"Are you a feminist or a feminazi,” countered a friend, male, management-graduate, corporate type, married and father to daughters.
His masculinity spoke when I dissed the advertisement showing actor Katrina Kaif provocatively caressing a ripe mango and deriving gratification from a drop of juice on her lips to sell a summer drink that mothers had routinely bought for children.
If questioning sexuality, titillation and commodification of women in advertisements, films, television, music chartbusters — all determinants of popular culture that influence society’s attitudes towards its women — turns us into “Nazis” then more rather than less nazi-ism is called for.
How else should we respond to chart-buster lyrics like ‘I am a Tandoori murgi, drink me down with alcohol’ (from the song Fevicol Se) which men throw at women at street corners and railway stations, in colleges and buses and markets to harass and stalk them?
Or to the PS2 ad that came with the tagline “Because girlfriends bore you shitless” and criticism of its sexism evoked a reaction such as “Feminists bore me shitless”?
After the horrific gang-rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai last month, the gaze has again shifted to the pre-dominant image of the woman in our popular culture. Sexualisation of content on screen filters down to sexual harassment of girls and women off-screen.
The debate is not new but the question persists: why isn’t popular culture able to look beyond commodification of women?
“The image,” as women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari says, “is the Bharatiya nari or sexual object for male pleasure”. The latter image in popular culture, she explains, means “men aspire to touch and feel her, readily see other women in that mould”.
“We live in a segmented reality where some sections of media are in the Dark Ages,” says adman Prasoon Joshi, “There’s no alternative to sensitisation and we are in for the long haul.”
Despite awareness and gender-sensitivity, the persistence with objectification or commodification pares down to the market axiom: sex sells.
The thin line between sensuality and vulgarity or titillation is crossed, intentionally or otherwise, agree some in the media.
After the Delhi gang-rape, filmmaker Farhan Akhtar wrote in a weekly magazine: “I must also look inward to see if the industry I belong to could be partially responsible in propagating this kind of mind-set. And I must say, sadly so, the answer is yes.”
Common images of women in the media, according to a UNESCO report, are “the glamourous sex kitten, the sainted mother, the devious witch, the hard-faced corporate and political climber.”
Listed in that order, the 2009 report stated that given the present rate of stereo-typing women, it could take 75 years to achieve fair portrayal in the media.
There’s the mandatory denial. Filmmaker Anees Bazmi says: “There are filmmakers who portray women in a derogatory manner. It has a negative impact but they can’t be solely blamed because youngsters learn more from the internet.”
Dr Kumari asks why offensive film songs go unchallenged. “The very word item means ‘maal’ or property. Such words and phrases give the society a frame in which to see women.”
The fact that such songs, roles, ads are willingly performed by actresses is cited as a display of women’s empowerment. Bollywood and ad filmmakers say the women do it to rake in the maximum money they can.
Bazmi says, “Filmmaking is finally a business.” He suggests laws to stop the objectification.
Irrespective of law, fair and balanced portrayal of women depends on the gaze of those who determine popular culture. If only they saw beyond sex to sell, we wouldn’t be “feminazi”.
(With inputs from Kavita Awasthi)