The Female Gaze: Tracing The Evolution Of Women’s Sexuality in Indian Cinema

Lust Stories
Lust StoriesIMDb

The authority on sex and sexuality has historically been a territory of men in this country. It's no surprise either with our heavily patriarchal societal structures. In a culture where sex is both demonized and obsessed over because of repression, the understanding and exploration of one's sexuality gets complicated, especially if you're a woman.

As art truly is a reflection of a society, Indian cinema becomes a device in tracing the change in dynamics of the portrayal of women's sexuality. And to really dive into the autonomy and agency of women, we must first dissect the male gaze. The male gaze is a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her seminal 1973 paper Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. It's used to explain the hetero-male perspective of objectification of women that also dictates how we perceive women on screen and in real life.

Item numbers are a typical example of the male gaze in Bollywood
Item numbers are a typical example of the male gaze in BollywoodPinterest

The male gaze has been the underlying formula in most of Bollywood films from the beginning. Sex isn't a modern phenomena in movies. Sexual scenes have always been present in Hindi cinema; it's just that men have had power over women in these scenes. The most 'family-centric' films in India never shied away from portraying sexual assault on screen or harassment that crossed the boundaries and personal space of women disguised as 'romantic pursuit'.

The dominance of the male gaze could also be seen in people around the nation with trends of men treating their partners as their property, getting violent on rejection and undermining women's sexuality until it was for their own pleasure. It led us into believing that a woman's sexuality or anything she does really from her dress to her make up was just some primitive mating tactic to get a man's attention and could only exist to entertain him. This also enforced a binary and heteronormative culture.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire & Lady Bird - examples of the female gaze
Portrait of a Lady on Fire & Lady Bird - examples of the female gaze The Guardian, BBC

In a reciprocal force, the male gaze both reflected and influenced the perception of sexuality in Indian society. However it was a fractured perception far from truth and eventually, feminist creators and filmmakers found a way to neutralize it. The female gaze was only born as a countermeasure for the male gaze; just like atheism that only came to be because of religion. Its purpose was not to flip the switch and sexualize and objectify men like the male gaze did but to revert the gaze itself; to empathize and not objectify, to see people as people, with emotional intimacy and acceptance being the attraction and not a hot bod. The female gaze became a key component in validating women's sexuality as generally, women's sexual desire is dependent on so much more than physical attraction.

With Deepa Mehta's trilogy, women were given agency for the first time in a long time. Their emotional states and internal conflicts became the drivers of the story like it had always been for the male characters. And yet their sexuality was in no way sacrificed in the film but explored with honesty. Films like Astitva, DevD, Parched, Lipstick Under My Burkha and Veere Di Wedding along with Netflix's Lust Stories brought upon a renaissance for women's sexuality. With a sexually-frustrated housewife having an affair with her music teacher, women approaching men, and trying to explore their sexuality in secrecy, and indulging in pleasuring themselves, these films broke the curse of the male gaze that had sent us all to a passive, misogynistic slumber for years.

Parched (2015)
Parched (2015)Deccan Chronicle

The digital era further gave way to a more feminist approach intersecting queerness, mental health, and cultural identities to form a more informed notion of what our sexuality means to us. It also added a nuance in our perception of liberty and what it would take for us to achieve that. Facilitating our ability to set boundaries, reclaim our sexual desire and pleasure and recognize the double standards that come as gender roles, the new-age wave of a renewed understanding of self through a feminine lens created a more inclusive space for men women, non-binary and genderqueer individuals.

The status quo has thousands of years of weight behind it and it would definitely take an unrelenting force to reach any sense of an equilibrium but the underlying principle of the female gaze that gives people power and not take it, allowing them to reclaim and fearlessly practice their own agency and sexuality feels like a solid backbone for a movement of liberation.

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