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.
39 thoughts on “White Women in the Indian Imagination: Alexandra Delaney”
one of the best article, well put together considering a 3D view of overall society in general. . The best part is without passing any judgement.
Well said .
India’s reputation as a tourist-friendly country is already permanently ruined.
And that should not be the only reason to fix racial stereotypes .
I completely agree with the basic premise but I am wary of some sweeping statements like Bollywood and IPL influencing ‘lesser-educated minds’ and cheerleading being just a sport devoid of sexual stereotyping in US.
Great article. I’d like to add that other things like how western media itself portrays white women is also to influential in our media.
I agree with the contents to a large extent although reference to ‘Indian men’ at large could have been avoided! Such stereotyping is as unfortunate as stereotyping of a ‘white women’
Sadly, the article presents only one side of the picture. There is a darker side to tourism in India in the recent years largely fueled by alcohol, drugs and sex. People from all nationalities have been part of such ‘touristic adventures’ and presence of ‘white women’ in such parties adds to the stereotyping. Today, most people choosing to spend their vacation in some of the coastal areas will be subject to the stereotyping mentioned above. We also need to think about those!
Reblogged this on Life and laughter and commented:
I usually do not reblog… Hurts my writer’s ego. But this I had to.
I spent new year’s eve in a club in Calcutta once. I went with 3 other friends (1 male and 2 female), and we (the one male and I) spent the entire evening trying to fend away staggeringly aggressive men from the girls – who were white. We even got burnt by cigarettes in the process. The only time we got any respite was when out of nowhere white strippers started pole dancing on the bar. Out came the cameras, and the entire club (which was almost exclusively male) was hooting at the strippers. That experience confirmed for me the place that white women held in the indian male imagination long before this article came out. I’m glad someone has affirmed it.
Bhahahahahaha, we are all slags until they want a visa to come live in the USA.
“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”.
What a biased comment! Though I agree that Indian society is highly patriarchal & should change but in my experience while living in the US since many years, white men also look at cheerleaders the same way. The cheerleaders are there to satisfy male gaze in the US too, doesn’t matter if cheerleading is a tradition. Tradition doesn’t mean the initial motive was more pristine, example Mujra tradition in India. There is a lot of misogyny in the US popular culture too, as evident by sexualization of women in their media & films. Bash Indian male all you want where they are wrong but in an honest way. This is a case of hypocrisy.
It is even more hypocritical to merely respond to any criticism by stating that the other is no better . what the author is trying to point out is the special case of the ‘white woman’ perse devalued in a very culturally specific way as a sexual object . Its not her claim that western societies are not patriarchal – but she is arguing against a homogenisation in the stereotyping of the western women as ‘loose and easy’ to be flaunted as a girlfriend at the best and have fun with as opposed to the virtuous Indian female who can be taken to one’s family to get married to and be relied upon to uphold traditional values. In either case this stereotyping works against the women concerned and is reinforced by representations in mass entertainment industries . The analysis here can be simplistic but it is certainly not hypocritical – even when cheerleaders in US and nautch girls who do mujra in India become sexualised objects subjected to the male gaze, it does not lead to racial stereotyping and blanket generalisations in either case given their embeddedness in a certain tradition. So its a different form of patriarchal objectification.
And ‘Bash Indian male all you want where they are wrong but in an honest way’ is a ridiculous statement – how does honesty in such cases become a virtue – so its alright to rape, murder, harass as long as you admit to it and are honest ?
My husband and I both laughed uproariously about India being tourist friendly. It is the least tourist friendly country I have ever been to – and I have been to 20 countries and to India ten times.
Dear Sandra: I am puzzled by your statement “…”India” is the least tourist friendly country I have ever been to” …. quickly followed up with “I have been to 20 countries and to India ten times.” I am curious to understand what compels you to visit India ten times given your views about how tourist-unfriendly it is.
I think you need to provide a little more context about the indian male gaze, one that can be violent and threatening to all women. Colonialism is a big part of this perception, the Indian male does, to varying degrees, aspire to claim, possess and adopt “whiteness” since it does carry enormous social capital and the easiest way to do so is through the bodies of women… I’ve seen it happen time and again with male acquaintances who celebrate getting a ‘gori’ girlfriend, as if the woman was a prize to be coveted, not a human being in her own right. However, I think you are appealing to the wrong powers to change the “one dimensional” image of white women.
The one-dimensional aspect can be disputed, white women are given enormous privilege in this country, much more so than their Indian sisters. If a white woman is assaulted or raped, she can expect to be taken seriously. White women have more freedom to travel independently around the country, dance at clubs and wear certain clothes…that doesn’t mean they don’t face the same threats of violence and rape that other Indian women do but they do have greater mobility and agency. What you describe as the one-dimensional view of white women is a byproduct of misogyny, of patriarchy that exists outside of India, in “western culture” as well, it is not uniquely Indian. Also no, the lives and diversity of experiences of white women is well documented, through art, music and movies. Indians don’t just consume bollywood and IPL, mainstream Hollywood does a wonderful job of perpetuating the vigin-whore dichotomy and reducing women to objects of male sexual desire.
