The Harvey Weinstein scandal should do more than evoke moral outrage.
It should even do more than ban the notorious “casting couch” or force production companies to implement more stringent personnel policies to protect women from sexual harassment and violence.
Mr. Weinstein’s scandal — and the mountain of accusations against other media executives — should challenge us to confront what’s actually rotten at the core of the film industry: its dehumanizing portrayal of women as sexual objects.
For the better part of the past century, both Hollywood and its Indian counterpart Bollywood have faithfully exploited sex as a fail-proof marketing strategy. Studios make billions of dollars every year producing movies that reinforce misogynistic stereotypes against women. International hits like the James Bond franchise have finessed it to such an extent that the films would not be considered complete without the so-called “Bond girl,” a character who epitomizes the concept of a woman as a sexual object.
In Bollywood, the exotic dancing, suggestive lyrics and the consistent portrayal of women using their bodies to achieve their goals — mainly to attract men — scream that women’s value in society is in their ability to satisfy male desire. And this is where this narrative turns dangerous, because it abets destructive social beliefs and behaviors.
“For most Indian men, social interactions with the opposite sex are severely limited. What they see on screen guides much of their perceptions of women,” opined journalist Ruchika Tulshyan on Forbes. “Portraying women as sex objects has far-reaching ramifications from normalizing eve-teasing and stalking, to glorifying rape and murder.”
On the evening of Sept. 21, a student was sexually assaulted in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) as she made her way back to her dormitory. Two men, riding in a motorcycle, approached the student and attempted to slip their hands inside her clothes. When she called campus security, instead of helping, the officers first ignored and then questioned her. Why was she out so late?
This incident sparked a sit-in protest with students blocking the campus’ entrance. Their demands were simple: install street lights and CCTV cameras, appoint women to campus security and form an educational committee on gender. But instead of listening, the university claimed the protest was politically incited — given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the area — and called the police. Clashes broke out, and the police charged the mostly female crowd with batons, injuring several students.
What’s most disturbing about the BHU incident is the attitude the university took toward the assault: It was the girl’s fault. The way she dressed, the time of day she had gone out, every decision she made brought the assault upon her. Sadly, it’s this type of thinking that colors much of the way men think of sexual assault in India and that promotes the stigmatization of victims.
In the past few months, India’s government has taken historic steps toward protecting women. In August, India’s Supreme Court passed a ruling banning the Islamic practice of instant divorce known as “triple talaq,” a monumental victory for Muslim women. And just last week, the Supreme Court ruled that sex with a child bride is rape, another decision that will free millions of girls from abuse and allow them to pursue a career and education.
However, as encouraging as these recent judicial moves are, there’s still much work to be done. Newsweek reports that India’s court system is overloaded — it can take up to 10 years or longer to prosecute a sex offender. Furthermore, India is just starting to implement a sex offender registry. So far, only one state has said it will track offenders in a public domain.
The truth is legislation alone is not enough to transform a society. It’s the values we hold as a society, within our institutions and our homes, that influence how we behave toward one another. Every boy, in every home, should learn to honor and respect every girl. And every girl should be reassured from a young age of her inherent value and potential.
While Hollywood and Bollywood are not directly responsible for the current climate of sexual violence in our cultures, they have certainly served as amplifiers delivering the message of the objectification of women into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of families. With influence comes the responsibility to not only pursue commercial interest, but pursue the best for society.
If the entertainment industry actually cares about the victims of sexual assault, it should reverse the insidious narrative of sexual objectification it has profited so much from.
• Joseph D’Souza is the moderating bishop of the Good Shepherd Church and Associated Ministries of India. He is president of the All India Christian Council and is the founder and international president of the Dalit Freedom Network.
Read more at Ending misogyny in Hollywood and Bollywood.