Ms Representation: Glamour and gaze

This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses actresses getting trolled for their attire choices
Ms Representation: Glamour and gaze

What do Deepika Padukone, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, and Neena Gupta have in common? In the past few weeks, they have all spoken against trolls who have harassed them on their sartorial choices. After being ‘criticised’ for a deep neck gown she wore for an awards show, Samantha put up a social media post that read, “Making snap judgements about a person simply based on the clothes they wear is quite literally the easiest thing one can do. Now that we are in the year 2022, can we finally stop judging a woman based on the hemlines and necklines she adorns and focus instead on bettering ourselves?” Neena Gupta shared similar sentiments in a recent video: “I am posting this video only because I feel that women who wear short or skimpy clothes, like the one I am wearing, are thought to be worthless. But let me tell you that I have done an M Phil in Sanskrit. I have many more accomplishments to talk about. One shouldn't judge a woman by the outfit she wears. The ones who troll should know this.”

Of course, these aren’t the only women who are being judged so. What is curious though is that women actors don’t face slander when their ‘glamour’ serves to titillate the male gaze. Samantha was last seen in the dance number Oo Antava from Pushpa (her first special number). The number, like others of its kind, exploited the most out of the woman’s glam avatar. Calling the song a sensation would be an understatement. Her popularity grew, especially in the North. Samantha herself has admitted that ‘after Oo Antava, people have forgotten my other films’.

Plunging necklines and revealing clothes become magically acceptable when cinema uses them to cater the male gaze, and we don’t see these women getting trolled for such numbers. On the other hand, they are celebrated. The average troll gets infuriated when women refuse to bend over backward to cater to the male gaze.

I suppose society has always laid siege to women's physical appearance. An oft-used ‘compliment’ is to call a woman ‘a beauty with brains’. It’s as though the average woman can only possess one of both. For most women actors, sexualisation of their bodies is a mandatory aspect of their careers. Today, overt objectification in cinema is discussed, but there’s more to it. Take any love song, for example. You will see that it’s only a paean to her beauty. The gaze in such songs is very specific. It’s all about slow-motion shots that focus on her body—and to this end, it doesn’t matter what the heroine’s character is.

According to a study by Plan International and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, women are still treated like eye candy on-screen even when they play bosses or leaders. After analysing 56 highest-grossing movies released in 2018 in 20 countries, including the U.S., Canada, India, Japan, Germany, Peru, and Senegal, the study says that female leaders were more than four times as likely “to be shown wearing revealing clothing”. The study also found that women in these films were ‘almost four times more likely to be sexually objectified’. Remember Pooja Hegde from Ala Vaikunthapuramulo? Or Pragya Jaiswal from Akhanda?

I speak from a place of observation, not judgment. Women actors are forced to play the game—sometimes for survival, sometimes for stardom. Sure, women-centric cinema is on the rise, but it appears that the pandemic has pushed such content largely into the OTT domain. Theatre releases continue to sideline them. Even established actors have had to alternate ‘commercial’ roles with ‘content’ roles to sustain. It’s no coincidence that most of the ‘blockbusters’ from 2021 have problematic women representation: Pushpa, Akhanda, Sooryavanshi, Doctor, Annaththe... We may be divided in our country, but the pan-Indian mainstream cinema unites us through patriarchy and sexism.

In his 1972 series, Ways of Seeing, writer John Berger noted, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” We are now in a place where women have begun to control and own that gaze. Digital platforms are playing a major role by providing space for newer perspectives, but will that seep into the mainstream?

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