If you want to change the image of white women, then I think you need to start by recognising that the struggle indian women face in claiming agency and control over their own bodies is a part of that conversation. You don’t need a separate solution, because you’re not fighting just two entertainment industries (cinema and cricket), but the weight of patriarchy and colonialism and the effects (however different) it has on the bodies and lives of women.
I am happy someone wrote on the IPL abuse of women, There is also the irony that most women who watch it do not even think about it to discuss it. If it is brought up in a discussion, one immediately sees the embarassment in their eyes and acting as if it is part of the game. Really? Will acting like it does not exist or think it is correct make it right or the women modern?
That said, i think cheerleading in US is also about male gazing, whether it is made into a sport or not. Let’s not forget that.
Also media and popular culture everywhere panders to this male gazing in good many ways, so let’s not only pin the Indian men to the dart-board.
Lastly, i am an Indian, and India does not even know it’s basics about being “tourist friendly” and continues to be ignorant about this, so, let us not be falsley proud of being a tourist destination.
Reblogged this on DrSapna and commented:
An interesting post. Many things the writer says are true including the Indian male gaze but she completely bypasses that such behaviour is more than a local cultural, social or religious product, that globalisation and the free market have actually underscored even more the idea of Indianness and ‘the other’; that ideas of feminism are deeply entrenched in the Indian imagination, male or female, as a white, Western concept of disregard, disrespect and disruption. The sustained portrayal of Caucasian women as loose and easy then becomes a product of all the above, unfortunately.
….maybe this calls for a post of my own because it is beyond the simplistic discourse that Ms Delaney presents. Thanks for the post anyway. Very brave.
Our countrymen have forgotten the basic — athiti devo bhava .
its our culture to respect the guests as beings in whom God is present .and should be treated with full respect irrespective of what is portrayed in bollywood which is a fiction of a few hours to entertain ….maybe it would be good to put up signs in movies in all regional languages– to not let the minds of people generalize about other cultures based on what they see on screen, as it is for a small time for entertainment only and has nothing to do with the representation of that culture . and that they must respect every foreign woman or man as a true guest to keep our friendly culture alive and not ruin the name of our country and also the livelyhood of millions of people who live from the tourisim industry .
Every bollywood movie should have such messages ,like in case of tobacco smoking and its related perils .
Indian men find it difficult that, that any (white, black, brown) women can talk, communicate and be in a company of men for the purpose of work, or for sheer fun of friendship etc., without being conscious of their sexuality. Indian upper caste men are most difficult to communicate with. They believe that their birth is a privilege to family and the world around them. Hence, association with them of any women (for that matter near relatives etc.) are to provide them some service, like for cooking food for them, washing their clothes, attending their errands. When women come across to them on equal footing, attempting to communicate with them like any other male fellow being, either they bluntly ignore her (if they do not find her association of any worth) or if they find her association sexually interesting, they will rightfully demand sexual favors in very uncouth way.In my life, I have found communicating with men very difficult. I have found, among st Indian’s, Maharashtrian men are better lot than south Indian men, and north Indian men. You feel very safe in remotest part of Maharshtra. I am of the opinion that, it is Varkari Sampraday, which involves women in bhakti movement may be the reason, why women are treated much better than Matriarchal south and patriarchal north of India.
That someone is talking about such issues that challenge the ‘system’ is admirable in itself. However I find this a too narrow, simplistic & flawed approach, ignoring much larger issues at hand – which is male perception of women in general perpetuated over centuries through ‘tradition’, media & all the tools available to the patriarchy; Indian male’s perception of ‘white women’ is unfortunately a byproduct of a much deeper issue, though I won’t deny that the way we treat/harass our tourists is quite appalling!
Meanwhile, Indian women are getting raped in India, regardless of their clothing or whatsoever, ‘pure’ or ‘impure’ – the tag of ‘loose women’ is only used as a blatant cover-up, a sham of a justification in certain cases. The millions of ‘pure’ housewives are being treated as much as ‘property’ as the ‘impure foreigners’ or ‘loose women influenced by western culture’ are. I would venture a guess that the domestic violence numbers would shock us as much as the number of rapes, reported or otherwise, do.
