August 10, 2009

The Woman and the Mainstream Media

reeti roy

I’VE LOST COUNT of the number of times I’ve opened the morning newspaper to chance upon matrimonial pages that read almost exactly like this: “Wanted: Fair, slim, beautiful, convent educated woman.” I don’t fit this bill at all. And neither do most of my friends. But it does not affect me. I’m blessed because I’ve been born into a family that treats its men and women equally. But just because I am secure in my personal space (in terms of my family and friends), it does not mean I am not considered subservient by those whose minds are moulded by stereotypes.

The prevalence of personal power equations — how a woman negotiates her space in a domestic relationship — is also often determined by the media. Take the Kyun Ki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi soaps. Not only are they detrimental to a woman’s stand, but they cater to a certain worldview that is excessively misleading.

The Madonna/ Whore dichotomy is being reinforced everyday by the mainstream media. The pornography industry (which,according to grosses about 14 million dollars in a year) uses stories that portray “illicit relationships” — very common examples would be a young boy sexually controlling a woman his mother’s age. A very recent example would be an Indian website called Savita Bhabhi where a middle aged Indian housewife is seduced by everyone from the door-to-door salesman to her young neighbours. This works at two levels — the attempt to control a woman’s body in order to subjugate her, thereby allowing the man to subjugate her. By “domesticating” her body, the man and woman are then falling into the established “norms” of society — a notion that the media helps preserve. The woman is yet again portrayed as subservient while the man exercises complete control. Virginity is equated with moral virtues. Unfortunately, instead of more and more people protesting against such “domestication”, women are either remaining virgins (for fear of societal pressure) or getting their hymens restructured so that they may not have to face the flak for not having catered to the diktat of a dogmatic society.

There are popular images of the new woman that are splashed all over the media — Sonam Kapoor is the new face of Loreal. She is, to many women, a youth icon of sorts. She endorses a fairness cream. What happens to those people who are not fair? I understand that commodification of products is all about marketing and saleability but does consumerism lead people to become their most insensitive selves? What is worse is that dissenting voices and alternative voices are in the minority and their voices are stifled by the booming voices of the media. Someone as beautiful and as intelligent as Nandita Das still cannot escape her label of “dusky beauty”. The dusky beauty phrase implicates that Nandita Das is dusky but beautiful. She too does not fit the bill that has been cleverly crafted by media architects.

The “Independent Woman” portrayed by the media suffers from much the same plight. On the one hand, she is a working woman who has economic independence and on the other hand, she has no control of her body and of her sexuality. It is taboo for a woman to talk openly about sexuality. In consistently aiding in the commodification and standardization of women as objects of desire that can be controlled by a man, there is no space for a free-thinking independent woman.

As a freelance journalist for various mainstream publications across India, I have often been told, “do not write so sympathetically about sex workers” or  “you will get into trouble for writing like this about women.” As a 20-year-old woman, I too, am expected to cater to the norms that society and the media have laid out for me. And because I have chosen to do what I think is right, there have been times when I have lost out on opportunities and got into trouble because of my belief system.

Studies have shown that pre-adolescents and adolescents rely on the media for their information on sexuality. Reacting to teen magazines has led to adolescents being dissatisfied with their own body. Anorexia and bulimia are on the rise. Isn’t it time that the mainstream media got a little more responsible?

Carol Hanisch’s essay was aptly titled “The personal is political” by her editors. Indeed, I strongly adhere to this feminist dictum. Our personal spaces are constantly eroded and the onus is on us to negotiate our private spaces. If we cannot even stand up for ourselves in our private space, it is difficult to fight the rigid social hierarchy that is in place.

19 comments to The Woman and the Mainstream Media

  • Hi Reeti

    You might want to look deeper into your article. The proclamation that it “does not affect me” in the first paragraph is belied by your later statements which criticize the mainstream media and the larger social groups for what you see as trying to “control” a woman’s body.

    If you look at the other side of matrimonial ads, you must have surely noticed the equally crass qualifications (financial, “NRI”, well-settled and “status”, etc.) demanded of grooms.

