Objectification and evolution: Some thoughts on Deepika, TOI, and cleavages

The verbal pow-wow between Deepika Padukone and The Times of India has all the makings of an unreal argument. First, we had Bombay Times make an issue of her cleavage by drawing a circle around it to make it obvious; then we had Deepika claim this was not done, and make an elaborate argument about how she can wear what she wants depending on her role in a film, but that Bombay Times had no right to objectify her assets in the way they did; to which, the Bombay Times Managing Editor effectively said: look at all the skimpy stuff you have chosen to be photographed in. Why blame us?. You made an issue of our cleavage circle only because it is useful publicity for your forthcoming film, Happy New Year. Otherwise, you seem happy doing it.

The arguments from both sides appear unreal for several reasons.

I am not sure why Deepika even thought BT’s use of her cleavage was such a big deal when such pictures of her are a dime a dozen. If you are fundamentally comfortable with what you wear or in showing off some assets, what a newspaper chooses to do with such pictures is hardly that important. If the picture is there, it is there for all to see. The only crass element was the effort to draw attention to one part of the anatomy. But then, isn’t this done repeatedly in all films and magazine covers – but only more covertly? If Deepika is genuinely comfortable in what she wears, she should have laughed it off and dismissed it. By making an issue of it, she did not do her feminism any good.

 Objectification and evolution: Some thoughts on Deepika, TOI, and cleavages

Deepika Padukone. AFP

I also don’t understand why the TOI group made such an ego issue of her disapproval. If Deepika didn’t like it, that was that. What was the point in bringing out all of Deepika’s pictures in bare outfits in various magazine covers just to show that she was a regular in posing semi-nude. The TOI effort to say she has objectified herself even before is crass.

Not surprisingly, even feminists appear to be confused on where they should stand: with Deepika, since she is a woman, or somewhere else. Most are equivocating in some way. While the heart tells feminists they should back Deepika, they also wonder if this is a pure feminist issue where the rights and wrongs of the matter are all that clear. (Read two feminist views here and here)

I don’t know if it is wise to wade into an argument that appears to be largely between women, feminists or otherwise, but I can’t resist adding my evolutionary logic to what is going on by asking a few questions.

First, is objectification of women or their body parts the issue here? In a way, this seems obviously true, for, after all, there was an effort to focus on cleavage, etc. But does objectification lie in publishing a revealing picture or in the mind of the viewer? When you choose to wear something and consent to be photographed in it, can you really control what men – or even other women – may be thinking about what they see or imagine they see? You could say the very purpose of publishing a woman in meagre outfits amounts to objectification – but in that case you should not even shoot such photos or video. I submit that objectification can only lie in the eye of the beholder – and objectification is tough to gauge except by the viewer’s actions.

Second, should objectification be seen only negatively? Women would like to believe that they should be loved or appreciated for the whole package – beauty and brains – but this goes against the basic human tendency of preferring some aspects of a person more than the other. Otherwise, why is the face considered more important for beauty that some other parts? Also, how does it matter what men (or women) like about each other? After all, some women marry for status, some for money, and others for love, or for all three. But does marrying status not objectify the individual in some way? You may love his wallet not his brains or character. But love of this kind is as valid as any other kind.

Also, in the evolutionary design, isn't some form of objectification in-built into the mating/wooing process. In many, many species (but not necessarily humans), the average male is usually better looking than the female (consider lions, peacocks). The purpose of looking better, or doing mating dances, is often to entice the female. The females, when they are in a mating mood, exhibit or enact some physical characteristics (like displaying their behinds, or by emitting certain odours) in order to excite the male. Objectification seems to be a key element in the mating process. One should not pretend that the mating process is anything more than physical in most species.

In human patriarchal systems (most of the world turned patriarchal at some point of time in evolution), the whole process of mating behaviour has been inverted, where the female does the wooing by walking in certain ways or acting or wearing something provocative. It is also now well-established that women dress more provocatively during or when their menstrual cycle nears. The wearing of heels or the showing of cleavage, for example, emphasises sexiness. Women have learnt to do this because in a patriarchy, sexy women have an advantage over non-sexy women. They also discovered early enough in evolution that men are excited by a visual sense of female sexiness. Hence the objectification of women yields more dividends than the objectification of men. Women objectify other things about men, while men objectify physical aspects about women.

As patriarchy walks into the sunset, this process may reverse, with men doing more of the wooing and attracting. They will then seek to objectify themselves to woo females. The rush of men to parlours and botox suggests that this is beginning to happen.

I am not arguing that objectification is the key to sexual attraction, but it is certainly an important element.

What feminists should fight for is the right to be or wear what they are comfortable in. If showing cleavage is what they like doing, so be it. What men think about all this is not something they can control. Nor should they concern themselves with what others think unless it results in actions -- verbal or physical -- that affect them.

Updated Date: Sep 22, 2014 22:07:32 IST