Sherlyn Chopra: The first ever Indian lady to pose nude in Playboy

Sherlyn Chopra is making naked lady history by being the first Indian woman to pose nude for Playboy. And she’s getting a lot of criticism for this–not because she is supporting a misogynist publication that perpetuates ridiculous standards of sexy. No, that’s not why. Instead, she is getting criticism because some people believe she is hurting the view that Indian women should be modest and pure.

Playboy has always had this awkward relationship to feminism. Hefner is a sexist pig that lives off the objectification of women’s bodies and posits nudity as faux-empowerment–since you get paid for it! (He ignores the part where it is a sexist marketplace that believes a women’s greatest asset is that booty which allows for this “empowerment”).

But there’s also this awkwardness–Playboy has made visible types of sexuality and expression that were never seen before, and with that came some diversity, and the opening up of social conventions around sexuality. They just weren’t ones that were predicated on the equality of women.

Sherlyn Chopra made the decision to pose nude in Playboy despite some pretty tricky opposition. Firstly, Playboy is illegal in India, where Chopra works and lives (you can access it on the internet). Secondly, as an old friend put it on Facebook last night–Chopra is now seen to be diminishing a belief about “Indian women” globally–that they are modest and pure. This means woman’s sexual expression is not just bad for her or for other women, but it is bad for how the world sees Indian women. Wow, that’s a lot of pressure!

One woman told the Daily News, 

“At a time when innocent women across the nation from Gujarat to Guwahati have been subjected to sexual abuse and humiliation, one wonders if Sherlyn Chopra’s pictures wound a woman’s integrity,” media commentator Gayatri Sankar wrote.

“Isn’t it an irony that on the one side, as common women strive hard to safeguard their modesty, the Sherlyn Chopras encourage voyeurism?”

OK, well, it is true–sexual crimes against women in India is an epidemic and not just sexual assault, but forced marriage, sexual slavery, domestic abuse, retrograde marriage laws, etc. There are so many ways that women in India suffer at the hands of patriarchal ideas about controlling women’s bodies, sexuality and freedom.

However, blaming women for immodesty or sexual expression is harmful, retrograde and sexist. It relies on the belief that women’s bodies exhibit a sexuality that should be controlled and when it is not successfully controlled–they deserve what is “coming to them.” The undue pressure put on women to maintain an unrealistic vision of modesty and purity, that no one can live up to, is slut-shaming in different packaging. It’s a particularly toxic brand of nationalism–the idea that a woman’s purity and modesty is the core of her identity as it relates to her culture. And it has consequences in how women can function. It limits the visions women can have for themselves, their self-expression and control over their own bodies and sexuality. Ultimately, it produces the culture it is trying to control.

So, I am now forced into an awkward position where I have to defend Chopra’s decision to pose nude for Playboy in the face of misogynist ideas about women’s purity and modesty as it relates to Indian nationalism. Critique the retrograde and sexist ideas about sexuality that give a magazine like Playboy so much capital, fine. But not the women that choose to do it. Conflating a woman’s sexual expression with the purity or modesty of her culture is one of the roots of sexism and patriarchy.

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11 Comments

  1. Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Samhita, glad you posted about this.

    For me – and I’m sure this is true for many people – the awkward relationship with Playboy is all tied up with our perceptions of Hefner. As you point out, the Playboy empire is a true cult of personality. It’s synonymous with Hefner and his lifestyle. And he is, undoubtably, a complicated guy. From the interviews I’ve read, his position on objectification has remained remarkably consistent: People can be viewed as sexual objects. We should be free to look at each other, and feel desire based on purely superficial attributes. He’s gone on to say that this objectification should apply to men just as much as it does to women. And lastly, he’s stated that the act of judging someone on their looks shouldn’t affect how we judge them in any other way…..

    It’s easy to poke holes in this philosophy. Yes, very easy. For starters, he tends to only bother objectifying women who have certain attributes. Secondly, while he claims he’s all for “freedom to judge,” his business has been almost exclusively geared towards straight, cis men. There’s a lot more we could say about it….

    And yet, his adherence to this odd belief has probably led to a strange, two-pronged, seemingly self-defeating effect on how Playboy’s readers ought to view women:

    1) Women’s looks are judged against a catalog of centerfolds who are incredibly unoriginal and similar looking, and whose bodies are outside range of what most women would want to, or could, look like. While Hefner and his editors have occasionally strayed from the blonde, tan, thin, big fake breasts aesthetic (Dita Von Teese, Ms. Chopra), they have definitely perpetuated the unfortunate idea that all women ought to look like Barbie dolls.

    and yet….

    2) Women should have sexual agency, should be free to have sex without any sort of shame, and should never be punished for their sexuality. They should have readily available access to birth control, as well protected rights over their own bodies, including abortion rights. Early on, Hefner devoted many editorials, and a lot of money, to supporting birth control, abortion rights, sex education, and gay rights.

    Obviously, one effect doesn’t cancel out the other. More than anything, it’s probably led to societal confusion. However, it’s interesting to think about what legacy Playboy will leave behind. Will it be remembered as a force of rebellion, that allowed women more sexual freedom? Or will it be remembered more as a standard-bearer for airbrushed, cookie-cutter images of objectified women?

