In recent times, violent behaviour is becoming extremely sensationalised in pop culture with movies like Kabir Singh, Fifty Shades of Grey, 365 Days, etc. as well as in pornography. The rapidly escalating aggression in these modes of entertainment, more often than not, goes unquestioned. “It’s just a movie,” is what one gets to hear if they point out the flaws, which is probably why such depiction of romance is getting excused in the media. While this wouldn’t have been a problem if it were an isolated incident, the mentioned films, however, were a great success among audiences. Statistics around how violence towards women has become the most commonly viewed porn are alarming. What is desirable is often shaped through the popular images and ideas that surround us, which is why taking them at face value can prove to be dangerous. How many stories have we seen that imply that the women actually enjoyed the sexual assault and eventually fell for the man?
This culture extends far beyond choking, spanking or a good beating. It begins right from what the basic idea of an attractive man is supposed to be, which is handsome, mysterious, strong which often translates to inexpressive and of course, dangerous. The disturbing qualities of the male protagonists are often seen as rather attractive. This is the foundational formula of making the perfect hero. The image of the perfect heroine that has been fed to us is Sita on the surface and Geeta in the sack. Over the years, this portrayal has embedded in the minds of young men that their masculinity is extremely fragile when it comes to liking the colour pink or having long hair or not having a beard or even letting a woman take the lead at times. For young women, it has made ‘taking a back seat’ the norm. It has glamorised abusive relationships and the idea of a woman redeeming a man who was otherwise beyond repair. When teenage girls base their fantasies on these films, then unknowingly participate in their own subjugation. When unequal power relations and female submission are presented, not only as somehow romantic and desirable but as actually liberating and empowering, you know you’ve got a serious problem.
Kabir Singh, a blockbuster hit that raised quite a few controversies, is a film about a prodigal medical student, Kabir, falling for a meek, innocent girl, Preeti. Kabir realises that Preeti is the love of his life the moment he sets his eyes on her. Apparently, without even having considered if Preeti reciprocated his feelings, this is enough reason for him to publicly threaten any other boy who would want to woo Preeti. Without even having had one decent conversation with her, Kabir kisses Preeti while she shows no objection, rather, it is made to feel like she has been honoured. Over the rest of the film, Kabir directs the relationship while Preeti simply follows, because well, having an opinion is just too much work. The number of dialogues that Preeti has been given in the film would probably finish before our fingers do. As Kabir rightly mentions in a heated argument between the two that Preeti is simply known for being Kabir Singh’s girlfriend, nothing more to which Preeti responds affirmatively and later gets a complimentary slap. I have to give credit where credit is due, Kabir was right, you really don’t get to see Preeti’s personality outside of the relationship. What worries me is that not enough people see that as a problem.
Thappad, on the other hand, is a rather modest film that only reached out to a section of the audience and was not a hit on the box office. While the film Kabir Singh doesn’t once show any follow up on the underserved slap received by Preeti, it is conveniently forgiven and forgotten, the film Thappad revolves around the aftermath of a single slap. It is the story of how a husband, in a fit of rage directed at someone else, ends up slapping his own wife unintentionally. What is further nerve pressing is that he never truly apologises for the incident and justifies it with the injustice that he was faced with. Throughout the film, most characters consider the wife’s decision a little too rash. However, that is true for the most part of the audience also. While the film ends with the characters realising that a divorce wasn’t drastic but only a natural step after what had happened, it wasn’t all that easy to convince the audiences. While the film does justice to explaining why even a single slap isn’t acceptable, it doesn’t move the masses. Most people exit the hall still unconvinced, not because the film didn’t make it clear enough, but because it doesn’t serve our usual idea of marriage in which the show always goes on.
It is clear that our audiences would rather appreciate a glorified suppressor than an empowered suppressed. My motive isn’t to make you like the film Thappad if you didn’t previously. All I want is that if you disapprove of the film because you think it was too harsh a reaction then please show the same amount of rage for the film Kabir Singh because there, a deserved harsh action was avoided.
The film, 365 Days, which was ranked on top for Netflix India for a couple of days, is about a man, who is a member of the mafia, who kidnaps a girl and gives her 365 days to fall in love with him. This erotic production consisting of kidnap, manhandling, sexual assault and Stolkholm Syndrome is packaged as romantic and has gained mass validation. It is twisted how writers can sell the image of a man forcing himself on a woman, be it physically or psychologically, as charming. The Fifty Shades trilogy, another erotic series, faced backlash from the BDSM community for not portraying an accurate picture. It doesn’t really show two parties genuinely prepared for what was to happen as one didn’t really know what she was signing up for. The question is, if the protagonists from these films were old, ugly, poor men then they would be called out for their faults. There’s a quote from Catherine Steadman’s book Something in the Water that makes a good point about this issue: “I suppose, at the end of the day, if you’re not good-looking, you don’t get away with being a bad boy. You just get called a thug.” This brings up another issue of creating unrealistic beauty standards for men while telling them that they can get away with anything if they have the looks and the bad boy charm.
The outrage should be against an entire culture that makes it profitable for mainstream media to normalize depictions of violence against women and often times, even justify them. Another industry that is profiting off of showing violence against women is the porn industry. According to Australian adolescent sexuality expert and researcher Maree Crabbe, recent analysis of the “most popular” porn found that 88 per cent of scenes included physical aggression such as gagging, choking and slapping. In 94 per cent of those scenes the aggression was directed towards women. Women were slapped in 75 per cent of those scenes. There was verbal aggression in 48 per cent of scenes. This isn’t how the porn industry started out, however, now it is settling on a more aggressive and violent approach because that’s what sells. Since this content makes up a majority of the readily available pornography online, even people who don’t start out liking this depiction end up changing their opinion about it because of the popularity it has gained, making it seem like no big deal to the viewers. Little by little, slapping women around and “destroying” them sexually has come to be normalised in sex entertainment.
For those who would say that watching such content doesn’t imply that people will implement it in their daily lives, statistics show otherwise. Relationships Australia warned that intimacy in one in five Australian relationships is being impacted by internet porn consumption. The national counselling service found that readily accessible online porn is leading to a breakdown of trust and an erosion of intimacy in about 21 per cent of all relationships and pornography consumption is also increasingly being cited as a reason for marriage breakdowns.
Some may not agree with me here saying that the examples that I cited were not extreme. That’s where the problem lies, the extreme is now normalised. According to many health experts, not only has porn become the main sex educator for adolescents but the degradation of women is stock in trade of the stuff that sells. The popularisation of such porn makes young girls think that they have to follow the script in real life. Eroticised male brutality defines for young men what “sexually fun” is.
Now this is where I can’t stress on consent enough! Mainstream media has defined for young girls and boys what romance is. Thus, they often may agree to do things they themselves are not comfortable with because apparently those acts are ‘normal’. Thus, make sure that the consent that you receive from your partner is a result of what he/she genuinely wants to do rather than it being a result of what he/she thinks they’re supposed to do. Make sure your partner doesn’t feel uncomfortable or degraded at any part of the way. If you hear a ‘no’ once in a while, then don’t get angry or bruise your ego. Discuss. Understand your partner’s apprehensions. For those who say ‘no’, don’t shame your partner for wanting something. Make it a safe space where everyone feels free to pour their heart out.
Somewhere along the way, we started romanticising the wrong things. For men, we made toxic masculinity attractive, while, for women, we made submission desirable. Let’s change that. Instead of idealising a woman who wouldn’t object to anything you throw at her way and a man who takes whatever he wants regardless of consequences, let’s tweak things a little. For those who didn’t know it yet –
Respect is hot. Consent is sexy.
By – Dhwani Teckchandani