The Brihanmumbai Municipal Council’s decision to ban mannequins displaying bikinis in Mumbai stores seems unfair and socially regressive for many reasons. Most of us don’t want to live in a world where a silly plastic doll can give serious offence. A mannequin in a window, bikini-clad or not, is a non-issue.
Still, to see this incident as just another instance of moral policing, or to set it up as a contest between modernity and conservatism, is to overlook that mannequins may be more than just harmless marketing tools, that they may also stand as symbols for the routine objectification of the female body: a headless, voiceless, feelings-less doll who exists primarily for the service and gratification of others.
The real fear in banning lingerie on mannequins is that laws curbing the freedom of plastic dolls are not far from misogynistic restrictions and rules for women on how to dress, behave and talk in private or public. The deeper concern is that this move will counter efforts made to rightfully shift the blame and shame of sexual violence away from female victims, and onto male perpetrators. The worry is also that it will obscure the message that truly matters: the way to deal with violence and injustice towards women is greater sex education, not greater sexual secrecy and suppression. The healthy way forward for any society is to regard sex as a natural, beautiful and fun part of life, not a dirty, degrading act that must demean the one who is desired in order to redeem the one who desires.
The complication, however, is that the ‘sex is healthy, beautiful and fun’ message is also widely misinterpreted as the right to take the sexual act seriously without taking the sexual partner seriously, or treating him/her as a complete human being and not just a collection of body parts. This misconception has many negative consequences for both genders. First, it dilutes efforts to highlight the abuse of power in cases of sexual harassment wherein sex is demanded for a favour, and in cases of sexual bribery wherein sex is offered willfully for a favour. Second, it re-wires minds to think of sex as an experience to be wrested for one’s own pleasure, not one that is mutually respectful and meaningful. Third, it teaches people, especially women, to undervalue themselves and settle for a lot less respect, care and affection than they deserve from their partners. In such a dystopia, everyone is indeed a mannequin.
What cultural values bikini-clad mannequins uphold, then, is not as important as what values we want them to uphold. Put simply, if mannequins are symbols of female oppression, the way forward is not to ban them but to disempower them through informed public discourse. This is why we must argue, debate and insist upon distinctions between mannequins and, say, Khajuraho sculptures. Like most Bollywood item numbers, mannequins objectify and use a woman’s body to sell products and make profits even as this commodification is couched in the language of women’s emancipation and sexual empowerment. Khajuraho sculptures celebrate the female form by asserting the importance and equality of female sexuality, and by respecting it for its own sake. The difference in both depictions of the female form, in other words, rests in its underlying intent. Perhaps this is why women feel degraded by semi-clad mannequins, or by Bollywood’s portrayal of women, but relate freely to the art and erotica at Khajuraho.
Those who long for a time when a naked female body, mannequin or not, is regarded as equal to a naked male body and elicits not titillation but respectful nonchalance or admiration must not allow consumer-driven sophistry to confuse real body politics with old-fashioned sexual inhibitions or prudery. Equally, new ways of thinking and behaving must stem from constructive interactions between the sexes, not from gender segregation and alienation.
Nandita Patel is a Mumbai-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal