things that are clearly glossed over in a typical Indian upbringing. Even things like personal space, taking no for an answer, not showing your superiority by using might, etc are alien concepts to most people. Even so called accomplished, well-travelled people (as certain celebrities on TV portray time and again) but we have to keep a balance about it. We cannot fight sexism with sexism. We cannot empower women by putting men down. If anything, we have to fight to gain equality.


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