Thoughts on the PBS documentary “The World Before Her”

I’d been hearing about “The World Before Her” and had been wanting to see it for a while, so I’m glad I finally took the time to sit down and watch it. The documentary juxtaposes two different lifestyles for young women in India: a more conservative, traditional lifestyle of young women in a Hindu nationalist training camp, and the second of young women competing in the Miss India beauty pageant. The conflict in lifestyles put India at a crossroads: should it embrace or resist Westernization (in terms of consumerism and beauty ideals)?

As a feminist, I find it hard to sort of “pick a side”–that is to say, to choose which lifestyle is more woman-friendly. The documentary hits on a key debate for feminists everywhere–is Westernization (in this case, sexualizing young women) actually a source of liberation, or does it only reduce women to sexual objectification? This debate is endless and it’s not really my intent to discuss it here.

What I do want to get at is that the documentary, while it does a great job of presenting the crossroads where India seems to be, it at the same time seems to present this traditional/modern dichotomy that is very black and white without allowing for or acknowledging any lifestyle that may adopt aspects of both the traditional India of the past, and the new Westernized India. While this may or may not have been the intent of the filmmakers, it is how it appears to me. That said, I almost felt like the documentary was made for the sort of “Half the Sky” crowd, those who certainly have an interest in women’s rights, without the complete understanding of what women’s liberation might mean. In other words, just because a young Indian woman enters into a beauty pageant and is able to wear a bikini in a culture which typically frowns upon showing too much skin, doesn’t mean she’s liberated.

What I really like though is that the documentary shows the stark contrast of these two groups of women, and how very different their lives are, despite not acknowledging lifestyles that may fall somewhere in between. Of course, my own interpretation is that neither lifestyle is necessarily “better” than the other. I personally really dislike beauty pageants, where women parade around and are judged based on their appearance (one of the worst parts in the film being when women were asked to put a sheet over themselves so that only their legs were showing, and then were asked to walk around to see who had the “hottest” legs). What I took from the documentary was pretty powerful–it really complicates this idea that modernization and sexualization of women necessarily brings freedom. But as I mentioned earlier, I think a different message could also be taken from the film–one that equates modernization with liberation.

On a final note, I really like how the documentary exemplifies Nira Yuval-Davis’ idea that it is usually women who are the markers of a nation. In both cases in the film, we are looking at how women represent a culture.



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