    There is no big conspiracy behind it all, it is all part of the evolving curve of our socio-biological roots.

    It is fashionable to decry patriarchial “discourses” and assert one’s sympathies for the subaltern and oppressed classes but it pays to do one’s research before forming a vehement “belief system”. For just one example, it is clear that you haven’t read the Savita Bhabhi series of cartoons. In all of them, bar none, the Bhabhi is the one in charge of seduction and control.

    You might be interested in perusing the following:

    • Aditya Vikram Das

      A response to Mr.Harmanjit Singh:

      I would imagine that it is obvious that Reeti’s assertion – “it does not affect me” – is not indicative of a sense of apathy regarding the mainstream media’s portrayal, or construction, of women. It is quite simply a statement that her personal space is secure, and that she is not personally affected or distressed by the realisation that she does not conform to the crass demands of matrimonials published by the mainstream media. However, her sense of security and assurance regarding her personal space does not preclude the injustice she feels, as far as stereotypical notions and expectations of women are concerned. Certainly, patriarchy makes just as many crass demands of men to a considerable degree, but it ought to be understood that the prevalent system privileges only a certain type of male, and marginalises the rest, which would include both female and male. Asserting this is almost tautological. The fact that you declare that it “is no big conspiracy” and that “it is all part of the evolving curve of our socio-biological roots” betrays the thought that these demands and stereotyping are almost natural and reflect reality, and furthermore, the statements are indicative not only of apathy but they signify a truce with the status quo. Reeti’s primary purpose of introducing the Savita Bhabhi series of publications was to point out that they are a manifestation of the obsession with ‘older women’, a stereotype in itself (in the West, this would be classified under the ‘MILF’ category). Indeed, the woman in these publications might not be submissive, but that does not preclude the obsession with possessing the body of such an ‘older woman’, since this obsession is fuelled by notions of what is forbidden, and what is acceptable. Dwelling solely on Savita Bhabhi as non-submissive would be to miss Reeti’s point completely.

      • Anukool

        Here via Desipundit.

        Re: Savita Bhabhi

        Hm, so the point of introducing Savita Bhabhi would be that lots of men, of all ages and social backgrounds, want to have sex with a sexually confident, middle-aged woman? (And of course, since this is a porn mag, they do.) Is that what is so objectionable?

        I know, I know, no one seems interested in Savita Bhabhi for her intellect or poise, but this is a porn mag — no one is ever interested in anyone for their intellect. Please make some point that does not hold true for nearly all porn in general.

  • Nayantara

    Totally agree…the media needs to get more responsible in its portrayals and so does the advertising sector. The way we should look, behave, dress and build our families, craft our careers all seem to have been defined very narrowly by the papers…’do it this way, or you’re different (read misfit)’.

  • I think Reeti’s point, and it would be a big mistake to miss it, is that we are not dealing with ‘natural’ but ‘naturalised’ conceptions of womanhood. The desirability of fairness as expressed by the media, for example, can hardly be ascribed to some sort of ‘socio-biological’ process that evolves naturally or reflects reality. One would think that the media would be an egalitarian force that erases prejudices and distinctions between women (which we might call backward and say they belong in villages not in the progressive urban space). But this is not so! Instead, the media actively colludes and participates with these notions and even helps construct them. So it makes little sense to throw your arms up and say it’s all inevitable…better to speak out and dismantle these concepts as Reeti does.
    And in response to Haranjit’s point, this shouldn’t be restricted to women alone – a similar process can be observed in men (light vs. dark for example), and we shouldn’t take a complacent attitude there either.

  • […] I appreciate the sentiments in this post, I am troubled by the perceived black and whites. She writes for instance – A very recent […]

  • catharrrh

    This is full of inconsistencies and grandstanding. Go read Savita bhabhi – she is far from the helpless domesticated woman being ‘seduced’ by all and sundry. She uses her body to get her way with her professor, and lures her neighbours’ kids for a tryst at home.

