A nervous-looking teenage girl stands in front of a video camera as she hesitantly presses a red button. Viewing her through the recording frame, we watch as she holds up four consecutive sheets of white paper. They read: ‘I am Jia. A small town girl. People called me shameless. I must die.’
Preceded by countrywide billboards promising a voyeuristic glimpse into the perils of the Internet, the first episode of MTV India’sWebbed aired on 14 September 2013.The pilot episode follows the story of Jia, a 15 year old school girl from Ludhiana, whose cyber-excursions on Friendzone.com are the centre of her otherwise restricted social life. Here, she meets Rahul, a ‘cool, handsome, college-going’ young man. Jia does what any teenage girl would do: she falls in love. But as the story of love, sex and dhokha first made (in)famous by the Delhi Public School MMS scandal goes, Jia gets a little naked, the video goes viral, she is publicly shamed, and in a moment of isolation and hopelessness, the young woman commits suicide.
Jia’s story is the first of the many that will go on to comprise Webbed, a drama that recreates real-life accounts of image-based cyber abuse. But while the show’s disclaimer states its intention to ‘present in an unbiased manner the impact of cyber crime on young people’ – a growing form of violence in both India and abroad – Webbed‘s poorly shot and shoddily constructed re-enactments of online violence do little to explore the nuances of the issue.
Setting the stage for the show, Webbed‘s presenter declares: ‘This is about those youngsters whose lives changed just because of one mistake on the web.’ So what about Jia? Jia who takes her top off, and whose Rahul isn’t too pleased when she refuses to take off any more? In keeping with the presenter’s opening remarks, Jia always knew ‘it was wrong’. She didn’t like ‘those kinds of things’, but her young, ‘in-love’ heart led her down the dark path towards home-made Internet pornography. In other words, Jia is represented by the show’s creators as being aware of her immorality; of her mistake. She is ‘otherwise’ morally upstanding (topping her science examinations like the model Indian child), and we as viewers are allowed to sympathise with the young girl who didn’t know any better. In a nutshell, we sympathise because she didn’t want to do it; who would?
But did she? Did the real-life Jia, like tons of others, get sexual pleasure from voyeurism, from stripping for a stranger? The countless numbers of adult chat rooms across the Internet would suggest that coercion is rarely involved in the initial act of capturing an image online. However, in keeping with Indian cyber law, Webbed fails to account for the element of desire and pleasure on the part of the individual who was filmed. Under the Information Technology (Amendment) Act 2008, the publishing or circulation of an obscene or sexually explicit visual representation is a punishable crime (stipulated in sections 67 and 67A). However, the distinction between the consensual creation of an image (involving uploading or often ‘publishing’ it, given the unclear parameters of online privacy) and its non-consensual distribution is yet to be legally made. And as long as Indian law continues to see women and their bodies as subject to predators, as opposed to having agency and desires of their own, these nuanced realities will remain under the radar.
The abuse of images online is a growing form of cyber violence. However, as a venture that seeks to expose the ‘realities’ of such videography, Webbed‘s pilot episode falls into the easy trap of positioning women as victims of the big bad Internet. After all, it’s easy to have a show (and a law) that condemns the exploitation of women by technology. It’s much harder to develop one around the idea that individuals have sexual desires, and that just because they do, they don’t deserve the abuse that follows. Jia was the victim not of technology, but of Rahul’s abuse.
In the future, if Webbed‘s producers manage to side step the morality brigade and acknowledge these naked truths, viewers can then stand in solidarity with others like Jia – whether they ‘wanted’ it or not.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘The thin line dividing cyber abuse and sexual autonomy’ in The Sunday Guardian on 21 September 2013