“I just wanted to make a video about an emotional moment between two people in love. But then I thought why can’t it be two girls?" - This what Mumbai-based DJ and producer Nanok told GQ India when asked about his bold new music video "Lay You Down".
Featuring singer-song writer Ray Dee (Rehan Dalal), the video stars singers Anushka Manchanda and Monica Dogra in a bold and intense performance as lovers.
At the first glance, the footage seems aesthetically shot. It does not contain overtly titillating shots of women's breasts, and unrealistic expressions of ecstasy that are staple to "lesbian sex" portrayals which cater to heterosexual male fantasies. But Dolly Koshy, a Bengaluru-based IT professional and social activist who identifies as a lesbian, points out how the male gaze can also be perpetuated subtly:
“Not having the quintessential cleavage shots does not mean that there isn’t made for a predominantly male audience. At many points, the camera traverses through their bodies in a way the women’s faces are not even in the frame. In terms of body politics, you’ve got two women with model-like bodies representing this “intense” same-sex relationship. That’s hardly inclusive.”
So, this is what it boils down to: two heterosexual, conventionally feminine and good-looking women, getting hot and heavy with each other.
The problem here is not just the trivializing of the experience of gay women by reducing it to a narrow mold of what happens in the bedroom. Like any other relationship, non-heterosexual relationships are about much more than sex. But the sexualisation of lesbianism reduces the entire experience of many women to just that.
Lesbian porn is a popular genre among heterosexual men and references to this fact appear casually in mainstream media. Remember Chandler from "Friends" getting turned on when his female friends talk about strippers?
These virtual experiences also affect real ones. Marissa Higgins, for instance, recounts an incident for Huffington Post that illustrates how commonly this reduction happens. A man who was attending the same baseball game that Marissa was at with her wife, was visibly flustered looking at them as compared to other couples in the vicinity:
“I watched his eyes flicker to my hand in my wife’s and remain there for several seconds without blinking. They traveled up and down our bodies, unapologetic and unblinking. His eyes returned to mine, and they were wide. There was a flash of color in his cheeks. His lips ticked. I blinked. He furrowed his brow and dropped his eyes. He turned and sat quickly.”
Marissa writes that even though she and her wife were just two women sitting there holding hands, in the man’s eyes they were sexualized. In India, Section 377 effectively criminalises homosexuality by deeming consensual acts of sex as unnatural, reducing the relationships that exist in the non-heterosexual communities to just that. Sex.
Yes, sex sells. And it can be a powerful tool to talk about many things: sexual violence, rape, power dynamics and so on. However, in this case, the attention that the video has generated seems to be doing none of that. Nanok may have chosen to depict two women in love, but so far, it has not translated into conversation about the actual lesbian community.
This is not to discredit the effort which goes into acting, into shedding your skin to wear another’s, but so far, it has not translated into a discussion about inclusion or diversity. The attention continues to remain focused on the celebritIes and the fantasy that they play out which is inevitably for a largely male, heterosexual audience.
When Dolly posted about the video on social media earlier pointing out the audience bias, she got many responses on the post. While many agreed with Dolly’s point of view, one person didn't but pointed out another issue with the video:
“I think the issue with this video is that it is so unimaginative - like lack of story/props/ANY context. Even had it been a guy and a girl randomly doing stuff on camera against some monochrome background, there would be some cues about what the dynamic is between them.”
There is also silence where questions must be asked about the representation of same-sex intimacy and love played by actors and artists who actually belong to the community. It is not as if there is a dearth of talent in the community. But it is also no secret that the prejudice against individuals belonging to the LGBTQ community is very real and it isn't endemic to conservative societies like India.
One of the most well known American talk show hosts today, Ellen DeGeneres, was not immune to it either. When she came out as gay in 1997, it was not as if she was accepted immediately. At one point, Ellen could not turn the TV on without a comedian or TV show host making jokes at her expense, she told Daily Mail. ABC channel, which aired the show, started getting negative mail from various sections, including organized religious groups.
Ultimately, film and art are powerful tools because they represent the reality around us and also have the potential to broach difficult conversations. Representations of marginalized groups and silenced narratives are important but not at the cost of appropriating their real world experiences to suit the aesthetics of the majority. If all this sounds like too much analysis, here's a simple question: Would Nanok consider making a similar video for two gay men?
Note: Views expressed here are personal opinions of the author.