  • not-fair-or-slim-or-beautiful

    Fairness products cater to societal demands, which increase, perhaps, because of the availabilty of these products. However, to give them ‘credit’, they no longer concentrate on the marital market, but have now diversified to state that women who are dark (therefore lack confidence/competence, etc) will also lack jobs.

    I shall, therefore, die single and unemployed. Oh what joy.

  • Rakhi Pande

    While your concerns are relevant and I agree with them, your example of pornography is not completely appropriate. You have spoken of porn aimed at men – which do show women as you describe. However, am sure if one actively looks for porn aimed at women as the audience, you would find much the same with the roles reversed.

    Though media is the mode of information for youngsters – we can’t just do away with freedom of speech. Everyone has the right. After all, we have the right to choose what we look at. Believe me, and am sure this has been proven scientifically too many a time, if you ban something, people will still find a way.

    The whole emphasis on ‘fairness’ is ridiculous and sadly still exists.

  • This is what happens when you move from de jure to de facto. You imagine things and perceive injustices everywhere. Anyhow, FWIW, the porn industry must be grossing in billions and not millions as mentioned here. And they will be grossing in thousands if they made a porn movie with that Taggart lady and Galt guy — hours of fawning over eachother’s intellect and independence. And a guy who is given a fairness cream to sell will obviously have to put down being dark as undesirable. Ever wondered why the men’s underwear ads always show a man with six pack abs and bulging balls?

  • Anukool

    While the current beauty standard is indeed reprehensible, I’m not sure that you should be arguing against the current standard for beauty (fair, slim, etc). It gives the impression that you want the standard to change to be more favourable to you, while I’m sure what you really want is for physical beauty to become less important for all women.

    About Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi — that is a symptom, not a cause. There is a huuuuge variety of shows available on television. Animal Planet, Discovery and The History Channel have a hindi version, as an extreme example. Why are these the ones not hitting the TRPs? When the phenomenon of Saas… first started, rival TV producers tried to compete with more intelligent, grounded series. They all failed. Having personally seen Ekta Kapoor’s rise to stardom, I’m fairly sure that these attitudes already existed among the vast sea of stay-at-home mothers, and were cleverly channeled by producers. Banning Ekta Kapoor won’t do much for women at all. (As a side note, when if comes to ‘personal power equations’, Saas… is possibly the most empowering thing I have ever seen — the men are basically just plot objects, much the same way that women are in most ‘guy’ movies.)

    And now, fairness creams. It’s pointless trying to attack how fairness creams are advertised. In case you didn’t notice, everything is advertised the same way — by implying that if you do not own the product, you’re a social misfit, and if you do, you get everything that you want in life. (To be fair, this is only one strategy, but a very popular one.) Instead, the better question is why there are fairness creams in the first place. (See first para of this long comment.)

    No, wait, I have more bones to pick:

    Can you actually point to places that the mainstream media propagates the Madonna/Whore dichotomy? Instead of just conveniently shifting the topic to porn — and niche, semi-satirical porn, at that. Not, by the way, in advertisements in MSM, but MSM itself.

    Your section criticizing the the limitedness of the ‘Independent Women’ concept is all over the place too. As I understand it lots and lots of feminists have been of the opinion that economic independence is one of the major drivers of having control over your own body and fate. And as far as I can tell, talking about sex is an unfortunate taboo for everyone, not just women. It’s not like I’ve heard much open and honest discussion of male sexuality. Everyone seems to think we have switch that turns us ‘on’ that goes off once every few minutes or so and then we just want to hump anything that moves. Um, not how it works.

    Here’s what I do get from your article — you’re seeing that women get a raw deal in life and are sick of it. But while women are getting a raw deal, you’re not yet seeing the root causes and are definitely not seeing any constructive possibilities. I have seen teenagers, boys our age, and middle-aged people of both sexes complain about life not being fair in various ways, and this does not sound different from any of them.

