Misrepresentation of Women in Media: Indian Context

Manmeet Kaur
Posted July 8, 2016 from India

Stepping Down

She climbs the stage with a chill running down her spine. Her breathing betrays her. She is nervous. Her brain is wrecked with thoughts of humiliation. What will they think of her back home? What does she feel? With so much of her skin exposed, she feels out of her elements. She always thought it was her choice to dress the way she wanted to..She had always been a staunch feminist inside her head. But today, here she was, torn between her dreams and her beliefs. As her toe rubbed against the first step of the stage, her foot withdrew involuntarily. She turned around and stepped down the step that had betrayed her. Someone shouted from the wings. She returned to her former position. She stood still till the lights were thrown on the stage to announce the cue of the‘item girl’.

I Shiver

The morning was one of the most beautiful ones of her life. She was in Kashmir. Her dreams were coming alive in this silent descent of the snow. The white landscape gave her an unexpected lift. She lovingly touched the window pane and finally stepped out for the shoot. She smiled at everyone she saw. She was happy. They were shooting for the commercial of a warm inner wear brand. It was her first advertisement. The first rung... The clothes of all the actors were brought in. She picked up the warm suit that looked her size and walked towards the dressing room to change.

“Why have you taken this?” her male counterpart asked.

Puzzled, she did not answer.

“Your dress is lying on the sofa inside. This is for the dancers.” He said encouragingly.

Her day was getting better... they had picked a special dress for her. She saw it packed in beige khadi covers. She opened it. She stared. And stared some more.

“Sir, are you sure this is what I have to wear?” she asked her director.

“Oh yes... isn’t it lovely?”

“But it doesn’t go with the winter wear theme...”

Everyone laughed. She stared at them; holding the little, scarlet, sleeveless dress.

“It is okay. You will have unlimited access to latte” he winked.

The picture in the mirror

“I do not know why you have this obsession with youth. Don’t they need middle aged actors? Why can’t you peopleage gracefully?” her mother muttered for the hundredth time. This was during another of her botox trips. Her mother insisted on attending it each time, saying the same things over and over. “And that make up! Oh my god that make up! Do you even recognise yourself anymore?” She sighed. Even with the injections piercing right through, it was the words that hurt more. She thought “No, I don’t. I don’t recognise myself anymore.”

Ashen Beauty

She looked at the mirror. She hated her body. The curves weren’t right. Her complexion was less than perfect. Her cheekbones weren’t anything like bones. The pimple would only add more injury to her beauty. . And her hair... she couldn’t even begin to think about it . Bottles of all sizes stood like false promises on her dressing table. She could never be like that girl in the advertisement. Her flawless skin and perfectly toned body were a constant source of envy. With these thoughts, she turned off the light. She felt the pimple on the extreme side of her right cheek...Right under the ear. She planned her hairstyle accordingly... yes that would hide it. She closed her eyes. James Blunt aimlessly hummed‘You’re Beautiful’in the background.

Media's Portrait of a 'LADY'

These narratives are not unheard of, nor are they shocking truths. These are tales of what is around us and how it affects us at a level we cannot fathom. I began noticing the outright profane and demeaning content of absolutely everything projected to us in mainstream media after watching a 2011 American documentary calledMiss Representation.

Let me give you a more personal example. I live in Delhi. I walk to the metro station everyday to catch the train to college. On the way, there’s a small cyber cafe. It is called ‘Jai Mata Di’ (Glory to the mother goddess) cyber cafe. Right in front of its door is a huge poster with a laptop. But you will not notice the laptop at all. Why? Because the laptop is a tiny object in the hands of a mainstream Bollywood actress. Now if you are wondering why someone’s bare legs should advertise a cyber cafe; well, I don't know.

This ceases to be funny when I think about it. Every other shop, product, movie, video game and song has women who are simply not needed there! Item girls, women dancing in LBDs in (literally) snow white mountains and advertising cars by leaning on them... well what do you take the audiences to be? Incorrigible perverts? At this stage, I am not even questioning theextreme sexualisation and objectificationwhich peeps from these ideas. I am simply demanding the sheer logic behind it!

The Production of Peeping Toms

Personally, I feel that the media has become quite dictatorial. Instead of being an expression and extension of the real spheres of everyday life, it has become a truth that is distanced from the realms of familiarity. The next time you step out, I request you to count the number of thin girls who have a face lacking pimples, wrinkles, spots (and blood); are scantily clad, have perfectly straight hair and are walking normally with toothpick under their feet. Also keep track of the number of girls who are trying extremely hard to do all this. You will be surprised by the sheer failure of women and girls at copying such an image and the impossibility of the image itself.The imposed standards of skin colour, waist size, height, eyebrow shape and what not are downright irritating (and time consuming). This has a conspicuous effect on the everyday lives of real people who are otherwise living a normal life. Seeing the women on-screen men begin to look for similar traits in their partners in real life without realising that they themselves do not look anything like Chris Hemsworth. Not just men, but women begin to look down upon themselves and girls as young as eleven are thus faced with serious self esteem issues. It promotes the very natural existence of the female sect as people meant for pleasure.They stop existing beyond their sexual boundaries.

In her extremely popular essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema",Laura Mulvey introduces the extremely relevant and comprehensive concepts ofMale Gaze, Voyeurism and Scopophilia. She stresses that the camera in the film industry has a ‘Male Gaze’ considering men are making the movies. This means that most of what we see about the world as a whole is from the male perspective! Stories about men are told by men, and stories about women are also told by men. Voyeurism and Scopophilia are essentially related to the derivation of pleasure by looking at an ‘object’. Laura Mulvey states how ‘The cinema offers a number of possible pleasures.’ She talks about Sigmund Freud’s take on the subject and discusses the consequences of such unchecked activities. ‘At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.’

