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.
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.