commentary

the dangers of dolls

This past December, some fantastic people had me join the dancing crew for their friend’s wedding – in Bangladeshi weddings, both the groom and the bride have the equivalent of bride’s maids and groom’s men, and each group choreographs a number of dances to perform at its respective gaye holud, the turmeric ceremony that happens a couple days before the wedding itself.

Over the course of the three weeks of practices, I got a pretty stellar crash course in some of the top Bollywood tunes of the day.  Most of them I had never heard of, although a couple were surprisingly familiar – one being the hit song from last year’s Bollywood box office topper, Love Aaj Kal (translates from Hinglish to Love These Days).  I saw the film during a flight from Germany, and while I think one’s perception of a movie’s worth is directly proportional to the height at which it’s viewed, I was pretty thoroughly involved in Jai and Meera’s romance by the end.

Its top song – “Twist” – is the biggest dance number of the film (and that’s saying something in a Bollywood flick), marking the hero’s move to a new city and his discovery of the various temptations and frivolities London has to offer.  It progresses from him dancing in the streets, to dancing in a club, to dancing with (spoiler alert!) what is soon to be his romantic interest for a significant portion of the film.

It’s a dreadfully catchy tune that was a hit at the gaye holud, with eight of us fairly successfully reenacting most of the moves (I’ve still luckily managed to avoid getting any footage from that night, so sorry – no clips!).  But one thing that occurred to me, as I was watching and re-watching the clip, trying to figure out which way your hands go when your feet twist left, was that all of the female backup dancers are, well, white.

Okay, he’s in London, so it makes some sort of sense that the girls would be caucasian (putting aside the vast diversity of London proper for the time being).  But check out the dudes in the back.  They’re not.  White, that is.  The majority of them are South Asian, or at least look to be.

I didn’t think too much of it – that is, until I started seeing the same pattern again and again in other Bollywood music videos.  For example, take the one for “Love Mera.”  Set in some sort of bizarre futuristic space ship, it even features half naked white girls (well, their torsos at least) gyrating blearily in the foreground of the scene at one point.

And “Dil Hara,” with the leading lady chastely running away from the man’s advances, albeit at the last moment possible, while the white gals (literally) throw their legs in the air.

And one more, a personal favorite of mine (Denise Richards, what are you doing there?), with a hoard of white girls dressed up as Indian brides throwing themselves at the male lead for a significant chunk of the video.

As you’re watching these, you may notice that a number of themes carry through from video to video.  There’s always a huge pack of backup dancers (white), which are generally less-clad than the South Asian leading lady; both usually sport some sort of sari blouse, but the latter with a long skirt and the former with something resembling short-shorts or bikini bottoms.  The girls in the back always stay there, in the back, never interacting with leading lady.  Occasionally they do, well, brush up against the male star, but they’re not given a passing glance.  The shots never focus on their faces, with any close-ups there may be centering on their bodies.  And, while this is an editorialization on my part, they tend to look pretty dumb – their dance moves are always a little sloppy, their outfits absurd, and they even look a little uncomfortable – out of place.  But there they are, pumping out the subcontinental dance moves to Bollywood beats in the background of each of these videos.

So, what’s the reason for their presence here?  I’m sorry to say caucasian ladies, but it’s likely not for your dancing prowess – the backup ladies (and men, in some cases) are clearly outshone by the South Asian stars in each video.  Well, yesterday a friend forwarded this article along to me, which speaks about the “white skin industry” of India.  In it, tales of white girls on extended stays to the subcontinent recount getting paid – significant amounts – to act as sorts of hostesses/hustlers in bars, to make appearances at parties in skimpy outfits, or even to simply pose for photographs at important events.  The article reads,

The white skin fetish has created its own cottage industry. Sai Hospitality India’s proprietor Rahul (no last name) says blithely, “I provide white girls for parties, business conferences, weddings: tequila girls, Arabian night dancers, pole dancers, bartenders girls and girls who only stand around at parties. My charges range from Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh for a girl per night. Whichever country you want, I can provide.”

Richa Singh, who works at Delhi’s KamaKazi wedding planners, raises the snobbery stakes. “We provide authentic English girls, not Lebanese, Chinese or Indian. Many companies colour the hair of Indian girls and pose them as foreigners. We’re not into such things. We charge Rs. 5,000 per girl for only standing at parties. They’re only eye candy for the guests. They’re like dolls…” she says.

This is a leaping off point for quite a few topics of conversation, one of the first being – why, exactly does this happen?  Theories of internalized racism of inferiority complexes spring to mind, but neither are by any means my specialty, so I’ll leave that to a later post, perhaps after consulting someone who knows more about these issues than I.  But the question that strikes closer to home, and that I think about on a near daily basis, is – what influence do these sorts of images have on perceptions of white women in the subcontinent?  And specifically, in Bangladesh?

In a country where the number of foreign visitors is relatively low and the number of television sets is sky-high, I think it’s fair to say that most Bangladeshis interact with caucasians much more through the screen than they do in real life.  And now, they don’t have to turn to ‘Western’ media to receive images of barely-clad white chicks.  As they begin to populate these roles as backup dancers, a new image of white women in South Asia is emerging.

Furthermore, while I have no idea what part Denise Richards plays in that other film above, the white girl that (temporarily) steals Jai’s heart in Love Aaj Kal is also played as inarticulate and unintelligent   Dumb as dirt, in fact.  So it’s not just that they’re are shown mostly nude – they’re played as easier, in both a physical and mental sense.  Meera, the Indian female lead, is depicted as a sharp and driven girl, clever and funny throughout the entire film, while White Girl barely speaks English, more often than not on screen in silent mode.  Which actually might be for the best, considering that she sounds like an airhead whenever she opens her mouth.

What with the pervasiveness of American films in the subcontinent, one might think this wouldn’t add up to very much – there are a number of movies from the U.S that could counterbalance this image, providing a much more positive, or at the very least stronger image of caucasian women.  But these are not the stereotypes, by and large, that make it across the globe.  Friends have confided, and leers and stares have reinforced, that white women are perceived by a number of Bangladeshi men as looser and more forward.  Admittedly, I am far more assertive and confrontational than a traditional Bangladeshi woman is expected to be.  But the danger of these images is that assertive, professional behavior is interpreted as an invitation for advances.  Nods and enthusiastic remarks at business meetings can be read as being ‘interested’ in the man rather than in the topic of conversation.  And when one’s work centers entirely around making contacts and connecting with individuals to conduct research and do your job, the feeling that you need to edit yourself and your behavior – to make yourself seem less interested in what you are speaking about and doing – can be deeply frustrating.

This post surely sparks a number of other questions – questions that have been at the forefront of my mind since beginning work in Bangladesh, ones that I have spoken about at length with women of all colors here, as many of the negative perceptions about working women extend beyond race and ethnicity.  These are questions on which I’m searching to hear others’ thoughts.  Questions that are currently being raised in the press, with the detention and subsequent sexual abuse of Lynsey Addario in Libya and the sexual assault of Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.  This is only just the beginning of this examination.  Where will we take it next?

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