White Women in the Indian Imagination: Alexandra Delaney
This is a guest post by ALEXANDRA DELANEY:
“Yeah, Indian guys think white girls are easy”, a British-born Indian remarked nonchalantly to me this week. Normally I’d be shocked by such gross racial stereotyping (of Indians) but in this case I’m inclined to agree. Not because Caucasian women by their very skin colour or cultural preferences are any more promiscuous than their South Asian sisters, but because of their sustained portrayal as loose and morally deficient. The image of the sexually liberated and ‘easy’ white woman runs deep in the Indian imagination, a perception which is drip-fed by the country’s all-pervading mainstream media.
The brutal rape and murder of an Indian student in New Delhi last December followed by numerous sexual attacks on foreign women has sparked international outrage. This year alone, a Chinese woman was date-raped in New Delhi, a Korean woman was raped after being drugged in Bhopal, a Swiss tourist was gang-raped by five men in Madhya Pradesh while holidaying with her husband, and a British woman broke both her legs after jumping off a hotel balcony to avoid an alleged sexual attack by the hotel’s manager. These incidents have led to a shift in how tourists perceive India, resulting in a 25% fall in foreigners travelling to the country and a 35% reduction in women travellers, reports New Delhi-based Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
In 2012 alone, 6.6 million foreign tourists visited India and earned the country $17.74 billion in foreign exchange reports the Ministry for Tourism. The inevitable consequence of the routine harassment, ‘eve-teasing’ and the more sinister attacks demonstrates a clear causal link to this 25% reduction in foreign tourism. This significant decrease should have the government of India desperately seeking a solution to stabilise figures before India’s reputation as a tourist-friendly country is permanently ruined. Such a behaviour shift should begin with the treatment of foreign women in both the Bollywood film industry and in the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises.
Love it or hate it, Bollywood is the world’s most prolific industry, producing more than 1,000 films each year, reaching approximately 45 million people in India alone. In the majority of these films women are type-cast as pure, wholesome and wife-worthy or as fast-loving and morally loose in films that are dripping heavily with references to the more patriarchal elements of Hindu tradition and an ‘East beats West’ rhetoric. The most visible, and famous, example of this is Devdas in which actress Madhuri Dixit plays a prostitute and makes references throughout implying her similarity to Radha, the promiscuous lover of Krishna. On the other hand, film-favourite Aishwarya Rai plays a devoted, obsessive, virginal character and makes blatant references implying her likeness to mythology’s most perfect wife, Sita.
The use of patriarchal religious symbolism is repeatedly used in films to set-up dichotomies between pure and polluted women. Unfortunately women from outside the Hindu religious system often demarcate the ‘other’ and represent an impure threat to the sanctity and preservation of (albeit misogynist) tradition that places women’s honour and virtue as central to belief. White women have been fulfilling such roles since the 1970s, with Saira Banu playing a mini-dress-wearing, chain smoking and alcohol drinking harlot in Purab Aur Paschim. In a gross display of reverse colonisation, the character aptly named Bharat (played by Manoj Kumar) successfully transforms this free-spirited woman into a good Indian girl, worthy of commitment and love and not just a quick fling and proverbial role in the hay.
Things have only worsened. Western culture continues to be homogenised and presented in a one-dimensional and offensive manner with the underlying message that Eastern culture is uniformly better than Western culture. Womanising is both glorified and abundant throughout Bollywood and the examples of easy white women are endless with women reduced to arm candy, nightclub dancers and one-night-stands, as objects to be used by Indian men. From Bollywood hero Amitabah Bachchan playing geriatric womaniser in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and humorously bedding a white woman called ‘Sexy’, ‘Sweetie’ or something equally ridiculous, to Junior Bachchan and John Abraham in Dostana seducing the white girls of Miami before simultaneously falling for Priyanka Chopra. Akshay Kumar’s Heyy Baby sees three womanisers bed-hop from gori to gori before mending their ways and apologising to their long-suffering desi girlfriends is a strikingly similar film to Thankyou where another three serial seducers bed a variety of fair-skinned women before apologising to their desi wives (in both cases the girlfriends and wives forgive as all good Indian wives should). Though Bollywood may have moved away from traditional boy-meets-girl, boy seeks approval of girl’s family, overcomes various obstacles, marries girl storylines, the treatment of white women unfortunately remains the same.
Sorry Indian men, but not every white woman wanders around in a bikini or such scanty attire. But according to the adverting-fest that is the Indian Premier League (IPL) they most certainly do. White, Eastern European cheerleaders have been an integral part of the IPL brand for a number of years now and feature at every match in tight, revealing clothing, caged off like animals from leering spectators clicking photographs of them. Of course there are Indian dancers too, but look closely and you will see these young women are dressed in more conservative, traditional clothing. While cheerleading is a sport in the US, the IPL reduces these women (who aren’t even talented dancers) to sexual objects used solely to satisfy the Indian male gaze in between cricket overs. Unsettlingly, these IPL franchises are owned by some of India’s biggest film and industry stars, with actors Shah Rukh Khan, Shlipa Shetty and Preity Zinta all owning teams, as do leading businessmen Vijay Mallya, N. Srinivasan and Mukesh Ambani. The continued use of supposedly licentious foreign women dancing for these cricket franchises indicates a tacit compliance with such racial stereotypes by owners and a subtle, conscious feeding of insidious perceptions about race and sexuality in India. These IPL dancers constitute one of the most visible ‘real life’ examples of this pure versus polluted dichotomy and in which white women have become commercialised in the process.
It’s actually quite offensive to be repeatedly typecast through IPL marketing and Bollywood and these two domains are spheres of influence which influence (to a certain extent) the thoughts and actions of all lesser-educated Indians owing to the mass media’s all pervading impact and reach. Should we really be surprised that white women get harassed, leered at and photographed on the streets of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai by the exact men who flock to consume these highly reductionist films and mentally undress the provocative, vamp IPL dancers? Should we really be surprised that Swiss and British tourists were seen as readily available to service the amorous intentions of their attackers on the basis of their skin colour?
The issue of women’s rights runs deep in India, for both Indian and foreign women, and to achieve better treatment for both will require two separate, complex solutions. For the latter at least, it is the immediate responsibility of IPL franchise owners and key film industry stakeholders to begin remaking the image of the white woman they choose to portray.
Lex Delaney is a freelance journalist and development consultant and has worked across India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.