I sit down to write this, reeling from the nausea-inducing experience that the trailer for an upcoming Bollywood flick Mastizaade was. Words fail me. With more and more actresses embracing feminism, highlighting the existing wage gap and the skewed body standards that prevail in tinsel town, 2015 was supposed to be the year that Bollywood came of age.
Slated to release in January, 2016, this Tusshar Kapoor, Vir Das (why Vir Das, WHY?) starrer, also features Sunny Leone in a double role. Replete with innuendos, the sole purpose of the movie in question is to cash in on Sunny Leone's sexuality- to overtly titillate the audience with Sunny Leone's sexual being.
The culture that pervades Bollywood and in Indian mainstream media in general, is one that views a woman as a mere sexual being.
As Anushka Sharma very rightly pointed out in her candid interview with Anupama Chopra, in a large majority of mainstream Bollywood movies, the woman's character is one that is formulated in association with, and as a co-relation to that of the 'Hero's character. She also pointed out the sexual connotation that is attached to the casting of a heroine who is 'young and desirable'.
It is a culture of objectification of women's bodies and their sexualities that prevails in Bollywood and in it's portrayal of women.
But the moment you take these women away from the silver screens, and look at them being themselves in real life, they are their own person. They are people in their own right, embracing their bodies, going about their lives, wearing a sexy outfit because they feel fabulous in it, not because their role demands them to be dressed a certain way.
So, when a leading newspaper tried to objectify Deepika Padukone because of an outfit she was wearing, and when Kamaal Rashid Khan decided to rate actresses on who has the 'biggest butt', these women, they lashed back. Deepika responded to this lowly act with a vitriol laden tweet, and Sonakshi Sinha resorted to the very same social media platform to point out that KRK is a 'woman disrespecting waste of space'.
Bollywood actresses, in their capacities as modern, independent women, are standing up against this norm of being objectified.
The question that arises here is, how can we tell if a woman who is dressed in a 'provocative' manner, or is in a sexual situation, is being objectified, or is actually owning their sexuality and is in a position of empowerment.
"I think the difference between sexual objectification and sexual empowerment is if the sex is taken away is there still a woman there. In objectification, it doesn't address the idea that the woman is something other than sexual. She is not potentially a well rounded woman with a sexual freedom, she is a sexy woman and who cares if there is anything else about her.
With sexual empowerment, it should be a woman who chooses to express an aspect of who she is, which is sexual, but that isn't her only aspect that she can display. Without her sexual component, as a person she doesn't just deflate and become a flat dull person."
Crucial to the understanding of the difference between sexual empowerment and objectification is taking this question into consideration - Where does the locus of control lie?
Take the example of Sunny Leone. She is an erstwhile pornstar of worldwide acclaim. As an adult film actress, she was the one who was in control of her sexuality. She embraced her sexual being and built a career in the adult film industry out of her own accord. Sunny Leone, the porn star, is a woman who took control of her body as a woman, and chose porn as a career path.
Having made the choice to work in the adult film industry is a sexually empowered decision. "Sexual empowerment, like any other form of empowerment seeks to empower people to make their own sexual choices, keeping in mind that he/she should not have to be vilified for his/her sexual choices. It promotes sexual expression. It promotes women as human beings with sexual needs while preserving their innate humanity, while protecting their choices and their powers of controlling their own lives", points out Himel Sarkar on the same Quora thread.
In Bollywood, however, she is not the one who holds the reins.
For the average Indian, everytime Sunny Leone appears on screen, it is impossible to look at her above and beyond her sexual being. This is when objectification occurs. Her body and her sexuality eclipses her personality, the points she has to make, and her acting skills.
As Himel Sarkar points out, "Sexual objectification is when a woman is viewed in a purely carnal light. It is an abstract concept that may or may not apply to all womankind. The image has no power. The image makes no choices. It is evident that her choices have been made for her. She does not get to decide how the viewer views her. That decision has been made, both for her and her viewer. She is a formless structure, like a sculpture used for the purposes of capitalistic gains. Used because she has no say in the matter."
Similarly, in prostitution, a large number of women take it up as a career, having made the informed choice of employing their bodies as a means of making a living. They are the ones who are in control of their bodies, therefore also being sexually empowered.
Then there are the scores of women who turn to prostitution as a victim of their circumstances or are forced into the trade. The power then, does not lie with them and that leads to exploitation and thus, objectification.
The media's portrayal of women as hyper-sexualized playthings further complicates the dialogue. So, when a Miley Cyrus gyrates on her 'Wrecking Ball' or poses nude for magazine covers, she is in fact taking control of her body and her sexuality and portraying to the world that she is comfortable in her own skin, as she has time and again vocally proclaimed. But when an overtly sexualized imagery of a woman is employed for the sale of a soft drink, there lies a very blatant objectification that cannot easily be ignored. The difference, you ask?
It lies in the fact that Miley Cyrus puts forth her sexuality while also taking ownership of her body and her self. Whereas, in the advert in question, the sexuality of the woman being portrayed in being cashed in on for sale of the product. A woman's sexuality is an aspect of the person she is. To objectify her is to view her solely as a sexual being, and not a person as a whole.