(NOTE: This article was first published as an opinion piece in the Hindustan Times)
In the first two days that Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, visited India, she played football on the streets of Mumbai, laughing ruefully when a kick went awry. She looked on, intrigued, as her husband tried to cook a dosa for the first time.
She wielded a cricket bat, her face glowing with the joy of hitting a perfect six. She cut a cake with a sword and knelt on the steps of a water tank. She drew pictures with street children and mourned for terror attack victims.
And yet, the photo chosen for the front page of some papers across the country was of her caught in an awkward half-crouch. It is unclear what she is doing or feeling, her face isn’t even visible. The only thing remarkable about this picture is that her white skirt, blown upwards by the wind, is unintentionally revealing.
That’s how we like our women celebrities, you see. Caught off balance, stripped of their dignity, sexualised whether they like it or not.
Not for us the PR event pictures that come with the women’s approval, no sir. Where’s the fun in letting them control how the world sees their bodies? We’re fans of the accidental cleavage pics, the botched surgeries, the wardrobe mulfunctions. We dissect their clothing choices, rate their hairdos on a scale of one to ten, scrutinise their bodies for imperfections. And through the voyeuristic pleasure we get in constantly raising them up on a pedestal, and then dragging them into the mud, we feel we have power over them.
Kate may be a famous, powerful, globetrotting duchess, but she couldn’t stop us all from seeing up her skirt. Tee hee.
It’s 2016, people. How does our society still get away with degrading women like this? How do we not see the hypocrisy of loudly extolling gender equality on the one hand and objectifying famous women on the other?
Whenever we rank actresses against each other based on their red-carpet gowns or talk about how Hillary Clinton’s outfit made her look dowdy, we reinforce the notion that women’s worth lies in what they look like – and that all of us get to sit around the arena and judge that worth.
Every time attacks on a famous woman’s appearance are criticised, valiant free-speech activists come out of the woodwork to argue that once she chose to step into the public eye and reap the benefits of that fame, she forfeited the right to control the narrative about her. In other words, she asked for it.
Fair enough, fame does bring with it criticism and negativity.
But if there’s one thing she in no way agreed to compromise, one thing that cannot and must not ever be compromised, it’s the right to control how and which parts of her body are seen. If we wrest that away from her, it’s an act of sexual violation, and nobody asks for that when they choose to become a public figure any more than they ask to be raped if they choose to wear a short skirt, or ask to be squashed into a bloody pulp by a passing truck if they choose to step out on the road.
The good news is that society is waking up. More people are recognising that celebrities don’t live in a cultural vacuum, that the way they are laid out on front pages and flashed on screens for the consumption of the masses against their will is just another violation by a culture that perpetuates the harassment, stalking, catcalling and molestation ordinary women face everyday. Where once a picture like that would have passed without comment, today the outrage is immediate and visceral and multiplied a hundred times over on social media.
So to the people who decided to throw Kate’s dignity to the wolves in the arena, enjoy the tawdry thrill you just got. It won’t last long, you’re on the wrong side of history.
(PICTURE CREDIT: British High Commission, New Delhi/ Wikimedia Commons)