If We Can Cheer JLo & Shakira’s Superbowl Act, Can We Also Stop Slut Shaming Actors We Call ‘Item Girls’?

Posted: February 6, 2020

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Would anyone dare call Jennifer Lopez or Shakira “item girls”? Why, then, do we use that slur to dismiss Indian dance artistes like Malaika Arora, or Katrina Kaif, or even veterans like Helen? Why the insistence on being ‘sanskaari’?

I have been a huge fan of Jennifer Lopez and Shakira for as long as I can remember. They are such hardworking entertainers, who go all out to work on their bodies and their skills as performers.

So, I’ve been looking forward to their Superbowl performance ever since the grand announcement last year. Needless to add, they nailed the act. It will go down as one (if not the best) of the most memorable performances in the Superbowl.

Shakira is 43 years old, and Jennifer Lopez is 53 years old. Their age has not gotten in the way of their stardom and passion. They have only gotten more fierce with age. I find them inspiring and respect them immensely.

It also got me thinking if we here in India respect our female entertainers. I do know that the audience lust for them and enjoys their act, but do they respect them, and their commitment towards art?

Selective respect for female artists?

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.

My intention is not to pit Katrina Kaif against Kangana Ranaut or any artist against another one. For me, both are incredible artists in their niche zones. Each one to their choice and preference! That’s not my bone of contention.

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’ of your choice.

Also, why aren’t male lead actors accused of mouthing unmentionables and dancing to obscenity onscreen? Why are they never called ‘cheap’ or ‘dirty’?

Why do we have a separate yardstick for male and female artists?

Why pick on only female artists for their choice?

A few months ago, I saw an online petition to ban item songs and girls in the industry. I know there are strong objections against such songs, but a hard ban is not going to solve the root problem.

I am a feminist, and I support female artists like Sunny Leone, Malaika Arora, and others and their choice to do item songs or whatever they choose to do with their consent.

Here’s why!

We need to dispel our mental block

I thought we were past the ‘victim-blaming’ and ‘slut-shaming’ phase in 2019. But it looks like we haven’t much-progressed in terms of our mindset.

You know those days when there was the all-white Miss Goody-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.

‘We teach girls shame. “Close your legs. Cover yourself.” We make them feel as though being born female they’re already guilty of something. And so, girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves. They grow up to be women who cannot say what they truly think. And they grow up — and this is the worst thing we do to girls — they grow up to be women who have turned pretense into an art form.’ ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

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 both 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 prevents 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 Helen, Aruna Irani, Bindu, Jayshree T, and the likes in our industry, right?

Again, there’s a veil of hypocrisy. Actresses with an Indian classical dance background commanded respect from the audience – Vyjayanthimala, Hema Malini, and 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.

Slowly, the lines became blurred, when we had mainstream actresses wearing their sexuality on their sleeves, and dancing sensuously on-screen. 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, choreography, cinematography, etc.

There’s enough room for all kinds of artists. A Vidya Balan is 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.

‘I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.’ ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

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 agency

So, if a female artist whose value offering is not acting primarily, but her physical attributes, or a form of talent like dance, then why shouldn’t she have the right to pursue a career in the field of entertainment?

Yes, I agree that item songs cater to the male gaze. But, they are also done with consent by some female artists. Not all women are coerced into the profession — some women enjoy flaunting their sexuality on their sleeves. And, there’s nothing wrong about that.

Sunny Leone is the perfect example of an actor’s 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.

Let’s not succumb to stereotypes

Call it our intellectual pride, moral compass, or naïveté; it’s time to stop stereotyping female artists who dance to item-songs as ‘dumb’, ‘bimbos’ or ‘cheap.’

There are self-taught dance enthusiasts like Nora Fatehi, who’s currently churning out one hit song after the other.

I find Nora 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. Glamorous female artists can have grey matter too – be an academic state topper and be astute to rule an entire state.

Sunny Leone is more than a pornstar, or item girl. She’s a savvy entrepreneur and mother as well.

The road ahead

A mere ban on item-songs is not going to solve deep-rooted issues that exist in our society. We would never have a Sophia Loren, Shakira or Jennifer Lopez if we banned such female artistes.

Instead, let’s look at solutions that respect all women for their choices.

1.Ban the word ‘Item-Girl’

Let’s start with the derogatory label ‘item-girl’.

When there are no item-boys, there are no item-girls as well. The word should be banned.

None of the women are items or girls. They are bonafide entertainers.

2.Ditch the hypocrisy

It was hypocrisy when the Censor Board banned ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’ initially for obscenity, calling it ‘lady oriented’.

But it had 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!”

It is nothing but a sick figment of the male fantasy.

The Censor Board should set an example. Ditch its hypocrisy and go in for play fair. 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 Ranaut 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 female artists who choose to do item songs. 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.

3.Normalize, not shame female sexuality

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 female sexuality.

4.Implementation of the #MeToo campaign

Consent is key.

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

Currently, the #MeToo accused male artists still find work within the industry after several narratives by the victims. It’s the female artists who have braved all odds to speak about their #MeToo stories who face the brunt and find it hard to find work.

The industry needs to change its ways if we want a safe, equal, and diverse work environment for all people.

5.Give due recognition

It’s time to stop giving a step-motherly treatment to the non-actors but differently talented artists in the entertainment industry.

When we can give awards for the best female actor and singer, then why not for the best female dancer?

The best recognition, though, is pay parity for women and men entertainers.

Someday.

Final thoughts

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?

A version of this was first published here.

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Tina Sequeira is a marketer and moonlighting writer. She is an award-winning author, poet,

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