I Am A Feminist And I Support ‘Item Girls’ And Their Choice To Do Item Songs. Here’s Why!

A fellow Bollywood-buff relative of mine once commented, “Katrina Kaif will never get respect.”

I asked her, “Why so?”

“Because she does these cheap item songs and cannot act!” She further added, “Kangana…She has my respect.”

I wondered what was so wrong in dancing item songs, and besides, who said Katrina could not act? Agreed, she is a limited actor, but there are so many other actors like her in the industry. 

Why are successful male A-lister actors not accused of being non-actors or limited actors? Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, Hrithik Roshan; take a pick of any ‘non-actor’ or ‘limited actor’. Also, why aren’t male lead actors accused of mouthing unmentionables and dancing to obscenity onscreen? 

Kareena Kapoor in the movie, Heroine, dancing on the song, Halkat Jawani.

Why Cherry-Pick Item Girls?

A few months ago, I saw an online petition to ban item songs and girls in the industry. I disagreed with the line of thought. I am a feminist, and I support item girls and their choice to do item songs. Here’s why!

Unblock The Mental Block

I really thought we were past the “victim-blaming” and “slut-shaming” phase in 2019. But it looks like we haven’t much-progressed from our ancestors’ times. I’m talking about the rigid mindset.

You know those days when there was the all-white goody “Miss: Two shoes” heroine and the all-black slutty, lusty, vampy cabaret dancer. The one who commanded our respect was clearly the former, and the latter deserved our eye-fuck.

Let’s take a case in point!

I thought Helen was just as phenomenal in her 4 min appearance in the “Mehbooba” song, as Hema Malini was, in her full-fledged role as Basanti. In my eyes, they were equals. ‘Mehbooba’ and ‘Basanti’ are iconic even today and will continue to be so thanks to the veteran legends. 

It’s just our mental block, skewed morality, or mindset, that prevent us from seeing two talented women in their own right, who entertain us, in different ways. Let’s say we had a ban on item songs back then. We would never have a Helen, Aruna Irani, Bindu, Jayshree T, and the likes? 

Again, there’s a catch — actresses with an Indian classical dance background earned respect, like Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, Madhuri Dixit. Even if they gyrated to “Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hain”, we didn’t flinch, because they were the good women. The ‘Sanskaari’ women. Not the bold, skimpily clad, Western-influenced cabaret dancers. 

Closer to real life, a woman showing off her mid-riff is perfectly acceptable if she’s clad in a saree. But it’s downright vulgar if she’s dressed in a crop top and jeans. Slowly, the lines became blurred, when we had mainstream actresses wearing their sexuality on their sleeves, and dancing suggestively onscreen. 

Mumtaz, Padma Khanna, Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi, and the trend continues to this day, with Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai, Kareena Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, and of course, Katrina Kaif.

Calling For Diversity And Inclusiveness

Bollywood is primarily an entertainment industry. Acting is one of the forms of entertainment apart from music, dance, etc. And there’s enough room for all kinds of entertainers. 

There’s room for a Vidya Balan known for her solid acting skills, a Jacqueline Fernandez for her gravity-defying dancing skills, a Bipasha Babu who’s made a career solely based on her sex-appeal, or anyone who can entertain like only they can. It’s a democratic stage, where there’s enough place under the sun in the film industry, for all kinds of entertainers. A Marilyn Monroe is just as iconic as a Julie Andrews. You get the drift, right?

The Role Of The Agency 

So, if an actress whose value offering is not acting, but her looks, body, or dance, then why shouldn’t she have the right to pursue a career in the field of entertainment? 

Yes, item songs cater to the male gaze. But, they are also made with consent by some female actors. Not all women are coerced into the profession. Sunny Leone is the perfect example of an agency. She made a conscious choice to make a career out of catering to the male gaze. It’s ironic when some of us hail her agency while demanding a ban on item girls, and songs, in the same breath.

Sex-appeal is a given when it comes to item songs. Sunny Leone or Katrina Kaif were non-dancers when they entered the Hindi film industry, but learned it along the way. In my opinion, it’s their sex-appeal and acquired dancing skills that are keeping them in the industry so far.

Let’s Not Stereotype Item Girls 

Not all item-girls are cut from the same cloth. There are self-taught dance enthusiasts like Nora Fatehi, who’s currently churning out one hit item song after the other. 

Talking of Nora Fatehi, I find her incredibly intelligent, and multi-talented. The lady can dance, sing, act funny, and is super witty. Wit is a sign of intelligence. Jayalalithaa could make an excellent case-study on “The Myths and Facts of Item Girls”. She’s proof that there’s more to glamour girls than what meets the eye. Glamour dolls can have grey matter too and be astute to rule an entire state. Sunny Leone is a savvy entrepreneur with a clear head for business.

The Road Ahead 

Here are some possible solutions that will help the cause of the much-maligned female artistes. 

  • Ban The Word ‘Item-Girl’

Let’s start with the derogatory word ‘item-girl’. When there are no item-boys, there are no item-girls as well. The word should be banned. Period. None of the women are items or girls. They are bonafide entertainers. 

We would never have a Sophia Loren, Shakira or Jennifer Lopez in the world if we banned dancing divas or glamour dolls in showbiz. 

  • Be More Inclusive

It’s hypocrisy when the Censor Board initially banned ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ for obscenity. But it has no objections whatsoever with the unmentionable lyrics equating women’s body parts to Tandoori Murgi that should be consumed with alcohol. Yes, I’m talking about you, ‘Fevicol Se’ song from Dabangg 2. 

I don’t know which woman in her senses (right or wrong) would think and say the following words”

Main to tandoori haye

Main to tandoori murgi hu yaar

Gatka le saiyyan alcohol se ok!”

I mean, W@$! This is nothing but a sick figment of the male fantasy. Songs like “Fevicol Se” are a corrupted version of the feminine desire. Not movies like  ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ which show the reality of the female sexual desire. 

Maybe Kangana understands the audience’s pulse all too well and never ventured into item songs, because clearly, she wants respect in her profession. I don’t blame her. 

I blame the double standards of us, the audience, and the film industry, which thrives and feeds off these item girls. While we ogle and enjoy their onscreen antics, the producers make their profits but not before dismissing these dancing women as items. It’s so wrong and unfair. The Censor Board should set an example and ditch its hypocrisy and play fair. 

Instead, let’s encourage movies like Manmarziyaan, that take into account the female perspective, and not shame movies like ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ or ‘Fire’ for telling stories of the voiceless.  

Let’s stop slut-shaming our women in entertainment. Let them breathe, and be as they wish to be – whether it’s oozing sensuality, riding up the poles, or shaking their bellies. If that’s what they want to do with their lives, who are we to disapprove of?

  • Implementation of the #MeToo campaign

No coercion should be tolerated. Movements like the #MeToo campaign should be encouraged and implemented in the system so that every individual feels and is safe. Consent is key.

  • No More Step-Motherly Treatment

It’s time to stop giving a step-motherly treatment to the dancers in the entertainment industry. When we can give awards for the best female actor and singer, then why not for the best female dancer?

Someday.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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