  • Waitaminit. Savitha Bhabi panders to the baser instincts of men and is erotica in a comic format. Pornography is to be treated as fantasy since it caters to the fantasies of different people. There is porno literature available on the internet where the woman plays a dominant role and the man is meek and submissive. The author of this piece ought to read some of of the comics of Savitha Bhabi. The role play depicted in the comics changes based on the circumstances. In some she is dominant, in some she is willing, in most of them she is in control of the proceedings. I have yet to come across an episode where she is meek and submissive and allows people to ride roughtshod over her, an ugly trait we come across in mind numbing Indian TV serials and the way the media distorts information especially when it comes to the women being the victim. And yeah, I am a fan of the site.

  • Reeti

    Firstly, thank you everyone for your comments. It has been particularly interesting to see how each one of you think. Before I begin to defend my position, I want to make it very clear that this is my opinion only, and this opinion is not the “truth”. Neither is it “more” or “less” accurate than other opinions. I would also like to tell you that your suggestions for my piece have been noted, some of the suggestions have been appreciated and I thank you for them.However, there are some things that we do not agree with.

    @ Harmanjit: When I said, “it does not affect me”, I did not imply that I am exempt from this practice. I was only asserting that I am blessed to not be discriminated against in my personal space. Whether you like it or not ( and I cannot give you hard evidence here), but how a woman looks has become incredibly important- more so than how a man looks- and this is something that has been blown out of proportion by the media. I am not saying that the media has created it- I am only asserting that the media reinstates ideas of beauty. Maybe if you did a little research ( and instead of focussing all your attention on biology read a little history), you would understand that the obsession with fair skin is nothing but a colonial hangover.

    @anukool: Actually, that’s not the point I was trying to make. My reason for introducing Savitha Bhabi is not because she is sexually powerful and middle aged, as you put it, but because, when Savitha Bhabhi is seducing or being seduced, the speech bubbles where the man is actually thinking says this like, “Oh! that slut is really enjoying herself.” Notice that even language has no gender equivalent for bitch and slut. It is not language itself, but the social and historical processes that have given rise to this phenomenon. Where does the mainstream media feature in the Savitha Bhabhi debacle? The Mainstream Media have either critised Savitha Bhabi because of “moral” issues (I distinctly remember reading things like “it is against our culture”) or congratulating “Deshmukh”, the creator of the site for the website’s popularity.Not once did anyone mention that it was wrong, not because she was wearing a saree (as Neha pertinently pointed out in her blog), but because of the way in which Savitha Bhabhi is constantly and continuously humiliated through the speech bubbles. Yes, at times she is seduced and at times, she does the seducing. And readers can argue that Savitha Bhabhi does not know what is going on in the men’s minds. But just because she is not sexually submissive, does not imply that she is open to calling herself a slut. This is where the Madonna/ Whore dichotomy comes in.I have a problem with pornography in general. I am nsaying that there should be a blanket ban. People who want toindulge in pornography (whether they watch pornography or act in pornographic films) are free to do so. My problem with pornography lies in the fact that even in speech, the woman is called names.

    you say in your response to my post:

    “If you look at the traditional manner in which virtue-laden archetypes are portrayed, especially in the film industry – their sexual experiences with other men inevitably are about submitting to sexual aggression. But in Savita Bhabhi the idea of “honor” or “guilt” rarely enters the context. And that’s exactly what the whole moral outrage was about. Had the comic been about Savita without the context of “Bhabhi” – the outrage wouldn’t have been as livid. Had she worn a halter top with jeans, instead of a sari, it would have been far less of an issue.”

