Pop Culture / Speaking Out

How the male gaze in Bollywood has created a culture of casual sexism

. 9 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
How the male gaze in Bollywood has created a culture of casual sexism

I remember reading Pride & Prejudice and falling head over heels in love with Mr. Darcy.

As an impressionable young adult, I remember having such immense faith in the other gender. I believed Austen implicitly when she showed me how chivalrous and feminist men can truly be. But then I grew up and realised Mr. Darcy is the way he is because he was written by a woman.

I felt the same sense of wholesomeness while watching Queen. The portrayal of Vijaylakshmi (played by a vivacious Lisa Hayden) as an openly promiscuous financially independent single mother without any judgment to the character itself was truly a refreshing change.

Bollywood: A cultural phenomenon

These examples are merely needles of powerful female representation in a haystack of problematic ones. When the detractors of Kabir Singh critiqued the film for its casual misogyny, those in favour of the film maintained how it was “just a film”.

But here’s my issue with this (amongst other things).

Bollywood, in more ways than one, lays down the groundwork for this nation’s culture and lifestyle.

Exhibit A: Back when Maine Pyaar Kiya became the rage that it did in the 90’s, every boy wished to own that ‘Friends’ cap and every other girl flocked to the tailor with her share of satin fabric to get Bhagyashree’s iconic pink frock made for herself.

And how many times have we lusted after a very particular saree that an actress in some film wore? Remember how iconic the orange saree visual post the ‘Dhak-dhak’ and ‘tip-tip-barsa-paani’ phase had grown to become? And let’s not forget the countless replicas of bhai’s bracelet that make their presence felt in every other Tik-Tok video.

male gaze in bollywood

The point here is, the Indian audience has always been incredibly impressionable when it comes to the kind of content that Bollywood creators feed into this cultural machine.

We take to the fashion, try to ape the lifestyle, set our standards of luxury in accordance with what Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra have been showing us.

This dreaming about romances has been going on for a major part of this previous decade, and it has been feeding us all through our lives. So when desire and fascination is this connected with our pop culture appetite, can patterns of behaviour be far behind?

With this logic as groundwork, let’s throw it back and see how female characters have largely been disposable in the Indian pop culture universe.

Limited female representation in Bollywood

For the longest time Bollywood’s heroines catered largely to the male gaze.

Think about the 80s, 90s and early 2000s and the limited scope of roles for female representation. This palette of representation started with roles like the mother, the lover, the violated sister whose honour needs to be fought for, the snarky mother-in-law; and ended with the muse for the man’s personal growth.

male gaze in bollywood

The mother figure was the nurturing caregiver whom the son could unconsciously rely on for emotional support. The violated sister would be the object of the male protagonist’s possessive protection; who initiates the fury of vengeance and furthers his revenge drama. And the girlfriend/wife/lover/muse? Well, she is all of the above.

The women around the male protagonist are basically reduced to mere crutches - the kind of crutches that his character growth, journey and arc can rely on.

If it wasn’t these traditional archetypes, then the creators would have the conventional crowd pleasers — actresses depicted as objects of desire, the perfect muse, the one who is admired through worship. In all cases, this spectrum of female representation for the longest time was painfully limited.

Even in instances where films would attempt to explore female characters with more depth than just their physical appearance, the male gaze would still determine the character’s relevance.

For instance, think about Sanjana (Amrita Rao) in Main Hoon Na and Anjali (Kajol) in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai respectively. The creators initially moulded the characters into the shape of a classic ‘tomboy’ appeal. But for the characters to continue their arc and stay relevant towards the second half, they had to undergo a transformation.

pop culture male gaze

This kind of shift was meant to make them more physically appealing, and more in touch with their ‘feminity’. Basically, they were more appeasing to the heteronormative gaze that resides the Indian audience.

Similarly, think Naina (Preity Zinta) from Kal Ho Na Ho and her “1, 2, 3, eeeeh” training that the male protagonist so graciously obliged her with.

So, when the female talent is treated as disposable on screen, can one expect a different treatment when the curtains fall?

male gaze in bollywood

Limited female representation in the workforce

This painful limitation of representation can be seen trickling down in various other walks of life as well. Think about the disposability of female employees in the workplace.

Leadership is socially defined and recognised in conventionally male terms.

The traditional workplace too builds on this very notion and grows male-dominated.

Pop culture has been harping on female archetypes since time immemorial. And the workplace has done a considerably persistent job of postulating the same archetypes. Just as Bollywood has had its share of female representation in these pre-defined archetypes; the workplace too, has had a history of employing women in traditionally ‘feminine’ and nurturing jobs – secretaries, assistants, receptionists, waitresses, etc.

Think about Gauhar Khan’s character in Rocket Singh. She plays a receptionist who’s seemingly competent at her job, but is only recognised for her conventionally attractive physical appearance. The film, although underrated, has a very moving scene that brilliantly encapsulates the struggle of women in the workplace.

male gaze in bollywood

Women in leadership positions

Gauhar Khan’s Koena is shown to have the workplace competence part down.