Media- A Failed Power

Have you ever wondered why girls don’t look at boys and whistle, why are girls neverstalkers and acid attackers? Because no one taught them that! Parents do not (consciously) teach boys to do all this. Then where is it coming from?How did the male population come to the conclusion that women are objects to be stared at and taken pleasure from?No, not even the media. Male domination has existed in some form from the very start of recorded history. The problem lies with the media that refuses to try and stop it. Instead, it is perpetuating it.Today, media is seen as the harbinger of economic, social and cultural change because of the power of awareness it is capable of creating. But feminists would agree with me when I say that as far as the gender space is concerned,mainstream Indian media is reinforcing everything that is wrong with our culture. Why are cookware advertisements always targeted at women? Why do baby product commercials invariably glorify the mother-child relationship?When did the father become an absent figure of the house?

It will not be an uncommon hand that will be raised in opposition to what I am saying. Everyone has the right to choose what they want to wear and a traditional Bengali sari or bikini, whatever they choose, well I don’t care. So if you think I am launching an anti-feminist campaign, no I am not. Everyone, right from a baby girl to an actress walking the red carpet at Cannes must make the choice for herself. This is exactly why this situation puzzles me when I realisethat everyone is making the same choices! How else do you explain the almost uniform pattern of item numbers, advertisements and even the kind of female characters in video games!

Media was never supposed to cut through the lives of people who created it. It was always supposed to be an extension of the real. But when you actually hear the sexist jokes of the most popular show on Indian television and pay attention to the purely sexual representation of women in movies, songs and advertisements; you will know how real it actually is.So the next time you see an advertisement that tries to convince you of applying cancer causing fairness agents to your flawless face because you might just woo your prospective employer with that mercury shine, know that you have all the right to laugh at it.

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Comments 10

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Kirthi
Jul 08, 2016
Jul 08, 2016

Manmeet, you've done a splendid job of articulating your thoughts on this. I personally don't think it is anti-feminist for a woman to be the one in charge of what she wears or how she wears it. Sex positive feminism is as much a part of feminism as equality itself is - and if a woman is comfortable wearing something that her body is comfortable in, there's nothing that should stop her whatsoever. Thank you for making such articulate points.  The nuanced stance you've taken, and the way you've buttressed it with sound research only makes this a very well researched and informed piece. I am so proud to have had the opportunity to read this - because it teaches me, and inspires my thinking. I would love to read more of your work on World Pulse, and am so glad you joined up :) 

Manmeet Kaur
Jul 10, 2016
Jul 10, 2016

Kirthi, thank you so much for such encouraging words. It is wonderful to know that you liked the piece. I hope to write more and you've motivated me to do so :)

helen.ng
Jul 08, 2016
Jul 08, 2016

Hello Manmeet,

Your writing is indeed thought-provoking and inspiring. I love how you incorporated anecdotes as well as personal experiences into your writing. What especially stood out to me was your writing that included how the media has played, and continues to play, such a huge role in women's lives, trying to make us believe that we are not enough for our future partner - that we need to add more cancer-causing agents to our skin in order to be beautiful and to impress others. 

With kindest regards,

Helen Ng

Manmeet Kaur
Jul 10, 2016
Jul 10, 2016

Thanks a lot for taking the time to read my work, Helen! It is wonderful to hear from you and know your thoughts on the topic.

Jessica Foumena
Jul 08, 2016
Jul 08, 2016

Hello Manmeetk,

Thank you for your sharing your perspective. As someone whose field of expertise is media and communication, I can't tell you how many times I was frustrated by the media representations of women. Now, I've to come to term that there's so much I can do. Your points are valid because even though we can't change the ways things are going right now, we can raise awareness so girls and women remember that media messages are illusions that they may not achieve. I'm confident that you're on the right track with your critical examination of life. Self-awareness is the first step.

~Jessica

Manmeet Kaur
Jul 10, 2016
Jul 10, 2016

Dear Jessica, Thanks for providing such a wonderful perspective to the piece. I'm glad to hear from you especially because you are in the industry and understand it more than I do. Good to hear from you :)

Jessica Foumena
Jul 11, 2016
Jul 11, 2016

You're welcome, dear ManmeetK. It came to my mind to suggest you to write an adapted (shorter) opinion piece for my organization's blog available here http://womenandafrica.weebly.com/blog  The opinion piece will focus on Indian women. You'll get full credit. 

What do you think? If this doesn't work for you, that's okay. We can always continue the conversation privately. 

Cheers,

~Jessica

Manmeet Kaur
Jul 11, 2016
Jul 11, 2016

Hi Jessica, I would love to! Inbox :)

Stelz
Jul 16, 2016
Jul 16, 2016

Dear ManmeetK,

Many years ago as young as I was I decided to write my final year  Journalism dissertation on the absence or very little presence of women in the British Media. As i grew older it became apparent to me that this was not only a problem in the west but that the world at large is becoming more  chauvinist than ever before. And that except more and more women start speaking up, not only will our voices but our whole being will eventually be left in the dark.

You know, Manmeetk, I am very impressed with your write-up especially  women representation by the media. Hence the reason i stated the above and to note that only us and only us as women can tell our story so we have to get out there and let our voices heard. Platform like World Pulse is here to help us, we can start our own media businesses, print, broadcast, social media, communication NGOs on women empowering issues etc. Through these we as women can talk about the issues that concerns us.

Well done Manmeetk and thank you for sharing

Cheers

Manmeet Kaur
Jul 20, 2016
Jul 20, 2016

Thank you so much for reading this and taking the time to share your feedback :) Means a lot! Love from India :)