That being said, where the article completely fails however is in the comparison to the US. For one, cheer-leading is a sport, so its not meant to be ‘gratifying’? Oh c’mon! To hopefully demonstrate how narrow the viewing hole in this article is, maybe this will help. I find nationmaster a decent source of data, & though numbers aren’t the be all, end all, still here’s a titbit from there. Rape in India: 1.7 per lac (am sure the unreported numbers are much higher). Rape in USA 30.2 per lac. So Indian men’s perception of ‘white women’ certainly need to change – but more than that, much much more vital that that – men’s perception of women, ALL OVER THE WORLD, needs to change.
Why I’m probably stressing on this is that having a condescending view of a particular sub-group does not help the larger issue – just makes certain people feel, ‘ oh we’re not those guys; we’d never do such a thing’, when in truth, We ALL perpetuate the same stereotypes.
Just my 2c.
Finally a viewpoint which resonates with me!!
I’m surprised the article pins the entire burden of blame on Bollywood and ‘media’ without mentioning porn. I’m guessing porn featuring western women- arguably the ‘earliest’ available in India- has an equally large, if not a dominant role to play.
At the end of the day, movies depict what people already think- a celluloid validation of a societal mindset. I’m not sure if you can directly say, Indian men think western women are ‘easy’ because that’s how the movies show it. The reality is more complex than that.
Is there stereotyping in bollywood? Yes. Not just white women, bollywood stereotypes south indians, black men, gay folks, men, etc.
however any government mandate against it is really stupid. Same goes for ipl cheerleaders and porn. If you want to bring a change organize a boycott of products being advertised in ipl and bollywood. These intuitions will correct themselves.
It is a bold article and while it may have a polarized view of the reasons, it does hit upon issues that exist in the Indian society. There is a large section of the male population that tends to covet what comes across as independent, carefree, spirited. It could be an aspect of machismo or male chauvinism, a long history of patriarchy, and the desire to prove to himself that he can conquer. The object of desire to him is merely a trophy that satisfies the ego and gives him the bragging rights in friend circles.
I personally find it hard to believe that this happens because the white woman is taken to be “easy” picking because of the perception created by Bollywood, IPL or something else. An Indian woman would be equally vulnerable to the advances of such males. What might make a tourist white woman appear “easy” to the perpetrator is that he knows that a tourist does not have the local network that could defend her. Where he may think twice about going after an Indian woman, he would not feel the same going after a tourist. He feels he has the license to “kill”.
In my view, the flaw lies in the total failure of the Indian penal system. It does not have the spine nor the conviction to take the perpetrators of crime to justice. For laws to be effective and for a society to function properly, the punishment meted out has to be commensurate with the crime committed. The Indian justice system seems to be scared to punish appropriately. Most often, the punishment given to the perpetrators is merely a gentle slap on the hand. Whether it is for rape, or for a traffic violation, the only way to control the flagrant recurrence is to employ “punitive” measures that can deter the future perpetration of a crime. Look at what has happened after the Delhi gang-rape case. After all the big talk to gain political points, the law makers have actually created a draft which is a completely watered down version of the “bold” new way to tackle this menace. These law makers know very well that public memory is extremely short. One can rest assured that nothing will change on the ground.
Unless India gets really serious about tackling its issues, its problems will remain as compounded as they are. Crimes against women (whether white tourists or Indian) will continue until people are made to realize that they are responsible and accountable for their actions. This is the biggest difference between a western nation and India, where there are strong checks and balances elsewhere but not so in this country.
I agree with the point of the article and I’m glad to see someone’s talking about this issue regarding white women. But, like several other comments also pointed it, I think you miss other influences such as porn…! Which might also have played a role, probably even bigger than IPL and Bollywood, because of the late development of Indian productions with Indian actresses. Because of the complete lack of real and healthy sexual education (which is a genaral problem leading to harassment and other stuffs), the only access to sex is through porn for all boys and men in India. And in that porn, what do they see? 99% of white/blond actresses being mistreated, raped, having sex and loving it, doing all kind of degrading stuffs. I have been to India many times and I have Indian friends; somewhere along, in many male brains, blond European girls love sex and are always ready for it.
There is something that needs to be done really badly in the field of basic sexual education (=> respect, rights, etc) in order to counter-balance the influence of porn…
Old films certainly portrayed an ideal type for women to emulate but new films are different. Not that they are just and not patronizing but look for example in Cocktail, a veronica who enjoys sex and is open about it tries to confirm to the stereotypical ‘good indian girl’ when she falls for the character played by Saif and film unwittingly declares her a loser bcz she was not the ‘take-home’ girl. There is definitely violence- cultural violence against women in Indian Cinema and it is as much against women of color as it is against white women. Also stereotyping of people of the culture other than yours is a universal issue. Hollywood portrays Indian women as meek, dependent and at times raw and loud.
http://rmunikempanna.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/response-to-white-women-in-the-indian-imagination-on-kafila/ – Thanks to Rashmi for this excellent response to Alexandra.
