The Item Girl
By: Abeera Khan
Indian political activist and author Arundhati Roy does not expect the outrage against the
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infamous Delhi Gang Rape case to create any substantial social change. When questioned on her expectations of how India will react to its national shame, she commented: “I think it will lead to some new laws perhaps, an increased surveillance, but all of that will protect middle class women.” This cynical sentiment and its accompanying criticism of India’s class
dynamics is neither novel nor unwarranted. The nation’s disgust is as much related to the horrifying nature of the incident as it is the politics of victimhood. As Roy has repeatedly pointed out, systematic rape carried out by
state institutions like the military and police occur under a culture of impunity. When perpetrators are middle class men, or aligned with the state, sexual violence goes unnoticed or is ignored, especially if the victims belong to lower class or castes.
So what about the Delhi case has evoked attention and outrage? The answer, simply, is that although rape is universally condoned as a vile and violent act, it has been normalised against the most vulnerable segments of society, specifically lower class and caste women.Only when these acts of violence are committed against more privileged segments of society do we hear condemnation, and only then does the state take action. The broader implications of this process are ignored, namely the notion that some women deserve protection and outrage while others do not. This line of thought is blatantly apparent in Bollywood’s portrayal of lower class and caste women through the use of “item numbers.”
Item girls are actresses featured in Bollywood films’ extremely popular tradition of item numbers: a
musical performance featuring scantily clad women that has little do with the plot of the film and all to do with
using depersonalised and sexualised women’s bodies for marketing and promotion. These songs and their accompanying videos depict
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women engaged in a gendered performance of sexual availability and promiscuity. There is a long standing practice of coding item girls as lower caste or class through costumes and vernacular used in the song. Munni Badnam Hui, Chikni Chameli, and Kajra Re are hits that exemplify this pattern, which does not exist in a cultural vacuum. It is no coincidence that item girls tend to lack any connection to the plot of the film save to perform for the male gaze. Devoid of characterisation and without any consequence to the plot, item girls are depersonalised as their sole purpose is to entertain via a racy performance played to a catchy beat. The item number demonstrates how Bollywood routinely hyper-sexualises lower class and caste women without granting them their personhood. It exemplifies the lack of agency and control lower class and caste women have over their narratives, both in film and in the broader context of Indian society. The performance reflects and reinforces the oppressive status quo by normalising the sexualisation, dehumanisation, and violence that occurs daily against lower class and caste women. It alludes to a broader problem: the Indian public’s discriminatory and classed treatment of women’s narratives.
The item number’s hyper-sexualisation of lower class women conveys a grim reality. Just as item girls coded as lower class or caste lack any influence over a film’s plot, so do lower class and caste women lack any influence
on the sexual violence narrative in India. Sexual violence against women sparks outrage only when the victims are middle and upper class women, as these events evoke a “how could this happen to us?” mentality. The differentiated response displays how violence is normalised and vilified based on class and caste lines. It shows the exclusivity of public
outrage: some women are deemed worthy of our sympathy, others are not. To put it another way, middle and upper class and caste women are seen as deserving of protection and personhood, their lower class and caste counterparts are not. As Arundhati Roy points out, the disgust lies not in the act of violence itself, but who has fallen victim to the violence.
If any state, including India, is to see successful social change regarding the epidemic of sexual violence against women, it must face its own complicity. It is imperative that we recognise that sexual violence is as much an issue of class and caste as it is of gender. When tragedies like the Delhi rape case occur, we must situate these events within societal patterns and examine our own reaction and outrage. The public response evoked by the Delhi rape case reveals whose narratives we believe are worth telling. By prioritising one segment of a population’s suffering over another, whose experiences are we excluding? Who is granted and who is denied victimhood? And whose tragedies do we consider worth mourning?
 “Police, army rampantly use rape as weapon: Arundhati Roy.”