Portrayals of rape

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Indian mainstream cinema is replete with violence against women, and rape is routinely used as a device of both suspense and erotic titillation, as yet another component that engages rather than enrages. The brinkmanship of film-makers in dodging the censor and having their salacious say by sexual innuendo in songs and 'item numbers' is staggering. Photo: M. MURALI

The runaway success of 'Fifty Shades of Grey' suggests a new, guiltless leveraging of sexuality. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A demonstration demanding justice for the rape victims, in Guwahati on January 3. Photo: PTI

The commodification of the female body, it seems, is countered by its self-fetishisation. File picture of an ad. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

SHE boarded a bus in Munirka to return home to Dwarka, south-west of Delhi, after an evening show of Life of Pi. What the six men on it did to her on that ride, on the one hand, is unspeakably horrific, and, on the other, cannot be told brutally enough. The searing rawness of her hyper-real ordeal does not lend itself to allegory as a form of artistic cushioning which Yann Martel deploys in recounting the savagery that the young boy Pi of his fable (on which Ang Lee’s film is based) witnesses, adrift on the ocean after the shipwreck—and which she saw on the screen before all too real savagery with nothing imaginary about it struck her. The best we are able to do to summon up the will to contemplate this macabre act is to resort to medicalese to anesthetise our minds against the things done to her body.

The gruesome manner of it instantly made this rape more than a statistic. Through the 13 days that the life of the 23-year-old woman hung in the balance, along with the anger and indignation that hit the streets of Delhi and other cities and towns, and beyond the incredibly callous comments by politicians of the right, left and centre, was a sense of stark helplessness, a desperate search for meaning. It was easier to say what this act was not than to find a description that fit its execrable extent. A TV anchor called it beastly—unfairly to animals which do not, except in horror movies of mutant creatures, act with anything like perverse cruelty of this kind. Rape and gang rape seem to have become insufficient, reductive terms, partly because they do not capture the complex cruelty of the physical and psychological violence and violation inflicted, and partly because they continued to take place with almost commonplace frequency in the same capital and other parts of the country during this same period that the popular media and mind space were suffused by a fog of grief alongside ritual expressions and demonstrations of blame and atonement.

There were intimations of what some blogs called a “Tunisian moment” in the street remonstrations. That prospect apparently proved too irresistible for some TV channels which took to working the crowd. Prodding, often rhetorical, questions only amplified, instead of interrogating, the clamour for rapists to be hanged, or at least castrated. There was mediated consensus on the need for fast-track courts, but, it would seem, with a hanging judge at the end of the track. Some respondents were for even quicker, summary dispensation of justice like spot lynching or bobbitisation or dismemberment Saudi style; one young man wanted the Delhi rapists to be put through prolonged pain and suffering, commensurate with what they inflicted on the woman, before they were killed. All this was part of both the studio discussions and the field vox pop-cum-dipstick surveys meant to convey the popular mood. Given that mood, no one, wisely, offered the routine homily that the law will take its course. Given that mood, there may have been tacit approval rather than opposition if the rapists had been killed in a police ‘encounter’—like the cab driver in Coimbatore, a couple of years back, accused of killing two sibling children after raping the girl.



Fixated approach

There can be no quarrel with television studio hosts and anchors, often doubling as editors of their channels, plunging headlong into a public cause and, as in this case, forcing the issue in terms of a rethinking and recasting of the legal process and apparatus to ensure that there is certainty of justice, and without undue delay. They, undoubtedly, also played an admirable role in keeping the issue live on their screens and alive in the public mind, so that the government and the authorities could not look the other way. But the fixated approach to the story as one of crime and punishment, of law and order, made for a sense of cultural and social distancing ignoring, or being in denial of, the question of why there are so many rapists in our midst in the first place; even going by the reported cases which must be a gross underestimation, there is a rape perpetrated at least every half an hour somewhere in the country. A question like that hardly gets any play in the language game of contemporary television where, for a good part, hortatory declamations pass for anchoring and shouting matches pretend to be panel discussions. Anxiety and angst ruled the studio floor as much as the street, and the effect, in sum, was of a collective baying for blood. Indeed, it is a moot point whether the coverage of the street was to that extent a misrepresentation because the protest was one of quiet and dignified pain for the most part, which should have made for more restrained, more reflective television.

There were truly moving, edifying moments too. In one studio discussion, a gang rape survivor who had cast anonymity aside spoke with unblinking fortitude about the traumatic experience she was put through when just 15 years old. Her example held up the hypocrisy of social acceptability to ridicule. She was clear that if anyone should be ashamed and be hiding away, it should be the rapist, whereas our moral and social conditioning pushed the survivor into a state of absent presence.

