Alisha and I met last year in the Institute for Global Leadership’s EPIIC Colloquium on South Asia; she was always one of the most inquisitive in the class, always posed the hardest questions to the guest speakers, was always staying late and doing more work than was required.
So I wasn’t surprised, but was certainly excited, when a message from her as a response to a previous post on portrayals of white women in Bollywood videos popped up in my inbox a few days ago. It’s evolved into the start of an interesting little conversation, and so I asked if I could share the exchange on here – she’s agreed, and so here it is now.
The original post, The Dangers of Dolls, can be found on the other side of that link. Below, you’ll find her response in full, followed by the little note I wrote back.
The idea of the white woman as more loose, and less clad, is not recent. I definitely carried this stereotype with me to the US and I don’t think it was because of the background dancers I saw in films, I think it was because of what I saw in mainstream American films, particularly chick flicks. It’s the cheerleader phenomenon, and that image created by the Hollywood industry is just something the Bollywood industry is now using because of two things: 1) the Indian fascination with white skin 2) the mistaken belief that an Indian women’s modesty is more pure, important and intact than a foreigners. I’m sure you can relate to the second point from what you’ve told me about and written of your experiences in Bangladesh.
I don’t know if you’ve discovered the phenomenon of “item numbers” yet. They are basically sexy cabaret songs and we have a slew of women in Bollywood famous for being “item girls” – and these are the women (for the most part) in the industry seen at the bottom of ladder because they are Indian women choosing to play the role seen as only fitting for the white background dancers in the minds of the Indian audience. They are the subject of trash talk and lewd jokes.
While the white dancers aren’t chosen particularly for their dancing skills, they are chosen because they cost less and provide the same value. For example, Shiamak Davar’s Dance Co. – what is now one of the premier Bollywood dance companies – has dancers that are ready to provide skimpy clothing along with sexiness and high quality dancing. For example,
But the skin will never be bared in quite the same way, and I think this is also because (having been part of the amateur group in the company for some time) most of the Indian dancers just aren’t ready, especially en masse, to bare it like that. There is too much at stake – being disowned from your family, marriage prospects, reputation. Not that it doesn’t happen these days, and isn’t happening more, but it’s more of a struggle with the Indian female dancers. I remember that in our dance shows where our directors wanted us to wear some of the type of clothes you’ve described in the videos you chose, we wore full skin leotards underneath if we wanted to. More often though, we weren’t asked to bare skin in a way that made us feel cheap.
I don’t know if there’s one particular point im trying to make. I’m just giving you some more info, and saying that I don’t think what you’ve experienced as a white woman in Bangladesh stems simply from a Bollywood desire to denigrate the image of the white woman.
P.S. For a good depiction of a white woman, watch Lagaan. Even though the white female lead isn’t American, she’s British, she’s as white as it gets. The caveat there is that the film is set in pre-Independence India.
-Alisha Sett, Tufts University (A’12)
And my response:
Alisha, thanks so much for writing this – yours is a fascinating insight into an issue that I’ve only just begun to explore. The points that you make are spot on – Bollywood is just following the lead of Hollywood, and so it’s no surprise that the image of white women is essentially a mirror of many of those portrayals seen in the US.
The aspect of this all that is most troubling to me is that the depiction is so one-dimensional; while white girls are certainly portrayed as sex objects and ditzes willing to don just about anything (or nothing) in American films, they are also shown in other roles – as brilliant lawyers and secret agents and powerful single mothers – and the list keeps growing as women continue to fill more roles in American society. These certainly do not eliminate the idea of woman as sex object that we receive so often from the American media, but they do make it more layered and complex.
The danger with recent Bollywood films/music videos, as I’ve seen, is that there is only one role for white woman, and it is one that it is seen over and over again. I’ve yet to watch a Bollywood film with a white woman in a strong, confident, sassy role like those the leading South Asian women play. (To be my own devil’s advocate, there are far too few Hollywood films with women of color in such roles as well. But really that’s a whole other issue – that women of color just aren’t cast in films nearly as often in the States, in any role.) Where in contrast, white women seem to be being sought out more and more often in South Asian films – a number of my white friends here in Dhaka have been recruited for such films – but only in this one familiar part. And that’s where the problem lies.
In the end, the point of the piece as I intended it was not so much a critique of Bollywood – I don’t blame the industry for assuming the image projected by successful white actress after successful white actress in the US – but rather to speak to how it’s affected my time as a white woman in South Asia. How I think it has directly influenced the way that men treat me at work, on the streets, everyday. That they speak to me and approach me and, at times, touch me in a way that they would never dare to do with a Bangladeshi woman. And that the reason for that lies beyond the fact that I am different – they would likely not act the same way with a Black or East Asian woman (although, this is again something I’m just surmising, and open to be proved wrong by the experiences of ex-pats in South Asia!) – rather that it lies in the fact that to them, white skin equals open, easy, and ready to bare all. And that now they don’t just have to turn to American media to receive that. It can be found in local – and therefore more familiar and understandable – media and entertainment.
Mine is not a rigorous or conclusive analysis by any means, it is more just my own musings on this idea that popped into my head recently, and has remained there ever since. I really appreciate your taking the time to write, as I think it’s helped me clarify ideas, and made me challenge a number of other ones I came up with in the first place.
And so I’m curious to know – are there any other voices that would like to weigh in on the conversation? Bollywood fanatics? Fellow ex-pats? Otherwise interested individuals? I’d love to have my ideas questioned, and to know more about this all in general. So do write (elizabethdherman (at) gmail (dot) com) or leave a comment if you’d like to add your opinion. And thanks for reading!