    Perhaps what you say is true. But I am not talking about the moral outrage here. And while you say I am trying to fit everything into “one theory” by using the mainstream media as a “monolith”, like I have mentioned before I am yet to come across a piece which critiques Savitha Bhabhi not for being sexually powerful, but because of what male readers call her. What avataram finds funny (refer to the comments on Neha’s blog within/ without), is actually far more sinister. Name calling during seduction is alright as long as it is a consensual act between two adults. The same does not hold true when the woman keeps being called a slut.One might say that Savitha Bhabhi also calls men “bastards”. But then again, it is not the men being abused, but it is those who have given birth to them. When I spoke of the Madonna/ Whore dichotomy, I used Savitha Bhabi as an example because on the one hand she is the symbol of “domesticity” while on the other hand she enters territory that is archetypally construed as something men would do- have multiple partners etcetera. I have also used Savitha Bhabhi as an example because of her appropriation in the Mainstream Media. “It does not help anyone’s cause to treat the media as a monolith”. Would one then have to say that the word “Global” is a monolith? Or that “New World Order” is a “monolith”? In the 21st century, when the time-space compression is increasing and obvious, I would assume that one needs to use certain “umbrella” terms. However, I do appreciate your sentiments as far as looking at different sections of the media is concerned.
    @alan smithee,andy,rekha,catarrrh,mircea, nayantara: thank you for your comments and suggestions. Hope your questions have been answered as well.

  • A seduction is, by definition, consensual. Can you cite the bye law or IPC code that says that name calling within a consensual act is not consensual?

    The point is that Savita Bhabhi has been banned by some overzealous censor. You may disagree with the comic, you may disagree with the thought bubbles while liking the illustrations, but now, you should defend it. As Voltaire said, “I disagree with what you have to say but will fight to the death to protect your right to say it.” If it were not banned, you can criticize it however you want.

    The point is not to feed the overzealous censor possible reasons for banning it – like

    1. The thought bubbles are bad.
    2. Name calling during seduction is wrong
    3. Avataram is not funny, he is very sinister.

    If you argue for the overzealous censor, one day he may come and ban your blog.

    So Grow up, admit that you were wrong in citing Savita Bhabhi as an example. Admitting you are wrong is much more graceful than all this confused nonsense you are spouting.

  • Aditya Vikram Das

    What bollocks. Censoring Savita Bhabhi has nothing to do with the line of thought that forms the basis of Reeti’s argument. I think she has made it exceedingly clear that by no stretch of the imagination is she supporting censorship, and criticising it is certainly not tantamount to supporting the ban given that Reeti is merely suggesting that Savita Bhabhi is symptomatic of a certain stereotyping found in the mainstream media, regardless of whether some people enjoy it or not. Clearly there are people who get a good wank from it, and so be it. In your excessively self-righteous and polemical response, avataram, you have perhaps failed to notice that by forcing someone to admit she is wrong (and obviously you are right), you behaviour is in no way different from the censors.

  • Reeti´s example
    Is like a dead rose
    Wilted and withered
    Unable to withstand
    The test of time

    And you, Aditya Vikram Das,
    co-author of her blog
    do protest too much.

  • Aditya Vikram Das

    I see, and the test of time is clearly someone justifying blatant stereotyping and then taking recourse to juvenile methods of debating on a public forum. And I don’t see why you have invoked the IPC, since Reeti’s article does not mention or allude to legalities of any sort, and by obviously not having any problems with name calling and verbal abuse during seduction, are you suggesting that just because a woman agrees to have sex, it is fair to call her a slut/bitch/whore? Seduction is a consensual act, as you rightly pointed out, and it is solely because of its consensual nature that neither party has the right to verbally abuse each other. It is evident that as a response to my counter-questioning, or protesting, as you so eloquently put it, you are simply ruing the fact that I can voice my opinions or “protest too much”, thereby betraying a similarity rather than dissimilarity with the censorship authorities.

  • Sorry I was too busy ROTFLing.

    I agree with Aditya and Reeti that this name calling during seduction has reached epidemic proportions and must be stopped. It is the primary ill affecting our society. But how can one go about preventing this?

    If people are shouting these abuses loudly, we maybe able to put them away as a public nuisance. But what if, most men are just getting these words in thought bubbles as in the comic? How do we censor that? My solution is to hire a huge army of women police who can sit in everyone´s bedroom and stop the man whenever they feel he is getting a thought bubble. What is your solution? Something like 1984? Or like Lives of Others?

    I dont want to censor you at all, you are incredibly entertaining. Please continue. This is delightful.

  • Anindita Sengupta

    Comments closed at author’s request.