What is it about women’s empowerment, sexuality and the idea of choice that generates such mixed feelings in India? More so, if these causes are being endorsed by a glamorous, female movie star?
A video posted by the high-end fashion magazine, Vogue featuring Deepika Padukone, has gone viral. Within days of it’s release, it has accrued over two million views, and going by the number of times it has been shared on my Facebook News Feed (and the strong opinions that accompany the shares); it is drawing as much flak as it is generating appreciation.
The black-and-white video, which features 98 women, along with the actress, starts with her voice stating “My body, my mind. My choice”. It goes on to address a woman’s right to: choose the way she want to dress, be the size she want to be, love as she wants to love, love who she wants to love, marry or to not marry, have a baby or to not have a baby. Crucially, the video also talks about a woman’s right to have sex as she chooses, with whom she chooses and controversially, with how ever many people she chooses, regardless of her relationship status.
A popular celebrity speaking about a woman’s absolute right over her body and her mind is powerful. At a time when most liberal young Indians are vociferously supporting the ideas of women’s consent and freedom of choice, I would’ve put my money on the video being a huge success, drawing mostly positive reactions. However, after the short-lived initial enthusiasm upon it’s release, a series of “outraged” and borderline smug articles took the lead. In my opinion, the criticisms range from thought-provoking to plain absurd.
Perhaps, the debate around the video is a step forward in itself because it, at the very least,encourages discussions on women’s empowerment, choice and sexuality. That said, I feel that the main arguments against the video actually emerge from inherent prejudices and societal stereotypes:
Your idea of empowerment isn’t good enough. This isn’t even Feminism.
“What about the choice of getting educated, the choice of making friends, the choice of pursuing a vocation, the choice of taking a break from the daily household chores and go on a vacation, the choice of not getting married as a child, the choice of not aborting a child, the choice of seeking justice?” – proclaimed an unimpressed viewer in her article.
Another declared that “the most significant choices in life have had to do with education, financial independence and the power to support our families instead of sex, clothes and staying out.”
Well, no. The idea that women’s empowerment is restricted to a list of issues and not others is counter-productive. In my view, the video does not negate the importance of the other issues that Indian women continue to deal with. It simply highlights another set of issues that are equally significant. While these issues may be irrelevant for some women, they ring true for others.
Saying that educational and financial independence are more significant to women’s empowerment than sexual and personal freedom somehow divides empowerment into levels. Sexual freedom is something that is to be achieved after other battles have been won. I find that problematic. It also assumes that women from a strong socio-economic and educational background are fully empowered and don’t really know what discrimination is. My brand of feminism may not correspond to yours, but that doesn’t make it less important. So “sex, clothes and staying out” are important.Propagating otherwise is precisely the problem.
These man-hating feminists! If a man had said this…
According to some, the video is directed at men. It is “reverse-sexism” and “male-bashing”. It also endorses adultery, bigamy and promiscuous behavior along with other social evils. This is what makes people most uncomfortable.
However in my opinion, the video doesn’t claim that it is okay for women to commit adultery because it is their choice, it attacks the idea that women are non-sexual baby-machines. In a country like India where the idea that women enjoy sex just as much as men is still pretty radical, this is an important point. Society, popular culture and mainstream media portray sex as a man’s prerogative where women go along with it for procreation or other compulsions. Women are also supposed to bear the burden of being “chaste” and “moral”. I think a video that portrays a woman owning her sexuality along with all her questionable judgements, is a much needed reality check.
I’m not saying that adultery is great! As a Facebook friend put it, “a guy who is promiscuous is called a player and a woman, a slut.” In that regard, I support the idea of women being judged in the same way as men would be.
Shut up, Deepika and Vogue. You don’t deserve to have an opinion on women’s empowerment.
The vicious personal attack that directly targets Deepika Padukone is what I find horrifying. According to her critiques, Deepika is complicit in patriarchy as she chooses to dance to songs with controversial lyrics and wears clothes that objectify her. She is also being hypocritical by mouthing lines about being okay with any size when clearly she is the brand ambassador for unrealistic body expectations (full disclosure: she also endorses a weight loss cereal).
While some of these arguments may have weight (pun intended!), I find the idea that she cannot speak for women’s empowerment because she wears “revealing” clothes and dances to certain songs, ridiculous. What she wears and what she does for a living are choices that she makes, which again, is the point of the video. To rebuke her for being a part of commendable initiative on the basis of these choices reeks of the stereotype that feminism and women’s issues are the domain of women who dress in a certain manner and talk in a certain manner. Additionally, when she wears certain outfits and gives her consent to be photographed for a magazine or consensually dances to certain songs, it is her business. However, when Times of India publishes zoomed-in shots of her cleavage without her consent, it is not okay. Again, consent and choice. Personally, I don’t care if this is a carefully manufactured PR thing; I admire Deepika’s efforts to talk about these ideas.
On the other hand, Vogue is a fashion magazine. It survives and thrives on women’s insecurities and sets the very unrealistic beauty standards that the video hopes to tackle. Most people aren’t fooled by Vogue’s attempt at propagating feminism along with consumerism.
But here’s my point, If Vogue, Dove and numerous cosmetic brands have suddenly decided to talk about feminism and women’s issues, albeit to sell more products, how is it worse than them not talking about it at all? Television is now full of advertisements that are acknowledging women as more than domestic goddesses. So if Vogue is investing in topics other than “How to get perfect skin and a beach body in 2 weeks,” I welcome it.
Additionally i feel, these initiatives open up opportunities for discourse. Opinions, whether appreciative or unimpressed, are good for the movement and lots of food for thought. So good job, Deepika I look forward to your next movie (hopefully equally thought provoking 🙂 ) and Vogue keep on being creative, may be some articles on women and disaster management (yup that’s my next article in line), you made the internet explode for the day, and got us talking about women’s empowerment again!
About the Author
Vidisha is researcher with Observer Research Foundation, a foreign policy think tank. Her main interests include mainstreaming gender in governance,the political-economy of gender and migration policies. She has previously worked at Centre for Social Research as a Research Associate.
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