October 23, 2012

Let’s do it, but only if it’s fair and tight!

Ironic how our country saw the launch of a ‘vaginal tightening’ cream just a few days ahead of Indian Independence Day. How can we put two and two together? The ‘empowerment’ of women and their independence from the shackles of patriarchy, right? Wrong. Watching this ad brought back memories of a similarly endorsed product for ‘vaginal whitening’ for fairer vaginas and hence, a better sexual experience - because your partner would like your vagina to be fairer, and now tighter. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPayFrCOiZM What irks me the most is not that the product itself was launched, but the way it has been positioned and is being marketed. As suggested by the commercial, the vaginal tightening cream called ‘18 Again’ is supposed to make a woman ‘feel like a virgin’. Two assumptions are being made here. One is that a virgin is supposed to really enjoy her first time (as opposed to being painful). The second assumption is that 18 is the age you can lose your virginity. Not one year more, not one year less. 18: the age when women can marry, have sex, or are ‘allowed’ to be sexually active. Very sensible scriptwriters. Coming back to the creation of the product itself - how come we have suddenly started discovering faults with the vagina that need to be rectified? Because it shouldn’t only be nice and fair and smell good, but now also needs to be tightened so your man can feel more attracted to your most prized possession. But is it really yours anymore? I think it now belongs to the market. The vagina is now a victim of a market reeling under the drive to sell goods. And they are ready to go any extent by banking on your body and creating insecurities that can be solved with instant products. What happens to the man in this equation? Everything about him appears to be natural and acceptable. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if soon we have products that may claim to improve his parts of functioning also. Then maybe, there can be some balance. But for now what is most disturbing is that women’s bodies are repeatedly being objectified, and used to enhance the market value of sex, and in the process commodifying sex itself. The problem lies in the way that sex is being stereotyped and defined within societal norms – such as, a man better marry a virgin, which is why she wants to make it ‘feel like the first time’. And of course, everything is done with the permission of the family. Making these products look like something that will revive your disinterested man (refer to ad on vaginal whitening) and salvage your chemistry is pushing a woman’s sense of sexual worth to its very limits. Another interesting area for discussion in relation to the product for vaginal tightening is the setting of the ad. It is set amidst a south Indian joint family household, with elderly and young folks all very pleasantly surprised with the salsa dance that the two protagonists indulge in when they discover a sudden craving for each other. The family is not only excited about it, but also seem very encouraging towards the couple who are in the process of rediscovering their sex life. As suggestive dance moves are made in front of young and old, there is a reiterating of the fact that a married couple’s sex life in India still does not belong to them, but to the whole family, who are well in the loop of their plans of procreation. Sure, it’s one big happy family. What also irked me was the young kid continuously and very enthusiastically taking a video of the couple, using a smart phone while they shake a leg. Quite alarming, don’t you think? How a young person within the family finds it fun to take a video of a masquerading couple who have just one thought on their mind – their revamped sex life. Somehow this reminds me of the dangerous tendency of filming everything we see these days. As extreme as it may seem now during the discussion of this ad, it reminds me of the more serious and recent incidents that happened in Guwahati where a young woman being stripped was filmed, and later in Mangalore, where young women who were harassed at a birthday party were being filmed. Does this only show us, in a different light, the voyeuristic society that we are? The young chap in the ad may be only doing it harmlessly, but the fact that everyone was simply watching and he was so excitedly hanging around with the camera gives me the creeps. I can’t but help draw parallels between this representation and the other, uglier side of reality. One thing that all this shows for sure is that the woman is an object that can be played with, toyed with, filmed, touched, modified and rejected if she doesn’t satisfy the male ego. Regressive practises have always been part of our society. Only forms have varied. With the market coming into play now, rather than us moving towards a more progressive, accepting society, we are finding newer ways of regressive practices against women. The market today plays a critical role in determining objects and products that define a woman’s sexuality and enslaves her to it. This market may not have been an important factor in a previous era, where regression took other forms of submission by women. This new phenomena, where society is moving to newer, more alluring forms of regressive practices, can be termed as Neo Regression. Talking to a sociologist about this new trend of neo regression brought to light some interesting facts. It was observed that though we think we live in a time when our societies are appearing to be treading the path of progress, in reality it only seems that we are becoming an extremely regressive society. This leads to skepticism in the linear idea of human progress, that is, the idea that societies are becoming more liberal or regressing into something more barbaric. At any given time in human history, it is believed, one will find a good measure of both “liberal” and “regressive” practices and everything in between, all occuring simlutaneously. So while on one hand, we may be progressing, on the other, we are also regressing. This regression can take place with an interplay of patriarchy and capitalism, whether it’s with regard to the messages embedded in visual media or with the tendency to objectify, sexualize or pathologize women in the process. However, the extent to which women’s bodies have been pathologized is a result of historical struggle, and if this struggle continues, then perhaps we can hope to be a more liberal, accepting society, where women’s bodies are not mere objects of desire, but really complete human beings. There are several examples of how our societies share equal amounts of progression and regression at the same time. For example, as on one hand we boast of our country’s economic growth, technological prowess, and modernisation, on other we are falling deeper and deeper into a dangerous pit of barbaric acts on our women (and on humanity in genera)l. Women are being molested without a care, disrespected, attacked, and in extreme cases, even killed (The recent Pallavi Purkayastha incident is a case in point). When such heinous and perverted crimes are on the rise these days, where is the security of a safe and danger free life? If our ads still talk about how a woman needs to smell and look and be ridiculously ‘perfect’ for the male tastes, where is the room to nurture and allow for a mature sense of thought to allow equality of the sexes? Where is the room to educate and empower (in its real sense)? What is the responsibility of the media in the ads we have looked at? By perpetuating stereotypes that reinforce regressive thought, we are not only encouraging a gender-unequal mindset, but also spreading unhealthy cultural stigma that can harmfully influence a large audience. Will things change? As the sociologist pointed out, if the struggle continues - as it has throughout history - there is always a possibility of change. I think if we really want to empower a woman, then she needs to be left alone, and left the way she likes to be, without a voice telling her what to do, what to wear, or how to feel. She will continue to fight until she finds a space where she is unconditionally accepted, and feels comfortable in her skin without having to face the pressure of feeling insecure about her body or being subjected to abuse and intolerance. But as long as the media portrays her as the victim, or as the hapless being who needs to be given products to enhance herself, the struggle will get tougher, hampering the possibility of a more free, mature and open society.

