Bollywood Objectifies Men As Much As Women, Then Why The Selective Outrage?

Posted on August 28, 2014 in Culture-Vulture, Featured, Masculinity, Sexism And Patriarchy, Society, Taboos

By Maitri Shah:

I was flipping through music channels the other day, and found that 7 out of 8 were playing what in Bollywood is called an ‘Item Number’. An Item Number is a song that often has nothing to do with context to storyline (which might also be true for most mainstream Bollywood music), often features a sexy, skimpily clad woman, has a catchy, dance-able tune and raunchy lyrics.

item numbers in bollywood

Item numbers are crowd pullers, and while these once were solely restricted to and performed by starlets, today, you have top heroines vying for them. The reason being, that sometimes, these item numbers eclipse the movie in terms of popularity. ‘Sheila ki Jawani’ being a prime example in today’s times. While Item Numbers are now widely sought after and a huge amount of money goes into creating a blockbuster tune, they still haven’t found unanimous favour among the audience.

A lot of discussion has taken place centered around how these item numbers sexualize and objectify women. How they’re a bad influence on young minds. How they set absurdly unrealistic standards for average women.

‘Why do you need them?’ Is a question often heard. ‘Why do women have to demean themselves by being fodder for a man’s wet dream?’ Is a question that has been subject to many animated discussions. But I find, that often during this discourse, we fail to acknowledge the fact that men too are objectified in our industry, if not equally, then substantially enough to have a discussion. The difference is that both forms of objectification are perceived and received in dissimilar ways.

So, when a Katrina Kaif does a ‘Chikni Chameli’, her pelvic thrusts are put up for debate by some people, but when a John Abraham steps out in tight fitting, ‘barely leaving anything to imagination’ trunks, and seductively tugs at them, you hear a collective swoon often from the same womenfolk who criticise female item numbers. And that is something that irks me even more. The fact that most of these discussions are spearheaded by women who show appalling disparity in the way they treat the subject.

Either you need to hold both men and women to the same standards of scrutiny, or else you need to just take it easy, and shut up.

It isn’t fair to question a woman’s integrity if she decides to put on a skimpy outfit and gyrate to a sexy beat, if your eyes are glued to the television screen when Ranveer Singh flexes his chiselled, waxed body and struts around dancing like a peacock. Also, if a female item number is demeaning to women, then isn’t using and projecting men as eye candy equally demeaning to men? Why is no one taking up their cause?

Personally, I like most of them. They’re fun, sassy and peppy. I also think it takes immense amount of guts as a man or a woman to put on suggestive clothing and groove like no one’s watching when you know that millions are, and will analyse your every move. I’m not naive enough to be swayed into thinking that the image projected by these men and women is in any way an indication of how ‘real’ men and women behave, or should behave. I’m mature enough to see it for what it is – entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Film is the most powerful art form there is. That is because it combines all mediums together in a way that utilizes their collective ability to captivate the audience. It’s healthy to have a dialogue around them, but we need to not lose objectivity when doing so. Also, it’s important to remind ourselves that movies aren’t, and don’t have to be, custodians of our collective morality. The only thing they owe to the audience is sincerity and loyalty while making the film. And as an audience, you have the right to watch it or give it a miss.

Another thing to remember is that the society isn’t a reflection of the movies. Movies are a reflection of our society. So, if you are perturbed by the ‘worsening morals’ at the cinema hall, maybe you need to take a look around and you’ll realize that reality has taken a far more dystopian hue.


Maitri Shah

Sylvia Plath said, 'Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences'. If I didn't have such a low threshold to pain, this would be tattooed across my chest.