She has taken up responsibilities that are seemingly above her basic job description and has aced it. But when the question of a formal promotion comes about, the company chooses to hire an entirely new male employee to run the show.

This highlights everything that is wrong with that workplace. This is the brunt of unfair expectations that is imposed on women to be physically appeasing, friendly in conduct and nurturing as leaders.

The journey to workplace parity is a severely long one.

Click here to read all about how language and communication can help create an inclusive work culture.

The culture of casual sexism

The biggest instance of this disposability was the treatment and perception of those who came out publicly in the #MeToo movement.

The #MeToo movement in Bollywood was a swirling storm, at least for the brief period that it lasted. Detractors of the movement were incredibly concerned about how this would destroy the careers of all the men that were accused. But this concern was somehow never accounted for with the victims who spoke up.

Shortly after this rigour subsided, the accused were welcomed back into Bollywood with open arms. But what about the lost careers of the women?

To read more about the storm that the #MeToo movement in India was, click here.

The general estimation is that Indian audience is predominantly male, and the content is accordingly created to cater to the voyeuristic heterosexual male gaze. This male audience is almost on the lookout for reassurance about their conventionally defined masculinity. This is more so in a dynamic and ever-changing emasculating environment.

Think about the flak that Lipstick Under My Burkha received for its representation of female desire and sexuality. The director, Alankrita Shrivastava, publicly spoke about how the sexual content of Bollywood is designed to cater to the male gaze, as a response to the censorship that her film was imposed to.

The basis on which the film was denied certificate as listed by the CBFC stated how the story was “lady-oriented” and contained “sexual scenes, abusive words, audio pornography”.

However, the content that already exists out there is precisely this — think item numbers, voyeuristic pelvic thrusts as a sorry excuse for dance movements, and the camera moving practically scanning the woman’s physical appearance.

But none of this is seen as problematic because it all caters to the male audience. The moment one tries to bring in the female perspective, everyone is suddenly uncomfortable.

pop culture male gaze

Progressive Bollywood?

Having said all that, there is an undercurrent of change that is starting to make its presence felt.

Films like Queen, Dear Zindagi, English Vinglish, and recent additions like Panga have surely begun to bring the audience to the other end of the spectrum. However, there’s still an incredibly long way to go.

There’s a striking complexity in this list of seemingly positive representations too. With the new wave of feminism hitting the urban population, a genre of Bollywood has begun catering to this almost-first world narrative.

Think characters like Veronica (Cocktail), Eka (Mission Mangal), Tanu Trivedi (Tanu Weds Manu) or the recent Zoe (Love Aaj Kal 2) — there is a very common thread that ties them together.

male gaze in bollywood

Despite these character being sexually liberated, the manner in which they are so still caters to the heterosexual male audience.

They are all allowed the independence to be fairly educated, liberal, and career oriented — but all in a way that they’re still relevant and appealing to the male audience.

male gaze in pop culture
Picture Credits: Buzzfeed

As the times have changed, the definition of desirability in women may have changed too. But the need to mould and modify female representation in accordance with the male perception is something that still needs to be challenged. The mainstream narrative is biased towards the gratification of male experience and the female protagonists mostly exist to serve this purpose.

All of these aforementioned characters may have begun with their own agencies. But more often than not, it ends with their independence being castigated by the same institutions they had started against.

The point here is, barring a few films, Bollywood generally has the tendency to monetise off of feminist ideology while giving precedence to gratifying straight male experience.

Male workplace, male policy makers

This emphasis on the male experience and the general need to satiate everything heteronormative can be seen in the process of creation of workplace policies as well.

Just how the female experience has been inaccurately penned by male authors, antediluvian workplace policies too, have been formed by the heteronormative male policy maker.

Women everywhere are raging for their workplace rights with varying degrees of intensity. Ever wondered why this gendered fight is so universal in nature?

Think about the things that create this workplace disparity, and the reason for demanding equal rights in the first place. Conventional policies are designed to curtail everything that women need to flourish in their careers — the lack of maternity support, the taboo surrounding menstruation, the lack of breastfeeding facilities, the need for daycare facilities, and the general need for a workplace that is more inclusive in nature.

There’s so much discourse surrounding the limited ‘shelf-life’ of Bollywood actresses. Heroines have a career graph that lasts no more than 10 years on an average, while the actors have no qualms singing love duets with leading ladies half their age.

Similarly, significantly more women drop out of the workforce for reasons like a marriage or planning a family or child rearing. And this is a much bigger issue than just the lack of adequate women-friendly facilities in the workplace. It’s a cultural problem.

At the core of this struggle lies the masculine nature of the inception of workplace policies.

These policies, and the normative functioning of workplace in general, were designed by men, for a male workforce. The female voice is lost on decision makers. And as a result, so was female inclusion.

Wonder how this deep-seated institutionalised sexism translates into reality? With an audience so impressionable, it is attuned to breaking out into a song-and-dance sequence at the drop of a hat. With a population that indulges in Tik-Tok flights of fantasy, and has been raised on a ‘Dharma’ and ‘Yashraj’ appetite.

Take a look around — you’re sure to find these people.