Who’s Afraid of Being ‘Sexy’?

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Celebrating or deconstructing the word is unlikely to change our attitudes towards women or sex

Nishita Jha
Correspondent

Illustration: Samia Singh

WE DISCOVERED this week that Mamta Sharma, chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), is a shy and aspiring third-wave feminist. Right out there with the writers at Bitch magazine in Jaipur, Sharma (momentarily) thought it might be a good idea to appropriate a term considered derogatory to women, and redefine it instead of feeling squeamish. “Own it, girls,” one could almost imagine her high-fiving over the podium of the Gateway to Future seminar. Her statement, just in case you didn’t notice the dailies screaming, was: “Boys pass comments on girls terming them sexy but sexy means beautiful and charming. We should not see it in a negative sense.”

Unfortunately for Sharma, who is possibly a closet admirer of the feminist punk group Riot grrrls and author Inga Muscio in her personal life, being the chairperson of NCW leaves little room for third-wave interpretations. All hell broke loose when Sharma said her bit. Terapanth members, who organised the seminar, were annoyed because Sharma’s comments drew attention away from their event (“Everybody is discussing her comments while ignoring statements of other speakers,” sulked an anonymous event organiser to a national daily). Thereafter, activists and political leaders began pressing for Sharma’s resignation. Kavita Srivastava, head of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, stated that Sharma’s comments promoted eve-teasing and violence against women. Within a few hours, Sharma was transformed from a potentially cool mother-figure telling young girls to ‘lighten up’ into a misguided leader with no sense of the trials women face while dealing with sexual harassment routinely. Predictably, she was soon clumsily backfooting, explaining that her comment was blown out of proportion for political gains, and was in no way a defence of “roadside romeos”.

It doesn’t take an academic to point out that a word gains significance only in the context in which it’s been used. We may not be comfortable with loaded words (no matter how palatable) yelled out to us on the street, but we may like coarser ones in private. Hence reinterpreting the word ‘sexy’ in a context-less vacuum, can neither change our attitudes towards sex nor women.

The other argument, used to position Sharma as a promoter of the commodification and violence against women, follows the same spiral that all our debates on feminism, whether they address SlutWalks or bringing ‘sexy’ back, do — how can we discuss the choice to be provocative, when more important rights of so many women are being routinely trampled on? In this aspect, Sharma is no champion for the third wave either, choosing to couch sexiness with the more anodyne terms, ‘beautiful’ and ‘charming’.

Rape, daily harassment, abuse (sexual, but also economic) and humiliation are certainly the most urgent matters at hand for us to deal with. But there is also the danger of leaving out the other — smaller but no less critical narrat ive — of the ‘elite’, of women who work in cities, of women who like to drink, smoke and visit clubs, women who like to be sexy — and negotiate the tricky terrain between sex-positivism and patriarchy every day.

When Sharma asked women to stop taking offence to being called sexy, she did not exhort them to embrace their desires, redefine sexiness with a good dose of individuality or feel empowered in any way. Instead she told them that the boys mean well when they label you, and that it’s alright to be called sexy since it doesn’t really mean sexy at all.

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
nishita@tehelka.com

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