What role does gender stereotyping play towards sexual violence?

There has been much debate on the rise of instances of sexual violence in modern times but this violence is not new to human society. The absence of consent is what highlights the violence in rape. This violence is perpetuated through the belied stereotyping in popular culture. According to Saunders (2001), sexual violence has been a plague in society since Roman times, and the first instance of rules enforced against it can be traced as far back as medieval England.

Popular culture has not been immune to these notions of violence and rape has been depicted in the work of various artists and writers from early Renaissance artists like Albrecht Dürer to William Shakespeare to more recent work by Lynn Higgins and Brenda Silver. The previously veiled vulgarity and brutality of the act was perhaps best uncovered and depicted in popular culture by renowned feminist Frieda Kahlo in her 1935 painting ‘In a few small nips.’ However these depictions were not common place and often artists dealing with notions of sexual violence were considered ‘rebels or outcasts.’

Thornhill and Palmer (2000), argue that from a behavioral biologist perspective the act of rape is a reflection of repression. This is the repression of emotions or the chauvinistic repression of women or perhaps a combination of both? Indian popular culture is an ideal reflection of this repression coupled additionally with overt sexualization which only adds fuel to the fire of emotional repression, which constitutes to a vicious cycle of continuous perpetration of sexual violence.

Gender stereotyping and the continued importance place on compliance with archaic norms of masculinity and feminity only continue the cycle of repression. Bollywood plays a critical role in the shaping of popular culture. While there have been a number of movies which have helped in the empowerment of women, the majority of the popular films continue to portray women as glamor dolls. The issue is not only the way Bollywood stereotypes women but also how it stereotypes men. There is an innate aggression that forms a frame for the typical Bollywood hero which is portrayed through fights they have with the villain or with the aggression they display towards women, therefore normalizing the aggression.

While addressing notions of popular culture and Bollywood it would be prudent not to leave out music and the effect lyrics have on mentality of people. There have been various instances where people have taken grave offence to the lyrics of rappers and their almost obscene treatment to women. The lyrics other popular Bollywood song lyrics are equally offensive, particularly disregarding the vital component of consent or choice. These songs are often coupled with alcohol induced display of machismo by putting women ‘in their rightful place’.

The typical Bollywood male aggression is manifested best in his persistence when it comes to wooing a mate. ‘No means no’ is not a concept that Bollywood has familiarized itself with. The concerns are recurring narratives suggesting that Indian women don’t really mean what they say when they resist sexual overtures. This is true because the impression that Bollywood portrays is that persistent stalking and following will eventually lead her to  succumb thereby giving impression that although she was saying ‘no’ what she meant was ‘yes’.

This is often a result of what the society has deemed as rules for women, where her role is that of housekeeping. It is these newer ideas of modernity that irks these macho men because her independence misplaces their own bigoted perceived role in society. This ultimately draws back to allowing women the choice to say no. The 2015 Vogue Empower video highlights this very notion, expanding it beyond just gender violence to the overall role of women in society – that women ultimately have a choice. It also addresses another important idea, that the role of women cannot change unless men are also involved in this change.

Gender violence is not just illuminated by systems of male dominance that put men over women, but also by systems of inter-male dominance, where men dominate other men, sometimes through class relations, sometimes through race relations, but also just men who are more conventionally masculine can dominate men who are not. Men need to join the debate on gender equality because it is not just a movement to stop violence against women but also addresses issues where men were themselves at some point victims of bullying, harassment, gay-bashing, violence, sexual assault, abuse when they were kids, or they saw their mothers and sisters getting beaten up by fathers.

Often times, guys who were not conventionally masculine were punished or marginalized for it, especially when they were young. This is further supported by Herwees (2015), whose study found that there is evidence that the boys and the men who are rewarded for being football players, and other aggressive athletes, are more likely to be involved in off-field violence, including violence against women and people who play other sports or don’t play sports. While addressing a response strategy, it is therefore essential to understand the problems with violence and there particular association with institutionalized gender roles that are furthered by popular culture. It is thus critical that Men are actively involved in the talk about consent and bystander behavior and domestic violence, if there is any hope to make headway in effective prevention strategies.

(This is the first article of a two-part series on gender violence by Rushva Parihar)

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Rushva Parihar is a development professional working with the United Nations University – Merit, Maastricht.