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Opinion and Editorial

Calling someone desirable is not a compliment

A Sreenivasa Reddy
Filed on September 5, 2020

(Bollywood actress Disha Patani)

Apparently the 'The Times 50 Most Desirable Women' list of who tops and trails in this oddly named list is decided by a jury based on a vote conducted on its website

I was intrigued and disturbed when I got an alert on mobile notifying Indian actress Disha Patani tops 'The Times 50 Most Desirable Women' list. Apparently the list of who tops and trails in this oddly named list is decided by a jury based on a vote conducted on its website.†

What does it mean to be desired? Should there be a vote on who is the most desirable from among a select list of women celebrities below the age of 40? Is it not sexist and offensive to even ask such a question? What if we male colleagues in the office rate and rank our female colleagues based on their desirability, would they not get offended?

Should we bring up our children so that they become desirable one day? Doesn't it sound odd and dangerous? Being desired means becoming the object of someone's lust. Should we nurture our children, especially daughters, so that they become objects of someone's desire? Is there any other way to understand this title? I doubt.

Calling someone the most desirable is no compliment. It is downright offensive and reinforces oppressive patriarchal worldview. If one declares someone as the most desirable, it means he is coveting her and might take possession of her with or without her consent. This proprietorial and possessive mindset is fomenting violence on women, especially in India.

This reminds me of controversial Hindi movie Kabir Singh, where the lead character, a senior medical student, barges into juniors' class, points at a girl and declares "she is mine". So this means the so-called hero declares ownership over her without her consent. She has no agency, no voice to say yes or no to his bizarre proposal. Being the most desirable can, at times, lead to situations like this. The most desirable woman can land in the most undesirable situations.†

There has been an effort by those who organised this contest to explain it as an attempt to recognise the achievements of promising young women. But if that indeed is their objective, I am sure there are better ways of titling their contest. In the world of advertising, movies and even in news media, the projection of women revolves around their sexuality and their ability to titillate. This is a multi-billion dollar industry whose lure is very difficult to resist. They flood the world of the young and old alike with the powerful imagery that amplifies and glorifies the oomph and desirability of women.

Recently we saw this unfold in the UAE. 'LOL Surprise' dolls sold by a famous toy retailer had subliminal messages built into them. The toys meant for girls revealed provocative outfits when dipped in ice water. They have since been withdrawn after parents expressed outrage over such inappropriate nature. There was an effort here to expose the tender brains of tiny tots to a pernicious ideology where women are deified as sex objects. This messaging can have a corrupting influence on the impressionable minds of young girls.

Images that are purveyed through TV, Internet, and movies have a big impact on mental makeup of growing up girls. Being coveted by men becomes their ultimate goal post. They will do whatever it takes to achieve that. Anorexia, bulimia, and risky cosmetic surgeries are among the many fallouts of this mindless pursuit of an ideal body form projected by media world.

So the word 'desirability' and the worldview it engenders is no small matter. You might well argue why we make a big issue of the single word. The whole thing can be dismissed as just semantics. But semantics does matter as language is a site of conflict between right and wrong world views. That fight in the arena of language must be fought for the world to become fairer and just for everybody.††

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