About: Zulfiya Hamzaki

Zulfiya Hamzaki is an aspiring documentary filmmaker. Her interests lie in gender, sexuality, rights, culture and its relationship with different forms of media. She is currently working with Point of View, a Mumbai based non-profit organisation that brings the points of view of women into social and public domains through the creative use of media, art and culture.

6 comments to Let’s do it, but only if it’s fair and tight!

  • Maulik

    Great observations there. I loved the way you have analysed the ad and taken out some points to actually showcase the commoditization of almost everything, and its ill-effects. The ‘filming by the kid’ and allied opinions of it is a very good observation.

  • Nabil

    “Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.” ? Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

  • Abhinav Varsney

    An excellent analysis Zulfiya…I feel this ad is a portrayal of Indian Consumer Psychology..the psychology which originates from patriarchy and women being portrayed as an object for Men’s pleasure…until and unless we don’t attack this psychology such ads would come…n trust me as a management student I am telling u, these products would be a great hit n wud flood the market soon…building on ur article, there is already a surgery available through which women get an artificial hymen…n its a big business world over….however, various research suggests that most of the men are unable to satisfy their partners during a sexual intercourse…that ways the product should have been the other way…

  • sanchita

    very well written and alarming indeed,we are not realising how we are giving ourselves completely to the market..it started a decade back from face whitening and the journey continues to vaginal tightening,nature has a little role to play now may be that is the reason that all natural things are coming to an end

  • zubin

    Superb female-concentric review! The ad-maker must be banging his head on the wall reading your review, “Yeh AD nahi banata toh accha hota”. I don’t know what to call it, narrow-mindedness or utter negligence. You clearly haven’t viewed those condom ads right? Why does a man wear that uncomfortable piece of rubber? So that the woman doesn’t get pregnant, so that the woman feels comfortable, so that the woman doesn’t smell a garbage can et all. You wrote a complete lecture on women’s private parts being publicized, what about the male organ? You think we men like the condom ads? I understand that you are working for some Women’s Rights organisations and will get all praises and WAH WAH’s from equally ignorant plebeians. You are right in your own way, since your angle of viewing the ad is negative. According to you, everyone, young or old, will visualize the AD from your angle alone. How sick and narrow-minded can that be! The AD was just portraying a complete Indian family, staying under one roof, as it is in our society today. Probably you stay in a 100 room villa, so you don’t know what it feels to stay in a 1BHK with mother, father, sister, brother, wife, etc. So if there is a private moment also, it becomes public in a JOINT family, which was why they were dancing in the open and the kid was filming innocently. This is what kids nowadays do. Just because some people bathe in the open, doesn’t make them exhibitionists. It is either habitual or they are choiceless. You have the option of not looking at them, which is what normal people would do. But voyeuristic individuals will watch and comment on it. (FYI: I do not work for ANY AD company. And I respect women a lot.)

  • SS

    It is a pleasant relief to note that women are noting and pointing out the sources of their objectification. But who do you think will be the prime user of such products? I worry, the urban/city women, who often cry out loud for their sexual freedom/rights will be the top users of such products and make them very popular. There is often a fine line between promoting/crying out one’s sexual freedom (which is important) and yet staying away from such objectification. There are articles sharing city womens’ perspectives on sexual freedom in the name of independence and liberation. I worry, this situation is trickier for women as I see them more vulnerable and yet inclined to embrace such influences. Very often, the males do not promote/demand such products! Then why does the cosmetic industry (especially such weird products) still flourish so much? I am compelled here to draw analogies with the dowry system in our country. Why is it so prevalent even if it is illegal? And this is no different for either the well off educated class or the illiterate/poor class. The responsibility lies more on the shoulders of the supplier, than the consumer himself. I am sure, many urban women will make this product very popular. The reason I mention the urban/city women is because only they will be able to afford such wasteful products. Those fighting for basic necessities will not bother. If such items do become popular, it will be a sad lose of a woman’s self confidence and self worth. But what will be even worse and shameful (atleast to me) is when women will exercise their freedom of choice and with no external pressure, become consumers of such garbage at their own will.

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