Indian parents don't want their kids to read Agent Rana — but it's important to ask why
There needs to be a deeper exploration of what parents actually have a problem with when their children read stuff like Agent Rana – is it that they want to protect their children from the very concept of sex, or do they have a problem with the way genders are continuously (mis)represented in popular culture?
In September this year, the Times of India released a graphic novel called Agent Rana that would be published in the print edition of the newspaper. It is a spy thriller that seems to be loosely modelled on James Bond (forgetting that it was originally written in 1953 and is currently redundant AF). The comic, that circled around manliest man Agent Rana, a “seductive, treacherous starlet” called Husna, and a reporter called Alia, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, and has even led to a 21st century version of the Dandi March, that is, a Change.org petition. What was the hullabaloo about? Well, it mainly stemmed from parents who did not want their kids to read what was deemed as the “sexually explicit content” in the comics.
Mmm, sexually explicit content. Bet most readers immediately left this page and frantically typed in “AGENT RANA SEX” into Google while simultaneously unzipping their pants. We are a pretty sexually frustrated country, after all. I did something pretty similar (without the pant unzipping – this was all for research purposes, after all) when I started writing this piece. The more comic panels of Agent Rana I looked at, the more I couldn’t control involuntary snorts of laughter.
To give you guys a sneak peek, here are some choice lines from the graphic novel that people have had a problem with:
“My hero, you were masterful with them tonight. Now I will make it worth your while.”
“I will give you the time of your life in bed tonight.”
“I will keep the bed warm for you.”
In a country that’s pushing out millions and millions of babies each year, I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing AT ALL for children to be reading “sexually explicit” comics – these can educate about sex and sex positivity, sexuality, heteronormativity, reproduction, contraception, etc. In the Netherlands, sex education can start as early as when kids are four years old, whereas in India, the very concept of sex education is seen as immoral, and our politicians instead want schools to focus on “yoga and Indian cultural values” instead.
The problem that I actually had with Agent Rana wasn’t that it was sexually explicit as much as it stereotyped, was misogynistic, and had female characters who were overly sexualised. For one, a brief scroll down the graphic novel’s Facebook and Twitter pages gives one a glimpse into how the artists view men as opposed to women. The hero, Agent Rana, is a muscular young man with a handlebar moustache, and he is often dressed in suits or, at the very least, shirts. The other male characters have a variety of body types, and their representation ranges from shadowy figures to detailed features. The female characters, on the other hand, tick all the stereotypical boxes of beauty – they’re slim, fair, busty, pouting, and wear revealing clothes which show their cleavage even when they’re in the shadows. Their representations in the blurbs range from danger to subservience, from irresponsibility to sexual manipulation.
The “seductive starlet”, Husna, is often shown being in the nude or in skimpy clothes. Her dialogues and actions revolve around using sex as a tool to manipulate men to get her way. The social media posts about her have captions like: “Don’t look into those eyes, they will deceive you too!” and “Trust no one! Least of all Husna!” This kind of stereotyping of glamorous women (especially those who work in show business) as being sexually “loose” or manipulative is something that impacts both children and adults alike. It feeds into the stereotype that such women, while being sexually desirable, are not to be trusted. They cannot be kind, cannot fall in love, and definitely have an ulterior motive to everything they do.
The other prominent female character in the series is an investigative journalist called Alia. Now one would think that, given her profession, they’d focus a little on her skills in the social media promotions. Unfortunately, all we know is that she’s a former model who’s “in a relationship with her career”, and all we see is another sexy woman wearing a low cut top and pouting at the camera while curling her hair with a finger, with the caption “We are entering very dangerous waters.”
Bollywood doesn’t help either, with its docile, beautiful heroines being the “good girls”, and the loud, sexually active female characters being the “vamps”. The ramifications of these kind of representations play out in our lives in a very real way. Talk show hosts often ask with disbelief, “Can two actresses be friends?” (The question of two male actors being friends never arises, because it seems painfully obvious that despite being competitors, men can be friends with each other, while women who are deemed sexually desirable by society can never trust others like them.) Being “one of the boys” is a high compliment that can be paid to a woman: you see, it makes her “chill” and trustworthy, and not “catty” or “bitchy” like other women, who have been brought up on the basic tenet that they should not trust other women. And, of course, the women who dress a certain way, wear a certain amount of makeup, or have any kind of sexual history are seen by society by large as being immoral and “slutty”.
On the other hand, posts featuring Agent Rana himself have captions such as “The tenacity of the army, the dare-devilry of the airforce, the courage of the navy, all rolled into one man.” The visuals of this post have Rana in a variety of poses – shooting guns, making a frenzied call, pointing into the distance (no doubt, towards the solution of all the problems humankind is currently facing). His character, moreover, “thrives on danger and the company of strong women” and “loves women, fighting, and his country in no particular order”. I can’t make this shit up!
One also can’t deny the caste angle to giving this kind of dominant, male character a name like Rana – which is a historical title of Rajput origin signifying an absolute monarch. This especially stands out when juxtaposed with the choice of name for Husna, who lives up to her character’s provocative name (‘husn’ means beautiful, especially when referring to a woman’s body).
In my mind, there’s no doubt that this graphic novel is problematic. But I think there needs to be a deeper exploration of what parents actually have a problem with when their children read stuff like this – is it that they want to protect their children from the very concept of sex, or do they have a problem with the way genders (and especially women) are continuously (mis)represented in popular culture? The distinction is an important one.
The author of the series, Juggi Bhasin, wrote in a blog post that describes the graphic novel, that it was “a text which supported powerful visuals but was also evocative and stirring. This is what Agent Rana accomplishes day after day in the Times of India.”
I must admit, the only thing Agent Rana evoked in me was unexpected laughter and completely expected disgust that we still haven’t made the smallest step to move past the toxic male gaze in the 65 years since Ian Fleming wrote James Bond.
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