Sexual power over and violence against women is coded into our popular culture and media as much as into our social relations. What Sarah Projansky says about the United States in her influential work Watching Rape: Film and television in post-feminist culture would be as applicable in our context: “Representations of sexual violence pervade our social lives, occupying both public (eg. movie theatres) and intimate (eg. living rooms) spaces and defining gendered… social relations. Whether this ubiquity naturalises depictions of rape for us so that we hardly notice them, draws our attention to them so that we feel overwhelmed by their presence, or places us somewhere in between along this continuum of awareness, it is impossible to avoid encountering representation of rape often in our daily lives.”

Indian mainstream cinema is replete with such violence, and rape is routinely used as a device of both suspense and erotic titillation, as yet another component that engages rather than enrages. The brinkmanship of film-makers in dodging the censor and having their salacious say by sexual innuendo in film songs and the so-called ‘item numbers’ is staggering. Even more dangerously, filmic versions of repressive social mores tend to sanitise and legitimise gender subjugation and weave them seamlessly into modern life. The katta panchayats of Tamil cinema and TV serials, for example, come across as quaint rural institutions enjoying diehard local loyalty whose guardians are powerful but benign men who protect the life, limb and property of all under their care and keep the affairs of the community on sylvan even keel. In reality, however, much like their khap counterparts in the north, these are ruthless extra-legal bodies which enforce their writ on those living under their watch in supersession of their constitutional and legal rights, and perpetuate systematic caste and gender discrimination and oppression.

Sexual subjugation of the woman is so much second nature to our culture that it is, except where it is self-consciously challenged or resisted, the given in our media representations. At the same time it is a closet trait, not apotheosised by art like in the West. Rape, for instance, is a running thread in Greek mythology in which Zeus is, as Eva Keuls (the author of The Reign of the Phallus) calls him, “the master rapist”: she has this anecdote about a visitor to Athens curious to know why people there often use the expression “By Zeus!” being told “because so many of us are”. In Greek and Roman Renaissance art, like Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women, or Titian’s Rape of Europa, the rape imagery is not so much gruesome as heroic and celebratory.

Intellectual representations

Social, legal, cultural, and representational responses to sexual exploitation of, and violence against, women are clearly disparate and contextual. The challenge lies in unifying them to upend the archetype of patriarchy. As Susan Brownmiller noted in her seminal work of the 1970s, Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape, “man’s discovery that his genitalia would serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries in prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe”. There are differences too in intellectual representations of the violence intrinsic in rape. Susan Brownmiller held that rape was an act of violence not sex, a view not shared by subsequent intellectual feminists and post-feminists.

Michel Foucault too raised a hornet’s nest when he reflected along similar lines in a round table discussion in 1977 (quoted by Ann Cahill in her essay ‘Foucault, Rape and the Construction of the Feminine Body’ in the Winter 2000 issue of the journal Hypatia), when he sought to divest rape of its sexual element for purposes of legal punishment: “ …in any case sexuality can in no circumstances be the object of punishment. And when one punishes rape one should be punishing physical violence and nothing but that. And to say that it is nothing more than an act of aggression: that there is no difference in principle between sticking one’s fist into someone’s face or one’s penis into their sex…. There are problems if we are to say that rape is more serious than a punch in the face, because what we are saying amounts to this: sexuality as such in the body has a preponderant place, the sexual organ isn’t like a hand, hair or a nose. It therefore has to be protected, surrounded, invested in any case with legislation that isn’t that pertaining to the rest of the body…. It isn’t a matter of sexuality, it’s the physical violence that would be punished, without bringing in the fact that sexuality was involved.” Apart from the speciousness of the argument especially in its analogy of forcible sexual penetration and a punch in the face, it seeks to wish away the fact that rape is also constitutive of the construct of vulnerable feminineness. As Ann Cahill, disagreeing of course with Foucault, points out, “insofar as the threat of rape is ineluctably, although not determinedly, associated with the development of feminine bodily comportment, rape itself holds a host of bodily and sexually specific meanings”.

Meanings of womanhood and articulations of her body continue to be contested and renegotiated at the cusp of a globalised consumerist culture and a post-feminist assertiveness. They are counterintuitive in terms of the common understanding of the male gaze. The runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey and other novels in the Fifty series by E.L. James, which walk the thin line between sadomasochistic sex and pornography, coupled with the fact that their author and the overwhelming majority of their readers are women over 30 years of age, suggests a new leveraging of sexuality that is hedonistic without guilt. The commodification of the female body, it seems, is countered by its self-fetishisation. “Advertising,” as Sarah Projansky, points out, “contributes to this version of post-feminism, celebrating women’s ‘equality’ and their access to ‘choice’ (feminism), while marketing commodities that call for and support constant body maintenance (femininity).”

In this new consciousness, the tease is taken out of Marshal McLuhan’s pun that “advertising is an environmental striptease for a world of abundance”. In the brave new world of explicit expression, embedded messages may have diminishing returns and we may no longer need to worry about what Wilson Bryan Key in his book Subliminal Seduction calls “the compulsion of the admen to dunk all their products in sex by erogenising every contour of every bottle or cigarette…”.

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