Poldark, Prostitution and Protein World

Cross-posted from: Not the news in brief
Originally published: 16.05.15

In recent weeks several public conversations and debates have taken place on subjects that primarily affect women and girls: objectification, body-shaming, the sex trade…the usual suspects. A new way of minimising the harm of these practices for women seems to have emerged, in the form of claiming they are all gender-neutral, or at least ignoring the aspect of gender, and therefore erasing the equality issue. It’s been done before of course, notably in regard to domestic violence (brilliantly dismissed as an argument by Karen Ingala Smith here), but as a way of silencing feminist debate it seems to be growing in popularity: #NotallMen is being joined by #Don’tForgetTheMen! Men who want us to recognise that they are not *all* bad also want us to believe that they share *equally* in the oppression.

First there was the Student Sex Work Project by Swansea University. This study, based on a self-selecting online questionnaire, found that there was parity between male and female students doing ‘sex work’ and that this should have implications for the services provided to offer support to these students. There was a lot wrong with this survey, primarily to do with the methods used and the stated aims – unsurprisingly it concluded that ‘stigma’ was one of the most significant downsides of the work (as opposed to, say, threat of violence), and, more surprisingly, that ‘sexual enjoyment’ was one of the motivations to go into the trade. This is much less surprising when you note that significantly more male than female students had responded to the survey with a positive response to the question of whether or not they were involved in ‘sex work’ and that the definition of ‘sex work’ included porn acting. A lack of scepticism over this blatantly unrealistic result further discredited the project findings and, bar a couple of newspaper reports, it sank without trace.
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When Fantasy Becomes Fatal: Should Actors Have Social Responsibility? by @rupandemehta

(Cross-posted from Liberating Realisations)

Earlier this week, I took a rare lunch break and headed to a local hole in the wall eatery that serves delicious South Indian food. After ordering my spinach-cheese-masala dosa and serving myself two yummy bowls of sambhar, I settled into my chair to read my book, not paying much attention to Aishwarya Rai dancing in the rain on a screen hanging from the wall.

The place was abuzz with professionals taking advantage of some spare time to gulp some yummy food and from what I can see no one was really paying attention to the screen. Then few seconds later, the song on the screen changed to some really loud, obnoxious music. I looked up from my book and saw Salman Khan in a black wife beater dancing to the gory tunes. I immediately shook my head and went back to my book but something compelled me to stare at the screen again.

What I saw was absolutely dismaying.

The song from a movie called Kick, showed Salman trying to woo a good-looking woman in black glasses and a black knee length dress. Although I had no context into their actions, it looked like a typical Bollywood song where the girl refuses to accept the man and the man set s out to prove his love and pester the girl until she relents. Despite everything that we are witnessing in our country, people still continue to make these silly songs.

But it was what came next that truly mortified me.

Salman was still wooing the woman as she continued to refuse his advances. Then, in a bid to seduce her, Salman bends down and picks up the corner of her dress with his teeth until it is raised to her upper thigh. The woman is oblivious to all of this and when she discovers what he’s doing, hurriedly pulls her dress back.

I looked to the table next to me and three men, with AIG tags around their necks, had their eyes glued to the screen waiting to see what would happen next.

A few seconds later, the woman starts to snatch drinks from people around her in an attempt to get drunk so she can lose her inhibitions.Then she disappears to come back moments later in a scantily clad red dress that shows her extremely well-toned thighs. She sings and dances with Salman and throws herself at him. He is only too happy to embrace her. The song ends with everyone happy.

The song made me think—what is Salman’s obligation to the society he works and makes money from?

According to 2014 figures, Salman Khan earned 157.5 crores and as of October 2013, charged 55 crores per film. He was also on Forbes India’s top 100 list and the movie, Kick, that the song was from, made a record shattering 200 crores, Should Salman only be concerned with how well the movie does or should he question the content of his movies and the impact his ridiculous singing and dancing has on young and vulnerable minds?

There are millions of men in our country who look up to Salman as a role model and would emulate his actions in a heart beat without seeing the wrong in them. What happens when the woman they are inflicting their behavior on does not respond like the one in the song? What happens when the woman instead refuses to play along and dress in a skimpy outfit or get drunk and throw herself all over them? What happens then? And who is responsible for what happens to that young woman? Is it only the man who assaults her or is there a greater party here at fault?

This begs a larger question. In a world where it is clear that films do have an effect on our behaviour and society, do actors have any social responsibility? Are they culpable to creating a society that is safe and protected for the women who pay to watch their movies or should they simply make movies and dance to songs without any accountability?

Earlier this week, IndiaSpend reported how three years after Nirbhaya, conviction rates for rape remain the same. According to data from the Rajya Sabha, conviction rate for rape trials was 26.4% in 2011, 24.2% in 2012 and 27.1% in 2013.

Rape cases registered in India increased 35% over a year, from 24,929 in 2012 to 33,707 in 2013. This is a good statistic because a rise in reported rape cases does not necessarily mean rape has increased. It could simply be that more people are comfortable reporting their rapes. And although data suggests there still is massive under-reporting this increase shows we are headed in the right direction.

Hearing these statistics evoked mixed feelings for me. The issue of rape has always been close to my heart and although I recognize there are numerous reasons that lend to this mentality in our society and force people to commit these actions, I overwhelmingly always come back to the role Bollywood plays in instigating people and sending the wrong message.

I understand movies are a source of entertainment and they should be viewed only as such. But the problem is too many people in India take them seriously and try to act out their fantasies in real life with women who are not actresses and are not playing a part laid out for them. In such an event, how appropriate is it for Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan or Ajay Devgan to ignore the grave issues that plague our society and continue with business as usual? And if I may ask, is it morally acceptable for them to do so? Is their role in society only to make money and continue to contribute in making a bad situation worse or should they be held accountable for their actions?

There is a cyclical relationship between society and the movies it makes.

Film makers may argue that they are only showing what the public wants to see but perhaps it is time to stop blaming one another and for one party to take a stand. Actors and Filmmakers can choose what they want to show and star in. They have the greater power and appeal here.

If Salman continues to chase women around in circles and woo them, then that’s what his fans will subscribe to. But what if Salman chooses to chase around social issues and respect that when a woman says no she definitely means no? Unfortunately unless Salman changes his priorities from making money to creating a better society, we will never know the answer to that question.


Liberating Realisations:  I am womanist. I’m a writer passionate about women’s right and equality. My aim is to bring change in the way women and men are treated around the world and specially in India. I’m fighting for respect and to be treated as an equal. My blog, Liberating Realizations, on Tumblr talks about /documents the inequality – violence, abuse, rape, torture – that women face everyday all around the world, and, particularly in India. I was a victim of violence for many years and for the first time in my life am finding my “voice”. I want to use this voice to talk about equality and promulgate the belief that women are equal to men and deserve to be treated better. I occasionally write about other things as well – anything that might grab my fancy – but in the end I am a champion for women/girl rights.  My Twitter handle is @rupandemehta.