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Item songs? Are they empowering or demeaning?

Item songs are mostly common in Bollywood and Lollywood, and are enjoyed by a huge audience, even children who aren't even aware of what is happening in such videos and how much demeaning the lyrics are. These songs have a very similar theme that is being followed: the item girl (usually who is dancing in these item songs) is dancing infront of one or several men, trying to please them with sexualised dances, while wearing a small blouse with a deep neck to attract the male gaze. The dressing of these item girls has been normalised today due to the excessive screen time they get in several movies, so it isn’t as much of an issue that it used to be. However, many people would argue that these item girls should be allowed to wear the dressing they want, but yet most of them would not know that it’s not them deciding that what they want to wear, but it’s the men behind the camera roll that are deciding what those women have to wear to seem empowering to some and giving arousal to some. This is a picture from a Pakistani item song “Kaif o Suroor”, showing a culture which is not portrayed in Pakistan in any ways.

The main thing to determine whether the item songs are demeaning or not is the purpose behind it. In its definition, item songs are a musical number inserted into a film that does not have relevance to the plot or are just used to distract the main plot for the movie. So are these songs really necessary? Not for the movie, but for the director and producers to gain more audience, maybe yes. These songs are mainly hit songs that make a lot of money, they're danced upon, listen to, and this is what they're main objective is; it's providing nothing meaningful in the movie or isn't even relevant.

Scenes like such show rowdy men surrounding the item women. They are shamelessly leering the girl. Such portrayals objectify women and show that women are a property of men which they can enjoy. Therefore, these videos promote rape, and the rape rates in India and Pakistan have increased since such portrayals.

So, do women actually feel empowered by these item songs? Looking it through a feminist lens, such songs have provided fame to many actresses, but this fame has kept them limited to these item numbers, and for such purposes, they have altered their bodies to willingly attract men to deduce arousal from their moves. Nora Fatehi is an example of promoting such ideal body types which attract the male gaze. They have done many surgeries to enhance their butts and their breasts so that they can get the jobs in the film industry, or else they’re not hired for being skinny or they’re bodies not being that alluring.

The before and after picture of Nora Fatehi shows her body enhancements so that she can fulfil her dream of becoming an actress/dancer, but till date, she hasn’t gotten a meaningful role and is always shown in songs that are sexualising her body in multiple ways, with the camera angles set in such manner. Their “two minutes of fame”—the songs in the movie, give them a lifetime of being a target of sexism.

Well, I don’t think that “Munni being Badnaam” or “Sheela ki Jawani” is empowering in any sense, with the lyrics of such songs, in my opinion, it’s just a way to provide pleasure to men and to attract them. Munni and Chikni Chambeli only exist to tease, to arouse and then to leave. They have no past, no future, they just happen to exist coming straight out of a man’s guilty fantasy, just to serve the cis-het, patriarchal world. No women would like to be called “Chikni” and in no manner is this empowering, or making the women in general feel powerful individually; such things just promote harassment in streets by men calling women “Chikni” and then whistling, groping has become common, and the society we’re in, women cannot travel without men to be protected by men.

There is now an item song culture in both India and Pakistan, and this is the thing that hypersexualises women, and in my opinion is the most problematic thing in a movie, along with the sexist jokes/remarks that are made.

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Item songs are not known to be a rare sight in Lollywood either. From Ayesha Omer to Sadaf Kanwal to Mehwish Hayat, these women have faced harsh criticism for playing their part in such “vulgar” item songs. The irony here is that much of the Pakistani population that categorizes these item songs as “vulgar” are actually the first ones to have watched these item songs in the first place. These people actively follow these women on social media platforms, after which they feel entitled to state their opinions once they encounter such “vulgar” content. This proves detrimental to the woman’s own perception of herself and makes room for others to show their discontentment by opting for extreme measures.

Another irony…


Item songs not only first handedly cause materialisation of women, but usually they are reflected as a situation where prostitution is reflected. Living in the south asian context, prostitution is largely forced upon women and isnt a matter of their own choice or decision. Like you mentioned, the lyrics in these item songs can be extremely demeaning for women in general despite the differing connotations. It reduces them to objects of male desire and gaze. Massively famous item songs like “Ola la la” or “Chikni Chameli” contain lyrics that can be interpreted into the women’s helplessness in matters pertaining to consent in the context of sex. They have lyrics like “Choona na”, which literally translates to “dont touch me” and…


reading your post gave me a flashback of the time I heard ‘Munni badnaam hoye?’ for the first time & felt utter disgust at its lyrics. The first question that rose in my mind was that does a woman need to defame herself to get the love of a man? as the lyrics says : ‘munii badnaam hoye, darling tere liye!’ there’s another example of this song ‘Aa re pritam pyaare’ from the movie Rowdy Rathore & one of its lyrics say : ‘Pallu ke neeche, daba ke rakha hai, utha doon toh hangama hou.’ the song here is clearly objectifying a woman’s bosom here and is subliminally giving out a msg that women kinda enjoy this kind of objectification.…


Myra Shahab
Myra Shahab
Dec 05, 2022

While I agree with your comments on the production of item songs centering the male gaze through the choreography, outfits and sets. There is an empowering aspect to them as well. Being raised in a society where there is an extreme religious sect that would literally have women remain in their houses and cook all day, item songs help snap you into an alternate reality for many women. Item songs center around the woman, her dance, her outfit is the main thing and she KNOWS she is it. Whether it's Katrina Kaif or Deepika they are the center, sexually promiscuous, and desired by all the men- yet none of them can have her, and she's untouchable. You've argued about how…


Growing up listening to popular item songs such as "Kajra Re", "Sheila Ki Jawani", "Oh La La", and "Munni Badnaam Hoyi", I can say with surety that there was a level of curiosity to watch these music videos and vibe to the lyrics and the dance steps of these songs. However, as I started to rewatch some of the movies where these item songs appeared, it made no logical sense to add them to the movie sequences. This made me validate that the songs were foddering for the male gaze to be satiated and gain extra audience and attention for the movie. However, we may call it objectification or dehumanization of women, the actresses who are part of these songs…

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