I am surprised that Kafila published this piece. It fails to ask the tough questions that we should be asking – ideas and discourse on masculinity and male dominance. Rape is not a sexual act. It is an act of power over another. Rather than asking these questions, Alexandra seems to be trying to protect the “honor” of “white women”. Also, she is as guilty of stereotyping “Indian men” that she accuses of stereotyping “white women”.
Also, rather than lamenting over the homogeneity of the portrayal of western culture, maybe she should ask why that is the case – Increasing advertising, control of media by couple of corporate houses etc. She says, “Western culture continues to be homogenized and presented in a one-dimensional and offensive manner with the underlying message that Eastern culture is uniformly better than Western culture.” Ummm.. really?!?!? And what about Eastern culture in western media? Heterogeneous and balanced?
Good piece, but places too much influential power on Bollywood and IPL – granted that both have massive viewership, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the influence that the author grants them. I’d rather see more written on our colonial history, and how that phenomenon – a far more powerful force, in my opinion, on our culture – including how we see white women.
KS, Ram – your defensive responses to this post bring in factors from corporate media to colonialism to avoid addressing the point that Delaney is making – the objectification of white women by the IPL and Hindi cinema and the blatant sexual harassment and sexual violence faced by them in India. Why is it necessary to preface any statement about the sexism faced by white women in India with all the caveats about colonialism, the representation of the East in the West, sexism in the West etc.? As for the piece by Rashmi Kempanna that you praise, KS, I found it utterly confused – anyone who can use Fanon to justify sexism against white women really needs to rethink both her anti-racism and her feminism, not to mention her understanding of Fanon – including acknowledging Fanon’s limitations.
Other comments here have raised valid points of critique in solidarity with Delaney (like ‘Sanya’ for example ) but you both use colonialism and the portrayal of the East in the West and so on basically to dismiss her comfortably. (Rashmi adds in the piece to which you link, that Indian women junior artists in Hindi cinema have been “almost completely erased” by white women who charge less! Apart from the nonsensical nature of this charge, this might be the most non of non sequitors to avoid addressing the disturbing point that Delaney raises).
I am not disputing the fact that white women are objectified in IPL/ Bollywood. I think most people would agree that Bollywood/ IPL are extremely sexist forms of entertainment that often pit the chaste east against the non-chaste west. I find the link between this objectification and sexual crime problematic.
Delaney argues that perceived looseness/ easiness of white women feeds into sexual crimes against white women. I find this causality extremely weak. What about crimes against black women or dalits? What about a fear of consequence? What about plain old machismo and good old misogyny? This is why I mentioned asking questions on dominance.
Furthermore, I find the comments such as “who aren’t even talented dancers”, “actions of all lesser-educated Indians”, and “Sorry Indian men, but not every white woman wanders around in a bikini or such scanty attire” not only irrelevant but Delaney falls into the same trap of defending women’s honor and stereotyping Indian men.
On the IPL issue, would banning cheerleading not be the same as censorship? Or should we replace the “white women” with “brown women”. I think asking questions about why this is happening is important, no? Why doesn’t responsible advertising work? My comment on the depiction of homogeneity and superiority of the east over the west (and vice versa) is only to highlight that this is a larger issue here which is not uniquely Indian that effects both eastern and western media.
On Falon, you probably know more about this literature than I do. I stand corrected if this is indeed problematic. On Rashmi’s charge that white women charge less, you are right. I find this claim weak as well. Although I think she raises an important point – is it simply labour costs, or are they more “marketable”, or is there something gratifying about having “white women” grace our movies (?) Furthermore, I think Rashmi (as well as ‘Sanya’) is correct in pointing out that white women are privileged to some extent.
I don’t claim to have the answers but I wish Delaney’s piece contextualized violence, or even cultural portrayals instead of blaming the media (IPL/ Bollywood) for fueling harassment/ rape/ assault against white women.
One cannot oppose sexism by indulging in racism, but then Indians nay Hindus are the only people who can be based without impunity. What about rapes of white women by black men in USA or by Muslim men in Europe, will any white journalist will even dare to paint ALL men of those communities in same light, hell no. What about objectification of Asian women by your white nights?
Try looking into our attitudes against black women (and even men, for that matter).
For a case study, you can simply look at the products of any of our film industries here.
Personally speaking, that’s what I find much more disturbing than our attitudes towards “white chicks” and hyped up “rape culture”.
Not talking about women, not mentioning gender issues, east-west, education status… How come there is a place in 21st century with a level of normal every day violence so high and so tolerated by society and the world…and people keep going there and take the risk:( ridiculous. Do these people have any idea of human rights?
Excellent Article. Thanks For Sharing.
Nice article… Glad to read it.