Riva Arora
I remember in 2016, I was moderating a panel on men and feminism in a hall packed with feminists. An elderly man on the panel (who I’d rather not name) made a statement to the effect of ‘women who expose their bodies, especially in films, are asking to be sexualised and molested’. A furore broke out as the man got heckled by a few hundred women. The ladies argued that women had the agency to represent their bodies as they felt appropriate and wearing revealing clothes does not tantamount to ‘asking for it’.
I was reminded of this as news about a child artist Riva Arora made it to the headlines this past week. While some condemned what they thought was an exploitation of a pre-teen who was apparently only 12-years-old, others felt that she seemed comfortable in her own skin, even as her mother clarified that she was a couple of years older than media reports.
In this fracas, there were many arguments that people didn’t speak of. One was the issue of consent. If Riva is an ambitious actor, making all the right noise, isn’t it her choice to represent herself as she wishes? Even if it is with older men, who also happen to be stalwarts in their field, is it wrong for her to project herself as older than she is to gain roles she deems befitting? Can the moves, lyrics, or clothing, that seem perverse to some, not possibly be a paycheck to her? Even if her mother (of course, we must conveniently find a woman to scapegoat for any issue) is pushing her towards a goal––even if it is to enjoy the collateral fame and money––can it also not be a woman supporting another woman in her career? Especially a mother encouraging her own daughter to pursue her dreams? Is it exploitation when both parties collude? Does the responsibility of representation lie on her, or with the audience that consumes content with their own biases? Has she consented to be represented in this way or not? Is she consenting to this portrayal or oblivious to it?
Has anyone asked the girl these questions before assuming the worst?
Look, we all know that it’s impossible to be a sexually liberal woman in India, or to even be a woman in India, unless you’re willing to negotiate the crass misogyny and judgement that will come your way. Whether you’re walking on the road fully covered, or gyrating to Hindi movie songs on social media, the male gaze will find you and bludgeon you. Like everything else in life, your reaction to this is not defined by your circumstances but your attitude. If a 12-year-old, or 15-year-old, is at ease navigating this flip side of celebrity, as much as she is relishing the limelight that comes with it, why must we infantilize her? Why must we assume that a girl who is on the ball does not understand the consequences of what she is doing? Is she really being systemically exploited, without any knowledge of her exploitation? Or is this perceived exploitation a path to liberation for her, a medium to access what she most desires? Is she being robbed of her childhood or using her age to an advantage she sees fit? Is she being exploited or emancipated?
And who is anyone to answer these questions when the subject at hand has already answered it with a clever post on jealousy?
Let’s not forget that girls today are maturing faster, they’re getting their periods earlier, they’re having sex earlier, they’re fighting for their rights earlier, they’re finding their calling earlier, and––despite its vagrancies––they’re living their ‘best’ life on social media much much earlier.
Instead of raging on behalf of a young talent who seems perfectly at ease with what she’s doing, how about raging for the hundreds of 12-year-olds who were raped over the last week? Instead of buying into stories that play to your confirmation bias, how about appeasing your voyeurism through positive stories of women lifting other women? Instead of raising women to believe in their own shamefulness why don’t we raise them to believe that in sexuality you can never be wrong, just be yourself, and that’s its beauty? Instead of condemning the male gaze how about first speaking of society’s gaze that condemns women before believing them? Instead of moral policing, how about policing for compulsory sex education in our schools for the 253 million adolescents in our country for whom sexual literacy is nil? Instead of exacerbating this problem of sexual independence or identity in women, how about drawing upon the idea of desire, as neither romantic nor sexual, but an urge to do something? Especially for Indian women who are expected to continue to pin their desire onto the matrix of societal expectations?
If we want men to realise that they shouldn’t be doing what they are doing, and women to understand that they should be more than what they are allowed to be, let’s begin by being those men and women. That’s all we should be asking for.
Meghna Pant is a multiple award-winning and bestselling author, screenwriter, columnist and speaker, whose latest novel BOYS DON’T CRY (Penguin Random House) will soon be seen on screen. 
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