The male entitlement beneath ‘well-meaning fan advice’ for women actors

Many fans of actor Anupama Parameswaran are upset, particularly men, after she posted pictures in romantic poses from her latest Telugu film ‘Tillu Square’. Such moral policing of women actors on social media isn’t new and this culture of entitlement affects not only celebrities but ordinary women too.
The male entitlement beneath ‘well-meaning fan advice’ for women actors
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Many fans of actor Anupama Parameswaran are upset. Particularly, men. Anupama, who just turned 28, has been posting pictures of herself that they don’t approve of. The actor made her debut with Alphonse Puthren’s coming-of-age drama Premam (2015), playing the high school crush of its hero (Nivin Pauly). Recently, she has been promoting her upcoming Telugu film Tillu Square, a romantic crime comedy, where she stars opposite Siddhu Jonnalagadda.

But, the posters, featuring Anupama in romantic poses along with her co-star, have led several fans to comment negatively, asking her why she was wearing “such” clothes and telling her that they cannot accept her in “such” roles. Many fans said that they’re disappointed and that they’re unfollowing her social media accounts. Her latest post that features her celebrating her birthday on a beach has also drawn such comments, with one user claiming that she is losing fans because of such pictures. In contrast, pictures of the actor in “modest” or traditional clothing are full of approving comments.

Such moral policing of women actors on social media isn’t new. Previously, actor Anaswara Rajan received negative comments and cyber abuse for posting pictures of herself in shorts. Following this, several women actors in the Malayalam film industry stood by her with the hashtag campaign #womenhavelegs. But, clearly, no matter how many times it’s been said before, male entitlement over women’s bodies – especially those who are in the public eye – continues to persist. 

Social media is indeed a double-edged sword and anyone who chooses to be on it runs the risk of exposing themselves to bullying and harassment. But, what’s unique to instances such as Anupama’s case is that those leaving these comments assume that they’re speaking from a position of care and love. They believe that they’re offering well-meaning advice to the actor. Actor Parvathy once had a stalker who claimed that she was in trouble with the mafia and wanted to “rescue” her. He even alleged that she was chatting with several men on social media through a secret account and that such behaviour wasn’t in her interest. 

Male actors, in general, are celebrated for their versatility. Be it Mammootty or Fahadh Faasil, their ability to play villain or hero, Good Samaritan or psychopath, draws only appreciation from the audience. Their physical transformations and the display of this are also encouraged – several male actors regularly post shirtless pictures of themselves on social media and are not shamed for it.  However, female actors are still viewed through the narrow prism of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. That is, they’re either seen as sweet, chaste, angelic, modest, and “good”, or as seductive and “bad”. So much so that a woman actor is expected to live up to her on-screen image in real life, too. If they post photographs that display their body, it is assumed to be attention-seeking behaviour and duly called out. Their age doesn’t matter either. Actor Rajini Chandy, for instance, was slut-shamed for doing a “glamorous” photo shoot at 69. In contrast, ageing male actors are celebrated whenever they attempt to look “youthful”. 

Body-altering/anti-ageing treatments and surgeries are common across genders in the entertainment industry. But once again, it is the women – who are held to an impossibly high standard for their physical appearance – at the receiving end on social media for undergoing these procedures. 

The entitlement shown by fans becomes all the more acute when a woman actor is married, especially if she’s married to a popular male star. Take a look at actor Jyotika’s Instagram post where she’s uploaded a song from her upcoming Hindi film Shaitaan. The song shows a family travelling in a car, and Jyotika, who plays Ajay Devgn’s wife in the film, indulges in some playful romance with her co-star. The scene is clearly from the film and the two actors are playing their respective characters. While many have welcomed Jyotika’s return to Bollywood, there are others who have commented saying they want to see her paired with Suriya, her real-life husband. Still, others have questioned her decision to shift to Mumbai. 

Just how absurd can this entitlement get? One only needs to visit Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s Instagram to know. Several Salman Khan fans routinely post the actor’s name and photos beneath her pictures, only because the two of them dated way back in the late ‘90s – a relationship where Aishwarya later said she was physically abused. Some fans even morph Salman Khan into photos of Aishwarya with her daughter. 

It’s easy to be dismissive of such displays of sexism and misogyny on social media. After all, anybody can hide behind an anonymous handle and say whatever they want. But, the volume at which this happens and the frequency of such instances show how normalised these comments have become. Women actors are expected to develop a thick hide to survive it or conform to fan expectations on how they should dress and live their lives. How many comments can they possibly flag or how many accounts can they block? Moreover, social media platforms are notorious for their inadequate policies in curbing online harassment and bullying. 

Such a culture of entitlement affects not only celebrities but ordinary women too – it is the same regressive attitude that leads to gendered crimes against women, where men believe they are justified in assaulting a woman because she “asked for it”. Not surprisingly, these men too use the language of love and care to defend their actions. 

Social media is a reflection of what we’ve become as a society. Ignoring the malaise we see on the internet isn’t a solution. Actively calling it out and taking a stance is necessary if we’re to see any change at all. If you’re a fan who is truly invested in an actor’s welfare, maybe consider the possibility that they’re an individual with their own mind first? 

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

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