Dancing On Your Toes: How Gender Roles Inhibit Self Expression in Art

Bollywood, a cesspool of misogyny, markets films with item numbers done by females while the male protagonists project a supposedly “macho” or “cool” image and these roles have never been reversed barring a few films here and there.

Still from Jhalak Dikhla Jaa

Why the frigidity of masculinity and femininity leads individuals to repress any frank characteristics that are associated with the opposite gender, resulting in adherence to age old gender roles in creative expression.

Very few today have the stage presence like that of Freddie Mercury, lead vocalist of the British band Queen and a singularity, who had unabashed flamboyance that fit the band’s theatrical style perfectly, creating performances that were unparalleled in their uniqueness. The fixation with gender roles is embroidered into the very fabric of our art forms and the ingrained inhibitions limit creativity and innovation in art, say for example, dancing.

Growing up in a country that is proud of its culture and its dancing, I observed popular shows like Jhalak Dikhla Jaa were based on selling these heteronormative teams or “couples”- pairing a male celebrity with a female choreographer and female celebrities with male choreographers. Bollywood, a cesspool of misogyny, markets films with item numbers done by females while the male protagonists project a supposedly “macho” or “cool” image and these roles have never been reversed barring a few films here and there. At this point, it resembles a template of sorts, an outline these films follow that leads to the preoccupation of the general public with idealistic manliness or feminity. Dance is used to express a myriad of emotions, and while two women dancing sensually with each other is sure to be fetishized by some, the same art when performed by two men is mocked in mainstream media, used a means of comedic relief on Indian television.

The term “artistic liberty” is often used when writers or poets phrase out unorthodox lines and ideas. Here, creative freedom is granted. Social dancing, on the other end of the spectrum, is bound by unspoken rules the society dictates: nothing too sexy, nothing crazy, nothing remotely unusual (“or they will laugh at me!” the kid whispered to me, excited but too entirely too self-conscious to do the Pikachu Parade Dance at his birthday party). A same-sex couple dancing at a function in India is sure to be subjected to a few raised eyebrows, murmuring and the scrutiny that comes with it. The world is changing fast but not fast enough, I think, whenever I am at the dance studio where Ariana Grande songs are met with reluctance from boys not so keen to swing and sashay, but wanting to put together a performance that is empowering nonetheless, a performance that will be called ‘different’.

When asked to partner up for styles like jazz and salsa, we are assigned a gender role by the instructor, sometimes asked to bring the charm of the opposite sex into the art. Power and grace are two abstract concepts assigned to men and women respectively by the adverb-adjective society; we fail to realise they are two sides of the same coin, and that the term black implies existence of white. After all the years I have invested in this art form called dancing, I have only seen a handful of people that can embody fluidity so effortlessly, mould themselves into something entirely different in order to express themselves without any restraints. And indubitably it’s intriguing, how society and gender roles have so much influence over the way we hold our bodies, the way we control our movements. Would an un-skewed portrayal of gender fluidity in popular media perhaps create a change in the coming years? Would transgender protagonists, leaders, artists make people realise they that they don’t necessarily have to live with inhibitions, live a careful life so as to be avoid being labeled a “sissy”? Can art, at the very least, be free of gender norms and be taken seriously for what is truly is?

About the author

Aryaa Upadhyay

Newton’s laws didn’t explain to me my emotions, didn’t explain the bite of recurring negative feelings and did not lead me to form my perceptions of this world, so I think and I express them the best I can. And I like cats.
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