'Worse than prostitutes' and other slurs hurled at women actors: Neither new nor fair

For decades, women from the film industry have been characterised as 'prostitutes' and 'homewreckers', discouraging many from taking up the profession.
 'Worse than prostitutes' and other slurs hurled at women actors: Neither new nor fair
'Worse than prostitutes' and other slurs hurled at women actors: Neither new nor fair
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Following costume designer Neha Gnanavel's Twitter rant against some heroines who allegedly behaved "worse than prostitutes", E Sambashiva Rao, a Telugu TV anchor on TV5 asked actor Posani during an aggressive debate if the film industry didn't have "brokers" and "whores".

After her tweets caused an uproar, producer Gnanavel Raja's wife said that she was only speaking about a few heroines who were "homewreckers" and that she hadn't vented out because of what was happening in her own home. Meanwhile, TV5 apologised for the language used by their TV anchor. 

The two instances may seem like unrelated incidents but in fact, they are very much in consonance with how women in the film industry are viewed. 

'Worse than prostitutes'

The greatest insult one can throw at a woman in a patriarchal society is to say that she is worse than someone who offers sex for monetary benefit. In India, the vast majority of commercial sex workers are women and trans women. Several of them are in the profession because they were trafficked or have been forced to take it up due to poverty and lack of livelihood opportunities. They also face horrific abuse in the hands of customers, partners, brothel owners, law enforcers and others.

While being a 'prostitute' is considered shameful, their (mostly) male visitors are only euphemistically referred to as 'customers' or 'clients'. It's only shameful to sell sex, not buy it. 

When it comes to the film industry, where women are routinely objectified on screen, their bodies are considered to be public property by their colleagues as well as the audience. Remember the Times of India infamously defending their atrocious tweet on Deepika Padukone's 'cleavage'? They termed her a 'hypocrite' for slamming their offensive tweet while she had no issues 'exposing' her body otherwise. They didn't quite seem to get her point about consent at all.

Apart from the objectification that happens on screen as a direct consequence of the means of production in the industry being controlled mostly by men, the film world is also known for its 'casting couch' culture. 

In fact, it's only recently that we've started calling the 'casting couch', an arrangement by which women in the film industry provide sexual favours for work, by the term 'workplace sexual harassment'. For several decades, the 'casting couch' has featured glamorously in gossip columns in film and entertainment magazines. It was seen as part of the exciting behind-the-scenes sleaze rather than a patriarchal structure whereby women are given a rather limited choice - sleep with the men or forgo work opportunities. 

It's not surprising at all then that male members of the film industry like Thangar BachchanChalapathi RaoSuraj and so on have equated their women colleagues to sex workers and strippers in the past. 

'Don't women have any agency?'

While several women actors have started sharing their experiences of misogyny on screen and off it - Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Parvathy, Rima Kallingal, Taapsee Pannu, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, Sruthi Hariharan, Aishwarya Rajesh, Radhika Apte...to name a few - there is resounding silence from their male colleagues about it.

Many women actors have also said that it IS possible to survive in the film industry without needing to provide sexual favours. However, they have acknowledged that this may mean they lose out on opportunities and may build a reputation for being "difficult". 

Actor Sruthi Hariharan, for instance, said at the India Today South Conclave that she was told she'd be "exchanged" among five producers if she signed the Tamil remake of a Kannada film she had starred in. When she declined to be part of the project and gave it back to the man who'd told her this, she said, the offers from the Tamil industry stopped abruptly.

The Tamil Film Producers' Council did not say a word about Sruthi's statements. 

The expectation to provide sexual favours in return for work and opportunities exists across industries and fields. The Raya Sarkar list on sexual harassers in the academia and the subsequent debates it unleashed, is the most recent example of this fact. However, when it comes to the film industry, the women in question are already commodified in the public eye. Being celebrities, the coerced sexual favours are deemed "affairs" rather than seen for what it is - workplace sexual harassment. 

Women do have the agency to say yes or no but let's remember that this 'agency' exists within a culture which does not punish men for seeking sexual favours as a matter of right and in fact, rewards them for it. It is the women professionals who pay the price for standing up to this toxic culture - no support from the industry, opportunities drying up, derision from the public for being in such a 'cheap' profession, or as in actor Athithi's case, leave the industry forever. The 'agency' we speak of, therefore, exists within a very narrow spectrum.


Another accusation flung at women actors is that they're 'homewreckers' for having consensual affairs with 'married men'. Neha Gnanavel isn't the first person to toss around the adjective. The 'other woman' is presented as the manipulative 'seductress' who took away the husband and father from his loving family.

When Sridevi passed away recently, there was much theorising on how producer Boney Kapoor's ex-wife Mona, had called her to an early grave from the beyond as vengeance. 

It's not uncommon for consensual extramarital affairs to happen at the workplace, whichever industry it may be. In the entertainment industry, where men and women work in close proximity and often travel together for long stretches of time, it is all the more prevalent. 

However, it is ridiculous to pin the blame of an extramarital affair solely on the 'other woman' and excuse the married man who is, actually, the person who has flouted his promise of staying monogamous to his wife. It is not about who is 'right' or 'wrong' but about who has broken a promise or someone's trust in them. The argument that 'women are women's worst enemy' is merely an extension of the same-old 'boys will be boys' line - men will do whatever they please, it is the women who are to be blamed for their behaviour.

Extramarital affairs are messy; they often cause damage to the people around the couple and one cannot say that it's only about them. It cannot be when one partner is in a legal institution like marriage. Nevertheless, characterising a consensual relationship, however problematic, as one-sided and brushing away the compliance of the married man in question is just dishonest and escapist. 

The reason why many families even today hesitate to encourage their daughters to join the film industry is the unflattering labels that are applied to the women who are part of it. The unfairness of the situation is all the more heightened when people from within the family industry, who are well aware of how it functions, selectively indulge in the labeling, too. 

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