Popular culture today is the bulwark of patriarchal ideology that constructs a woman’s body as the subject of the gaze, and the object of evaluation and ownership
By Supriya Madangarli
Earlier this month, Ashley Judd, a feminist who is also a prominent Hollywood actor, reacted to the criticisms and assumptions being made about her body in the media. In a lengthy article, she pointed out that the ‘conversation’ about her ‘puffy face’, the speculations of her having undergone cosmetic surgery, and the misogynistic responses from the viewing public, was essentially about the “assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification…”.
Ashley Judd’s response was aimed not just at the media who dissected her body but also at the responses generated by the community of viewers who not only watch her films but also act as an audience to the media reports of her persona outside of films.
When it comes to perfect images and its personifications and performances in the bodies of women actors, the ownership of her body becomes a communal voyeuristic experience in the darkened arena of the theatre. It also migrates to a personal and private experience, a libidinal connect (facilitated today by technology) established by the voyeur viewer in the privacy of his/her individual space at home.
This communal and individual experiencing is not restrained to a woman actor’s performance in celluloid but also her performance outside of it, at public or private events, which is recorded and analysed by the media. The word performance used here for her appearances in real life, is because that’s what it has been constructed into by media and its audience. The real life of a woman actor which includes her body and its image is viewed and judged as a performance.
The very act of this commentary by the community of viewers is based on the assumption of communal ownership of a woman’s body, more so, if she is a person performing in a public sphere. It’s this assumption of communal ownership what drives the conversation about women’s bodies.
An evidentiary example of what Judd wrote about ‘hypersexualisation’ and degradation of women’s sexuality is the conversation revolving around the ‘virgin’ versus ‘whore’ status proscribed for women. It’s the patriarchal community that defines who shall be deemed a virgin or a whore.
Women have always been perceived and evaluated as communal property. A woman’s body belonging to a particular community has to live within the rules proscribed by that community, which includes the common denominator of patriachy, of how a woman’s body should look, be dressed, placed, be viewed or not.
Here a virgin is to be looked at, viewed by the feudal individual – in the confines of the household whereas the whore is to be looked at, viewed by the feudal communities outside of the sanctity of household – placed in an area defined as a market. In the case of the virgin, the sexuality of the woman (always deemed heterosexual) is as defined and owned by the feudal individual, subject to his individual gaze and whim. In the case of the whore, the sexuality of the person (in this case a woman,) is as defined and owned by the feudal consumer community, subject to a public gaze, to be viewed at by the community. In both cases, the woman is not free to own her body or explore her sexuality.
There is one space the woman is supposed to be a composite of virgin and the whore is that space of the marriage sanctified bedroom. The punishment to exceptions of these rules is for the woman to be faced with the choice of being either the virgin or the whore. The internalisation of this fear has also resulted in women building misogynistic self-perceptions and systems of protection around it.
This binary is also evident in the feudal distinction between ‘Our’ women and ‘Other’ women which has been and is still used to justify violence, both verbal and physical, on women’s bodies in many cultures. For instance, the Ours, and Others reasoning can be seen in castiest discriminations in India – sexual violence on dalit women, punishment by stripping them in a public space, allegations of their ‘promiscuous behaviour’, and so on; the Bharatiya naari versus westernised woman distinction – perpetuated by feudal authorities (remember the infamous Sharad Yadav comment on ‘baal kati‘ – short haired women) and supported by the capitalistic and consumerist pop culture media including films and television.
On an individual level, the feudalist becomes a consumerist. In popular culture products – such as films, the purchase of a film ticket and the purchase of a film as a dvd is seen as the purchase price of the woman actor’s body. – where women can be bought and sold as a product, or as ‘feature’ within a product. Here a woman’s body is then purely a product accessible to usage (as means of visual pleasure) and evaluation, and the distinction between viewing women within the film – as Ours and Others, and the virgin versus the whore text within such a viewing – is blurred. The movement from ‘viewing’ to ‘owning the viewed subject’ is also supported by the filmmakers manipulations through narrative, through visual pleasure tactic such skewing camera’s gaze.
Outside of the film, the feudal community has historically placed the woman actor in the status of the ‘whore’, and her body is viewed according to this status. Traditionally in India male actors played women characters in folk performance arts – women were not allowed into this public sphere. Women trained in fine arts were invariably courtesans or temple devdasis. The first women who stepped into films in India were of Anglo-Indian origin – the convenient Others who could do what Our women were not allowed. Though Indian cinema has come a long way, 100 years from the first film in 1913, the assumptions and definitions of the feudal thought still holds firm amongst the viewing community.
Today, the act of viewing a woman’s body and the assumption of ownership implicit in the gaze rests with both the feudal community and consumer individual. The point of intersection of the two happens in the space of popular culture – a bulwark of patriarchal ideology which has in the first place constructed the woman’s body as the subject of the gaze, and the object of evaluation and ownership.