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Rohit Kapoor

Entire Bollywood remains quite on other Issues regarding Women’s Issues in India. They all have ganged up when a media house showcased a Bollywood Celeb’s cleavage in a wrong manner… this is “selective” outrage and even some media houses are stooping so low in our country 🙁


Your point of it being a art form is well taken. consider this, Lavani Folkdance belongs to Maharashtra .Lavani comes from the word ‘Lavanya’ meaning beauty. The gyrations, expressions and the erotic innuendos are all centred on one thing-attracting male attention. In fact , the classic Marathi song ‘ Moongra…Moongra..’ is Lavani. Or Consider Geishas of Japan. ‘Womanly cham’ .It is considered an art .And a very difficult art at that.
I happened to see Rihanna’s video ‘Unfaithful’ song. There she is skimpily dressed ,her bosoms are almost exposed and her lipstick is heavily exaggerated. But . how she carries it off – with heels and expression-simply stylish. I did not see her ‘objectified’ at all. Style is a very important factor here in this discussion ,much more than we realize it. ; but Style is very cultural and regional-subjective. consider the american band ‘Pussycat Dolls’ . In india, they are apparently seen as
classy while in the US, they might be probably seen as a bunch of horny girls who just want to have “it” .
Bottom line : sensuality is long seen as an art form ,from Khajurao days and there is no denying that or even before that-Yin and Yan.
The problem specifically here is, rather than seeing it as complementary ,femininity is seen inferior and this is worldwide. A bunch of blondes swooning over the almost naked body of John Ibrahim is seen as ‘macho’ and bespeaks John’s sexual prowess.(that he is ‘man-enough’ to attract a bunch of girls). He is a role model . On the other hand, an ‘item girl’ only purpose in life seems to offer herself to the services of men and satisfy the men ,rather than herself. No brother would like to see her sister or mother in that role. Would you ?I would not ! Hence, There is no level playing field.
Secondly, I am not going even near saying this is moral and that is not – according to Taliban , women using internet or any form of ’empowerment’ is sure to bring chaos in the social hierarchy and supposedly against religious teachings and therefore immoral. Morality is very subjective.

I have seen many people get irked when someone questions the entertainment industry for systemic and societal problems. I respect Priyanka Chopra because I feel she carries herself with elan . But, even she’s of the view that questioning ‘item numbers’ is only a way to distract from the main issue. The thing is Bollywood is more central to Indian culture than we realize it. In other countries, there are carnivals ,theatres and city events ,etc at the centrestage of culture along with cinema. In India,Bollywood holds centrestage (and cricket to some extent). It reinforces the stereotypes. And in this fast moving life, we have our own share of problems,exams,job,relationships and movies and songs is people’s way for collective escapism (and that’s okay smile emoticon ) .No one wants to question it and feel guilty in partaking in objectification of a gender. But, that does not change reality.


    To make things even clearer. Consider the lyrics of the latest pop song by Paaji who calls himself ”Badshaah’ … DJwale “babu” mera gana chalado …??!!., It suggests and assumes a priori, that femininity is “inferior” to masculinity.
    Another classic example of implicit assumption that masculinity is superior to femininity : a woman wearing pants is considered “bold” whereas a guy wearing make-up is just ‘gross’! And I am sure most of the young-blood males would love to be in so- called male item-songs, showing their torso and having European blondes all over them . Like I said,that’s considered “bold” behaviour. A girl even hoping to fantasize that ,is branded “slut” !
    Recently, the video of a lesbian ad went viral on youtube. The ad was artistically directed. It did not generate as much criticism as the gay version of it would probably have (I assume, I may be wrong! ) because seeing two gals ‘together ‘ is a turn-on and entertainment for at least a few men,for sure ! While seeing two guys together is gross,for most men! A lot of what is portrayed in media as entertainment caters to men and help them fantasize their fantasies. Women’s enjoyment is only incidental. Think about it. ( Ranveer’s six packs or chikni chameli enticing with the liquor)
    Moreover u say,” I’m mature enough to see it for what it is – entertainment for entertainment’s sake.”
    It is not about you or me or even the choreographer of the item song.
    It’s about the audience. India, having dramatic economic disparity , and not everyone is in a position to understand entertainment for its sake and eventually get their stereotypes enforced ‘ Men are placed higher than women -this is the natural order.’

    This is not to say that the discrimination against women is happening because of “item songs” or raunchy lyrics. The problem is systemic and Bollywood sits at a crucial place in the System. “The only thing they owe to the audience is sincerity and loyalty while making the film.” Sorry mam, they owe sincerity to themselves and have social responsibility for the audience! Otherwise ,don’t screen the film for a general audience.

    P.S Arguments apart, I must admit it was interesting to read your post and you gave your arguments well !

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