    • Posted August 1, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

      I don’t think these are two contradictory approaches at all. All I see is that the second set of initiatives are, in Hefner’s case, purely about increasing the availability of women to be objectified along the lines of the first. There seems to be a real danger among progressives in seeing the breaking down of inhibitions as something that is laudable in itself, without much substantive discussion about the ultimate view of women which it is working towards.

  2. Posted July 31, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much for this insightful article. I struggle with these issues myself on many levels, and I have to agree with you on this one.

  3. Posted August 1, 2012 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    It’s worth pointing out that India has it’s own fair share of sex workers. It has the world’s largest sex worker organization. Though it also has major issues with sex-trafficking. It seems to be one of those countries that shames no one for using sex services, or even running such a business, but has plenty of shame for the sex workers themselves. I suspect that culture is WHY there is so much sex-trafficking. They are not the only country with a culture with an emphasis on female chastity, and aren’t the only ones that take a sort of pride in it. Of course a playboy model has more visibility than any of the women living in ghettos, taking money from clients so that they and their families can survive, let alone the ones locked into back rooms with slowly healing bruises.

    It’s not entirely unfair to criticize somebody for making such choices, in that she’s probably internalized certain problematic beliefs about what it means to be a woman. A lot of woman seek power through sexual appeal, and even liken it to feminist empowerment. But this is a power that women always had, always will have, and that men sometimes exercise over women, regardless of the culture they live in. Women’s power through sexual appeal is an important idea for PlayBoy and patriarchy.

  4. Posted August 1, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I am not sure that criticising her decision to pose for Playboy necessarily means you agree with those who criticise her for being immodest. I disagree with her decision because she is objectifying herself for a huge corporate entity for a load of money – rather than it being about sexual expression (really?); I also disagree with critics who say that it presents the ‘wrong’ view of India womanhood. I see no contradiction in my disagreeing with both.

    Also I want to point out that some of the arguments eg “There are so many ways that women in India suffer at the hands of patriarchal ideas about controlling women’s bodies, sexuality and freedom.” could equally be applied in the “civilised West” where women continue to be sexually assaulted, raped, trafficked and beaten/murdered by their partners. And even if the ideas don’t use terms like ‘modesty’ etc they are implied in all those debates about drunk women in short skirts ‘asking for it’. It’s not helpful to isolate this as a cultural dilemma specific to India – there are continuities with what’s happening elsewhere and we shouldn’t forget those otherwise we end up demonising whole ‘cultures’ with racist caricatures and whitewashing what’s going on elsewhere.

    Moreover I think part of the shock value of her posing (and therefore possible favourable impact on sales) relies on the stereotyped Orientalist image of Other women so the two standpoints are arguably in fact connected rather than diametrically opposed to each other.

    Finally, for info, in the UK where i am from (south) Asian women in pornography is nothing new – there used to be a magazine called Asian babes – don’t know whether it still exists but I think a lot of the imagery was based on Orientalist imagery of the exotic and submissive but sexually skilled expert in the Kama Sutra…is that an improvement on the current ‘modest’ way in which Indian womanhood is represented?

  5. Posted August 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Playboy is inherently misogynistic and anti-feminist. There’s nothing awkward about pointing this out. Let’s be clear that objectifying women is anti-feminist.

    http://smashesthep.tumblr.com/post/28492059448/playboy-has-always-had-this-awkward-relationship

    • Posted August 1, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      I strongly disagree. The world is not black and white and objectification means different things to different people.

      • Posted August 2, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        The world is certainly not black and white. But through Hefner’s Playboy magazine, women are photographed and portrayed as submissive, surgically enhanced objects existing only to please men. While Hefner did not invent pornography, these images in his magazine have done so very much to normalize the cultural practice of degrading of women as sex objects.

        Words mean things. Objectification means being turned into an object–often for sexual arousal. Men in power enjoy seeing women as objects rather than people. Hence, it’s clear that objectifying women is antifeminist.

        It’s shocking that a feminist blog can do anything other than condemn Hefner as antifeminist.

      • Posted August 2, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Wait, wha? When did the definition of objectification go up for feminist debate? How can we expect feminism to have an impact if we can’t even agree that our shared understanding of objectification is a problem for women? Yikes.

  6. Posted August 3, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    It would be nice if life were so simple. Chopra’s ”choice” is a false one. Her decision has an effect on all women everywhere. Public actions are not benign. If one part gets broke the whole thing is broke. (as Hushpuppy says in Beasts of the Southern Wild) Are we willing to step out of men’s pornographic world into a world where women define sexuality? Sexual repression depends on Playboy and Porn to thrive. If sex and nudity were not ”dirty” or ”nasty” but a celebration and genders of all shapes and sizes were shown enjoying sexuality–rather than sneaking a peek through proverbial peepholes, then we might have more to discuss. Let’s not let Hef push us into this debate when the real issues are yet to be addressed.

  7. Posted August 6, 2012 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    “I strongly disagree. The world is not black and white and objectification means different things to different people.”
    - For real? Comments and articles like this on a feminist site are plain sad. Third wave feminism has taken the teeth out of the feminist movement. The sooner it passes the better.

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