commentary

conversation on the dangers of dolls

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!

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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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