On the morning of September 4 2020, Kavitha Reddy allegedly physically attacked actress Samyuktha Hegde while she was working out in the park. The cause: the fact that she was wearing a sports bra. You could also state it simply, misogyny.
In 2014, there was a global study sponsored by the United Nations. It studied female characters from movies across the world. Indian movies, to no surprise of Indian women, ranked highest on the objectification of women. The incident with Samyuktha Hegde makes this point relevant because her clothing on that day in the park was no more revealing that those on Instagram or the big screen. The idea is simple, a woman’s body can be viewed and sexualized as long as it is on male terms. A liberated woman in the park, with friends, working towards fitness perhaps does not fit into that patriarchal narrative.
The blatant sexualization of women in Indian media, paired with the idea that a woman should be demure, timid and submissive has an undeniable impact. For the same reason why minorities require representation in media, women too need to see well written women in media. The Halloween that came after the release of Black Panther was filled with children dressing up as T’Challa, Shuri, Nakia and Okoye, finding joy in a superhero that looked like them. It strengthened the belief that Black people can be the good guys, the superheroes after years of being exposed to media that portrayed them as thug-like, criminal or violent. The same principle applies here. When all of our media portrays women as weak, dumb and submissive, and also sends the message that women’s bodies are to be feasted upon the male gaze that becomes our normal. In a society that has grown used to treating women as inferior, the women themselves start to believe that that is the way they are meant to be treated. Women taking control of their bodies and actions, then, becomes something jarring. This results in cases like this: women attacking women for being free, because freedom should not come naturally to a woman.
Feminism India’s article Decoding the Culture of Moral Policing at the School Level rightly takes us back to the very roots of it: “Gender roles are often taught at school. Girls’ bodies are subjected to moral policing, shamed and treated as a distraction for boys. Often dress codes are imposed on girls and their privacy is violated in the name of checking the dress code” .Right from the age one starts going to school, girls’ actions are constantly policed. Right from the make-up and nail polish punishments in primary schools to stringent dress codes at the university level, the female body is policed. While this goes on, it is important to note that dress codes for men usually simply ask for them to be dressed formally. Sometimes, they may even request a tie. For women, dress codes are designed to make them cover up. They are asked to wear stockings under skirts, or looser pants or ensure that their tops are not form fitting. The truth is that from her speech, to her clothes, to her sexual activity, an aspect of morality is ascribed to everything a woman does. Thus moral policing as an idea stems from a patriarchal and autocratic idea of control.
This brings us back to the incident at hand. While Kavitha Reddy’s actions in this situation are reprehensible, we must also try to understand where all this is coming from. This is not an isolated incident. It is another step in this unending path of misogyny in this country. It is important to understand that the idea of how a woman should behave that Kavitha Reddy enforced was not born inside her. It is an idea that is fed to women by media that is designed to cater to men. It is a culture of pitting women against women based on beauty, sexualization and morality, and it needs to end. That is impossible to do without acknowledging that the problem exists. The first step towards a cleaner, more inclusive movie industry is to evaluate how adversely the portrayal of women in movies has affected their perception of themselves and others.
Change is a gradual, nonlinear thing. While it may seem like media today is doing a better job than media 20 years ago, there is still a long way to go before the average Indian woman on the big screen is a capable, well-structured character. For this, it is important to allow female voices to be heard, female directors and script writers can push towards better representation. Ultimately, whatever works towards building a more wholesome and welcoming environment for women in India is a good thing.