Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010
POLITICS OF PROJECTION: CONSTRUCTING GENDER IN MEDIA
This paper tries to examine the nature of communication and how it constructs gender as a reality in media. The phenomenon of communication is central to all our understanding—be it at personal or cultural levels. In this sense it remains a constant which never changes. Hence, it is pertinent to take into account the very nature of communication while dealing with construction of gender in media.
Gender itself is a most talked about concept in social sciences. In this paper an attempt has been made to understand the interplay of tradition in the construction of gender in media—which is modern and supposed to be one of the most powerful essential features of any modern secular society. Herein lies the contested territory of understanding which interfaces both traditional and modern construction of gender in a manner which, on the one hand, is full of sensitivity, and on the other, equally opaque. There are universal, as well as, culture-specific biases and prejudices in the politics of projection involving the media.
If any truism is universally applicable to the whole of communication it is simply this: the phenomenon of communication is a constant. It does not change. Only our understanding of it changes. It is a highly eclectic science, central to all understanding or misunderstanding for that matter. Interestingly, it can be related to phlogiston, a vitalising substance that was for centuries used as an explanation by scientists and chemists to explain the process of combustion. It was only in the late 18th century that scientists rejected the phlogistic explanation of combustion in favour of an explanation based on a chemical union with the newly discovered gas that Antoine Lavoisier named oxygen. Now, more than two centuries later, phlogiston is often employed as an analogy to describe an explanation fallaciously attributed to an imaginary cause. In many respects, communication is the phlogiston of society. Every social, political or personal problem today seems to involve ‘better’ or ‘more’ communication as a solution. Someone, somewhere, sometime will persist in considering communication as the cause and/or solution of racial strife, communal unrest, labour-management tussles, generation-gap, ad infinitum. And perhaps we would not be far wrong.
The etymology of the word ‘communication’ itself has interesting connotations for gender, coming as it does, from the Latin communicare, meaning to impart, share, or make common. The Latin munus is suggestive of gifts or duties offered publicly and with a generous heart. The Latin unio stands for union and cum for ‘with’ or ‘together with’.
If we link this to the concept of a holistic union wherein was born a cosmic consciousness, we would then perhaps be approaching the lodestone of present-day gender debates where inequalities and imbalances never cease. And also arrive at closure.
Ardhnarishvara (half god and half goddess)or the eternal androgyne [originating from the Greek words andre = man and gune = woman] is a metaphysical concept when we view it as half God (Shiva/Purush) and half Goddess ( Parvati/Shakti/Prakriti/Nari)--a composite form representing harmony, resolution and balance in a holistic union, with purush being the essential catalyst and the prakriti being the eventual power in giving birth to the universe [Pande, 2004: 19] Shiva is the name of an important Indian God from the Hindu lexicon. Parvati/ Shakti/ Prakriti are the names given to his consort. Purush and Nari denote man and woman respectively]. Even a cursory look at our art and culture reveals the fervour with which this union was celebrated as also its almost routine-like acceptance. The sensuality of our sculptures was not besmirched for centuries, because a physical union was recognised as but a prelude, to the eventual spiritual union with a Higher Power. Our folk culture too retained the purity of its earthiness as it was but a natural, familiar manifestation of the raw rhythm of the land which gave it birth.
But then came kitsch art--it took the purity away from elite art and the context away from the folk art and gave us something that was not just a shell but an obscene mockery. And the media that we have today is nothing but a platform for this popular culture, catering to the base sensibilities of a mass audience [Arendt, 1960: 281].
When debating the issue of gender and the media arising from within the broader term of(‘communication’)we can broadly put it into perspective at three levels of intertwined thought and action:
The participation of women in decision-making and expression in the media i.e. at the level of source.
The representation or portrayal of women and gender relations in the media i.e. at the level of the message.
The impact of this portrayal i.e. at the level of the receiver.
History is full of examples of oligopolistic control over communication media – either by priesthoods or by governments or military or business houses – ebbing and flowing as a result of complementary and contradictory changes in regulation, markets, the political environment, and technological innovations. With the rise of satellite, wireless and Internet communication platforms, territorial and institutional boundaries are now crossed at will. Companies that form the core of global media networks are pursuing policies of ownership concentration, inter-company partnerships, platform diversification, audience customization, and economies of synergy with varying degrees of success. For instance, a handful of companies [Disney, Time Warner, Viacom, Bertelsmann, NBC Universal, Fox Studios (News Corp, CBS) control global media through a dense web of partnerships and cross-investments, effectively reprogramming the regional market toward a commercial format that facilitates the connection with its business networks.
And these networks are what companies target today as they seek to diversify their portfolios to impact an increasingly fragmented audience. Media organisations have more platforms with which to deliver audiences to advertisers, but the process of targeting, distributing and controlling messages is simultaneously becoming more complicated as therein hinges critical advertising markets. Given the convergence of communication technologies, the concentration of ownership and the shrinking of independent creative alternatives, the notion that a new abundance of hundreds of channels will provide greater choice is a technocratic fantasy. The most profitable programs now being mass-produced for the vast majority of viewers run on more channels more of the time [Gerbner et al: 1994]. The result: a content strategy structured around “whatever it takes to sell”, and invariably what sells is what appeals to the largest common denominator. And what appeals to the largest common denominator is usually base content or mainstream content.
The first evidence of global impact on local media markets is the direct import of programming and channels such as CNN, Fox, ESPN, HBO, and other transnational media channels. The second is the adoption of this corporate-driven media model by players further down the media chain. Several scholars have written about the diffusion of corporate and cultural formats from the global to the local sphere. Thussu  describes the “Murdochisation of the media” in India as “the process which involves the shift of media power from the public to privately owned, transnational, multimedia corporations controlling both delivery systems and the content of global information networks” [1998: 7]. This “Murdochisation” is characterised by “a tendency toward market-driven journalism thriving on circulation and ratings wars; transnational influence of US-inspired media formats, products and discourse; and lastly, an emphasis on infotainment, undermining the role of the media for public infotainment.” The subsequent trivialisation of public debate includes the gender equation.
Another crucial factor is the presence of a certain degree of institutional sexism within the media. Research has revealed that the existence of gender discrimination in hiring and work allocation. Former Managing Director at the Independent, Amanda Platell [1999: 144] talks of institutional sexism as being “endemic” in newspapers: “it’s about pigeonholing women journalists, denying equality of pay and conditions and opportunities, demeaning them and making assumptions about them. It is about a widespread and inherent belief by some men that women can’t quite cut it, that newspapers are a man’s world, that women are good for only one thing – ‘features’ – and that ritual humiliation is a way of keeping girls in their place”. According to Chambers et al [2004:1], women journalists present a paradox: while their presence is now commonplace in media, they continue to be marked as ‘other’ from their male colleagues – “In print news, official rhetoric proclaims that a journalist’s gender is irrelevant. However, while maleness is rendered neutral and male journalists are treated largely as professionals, women journalists are signified as gendered their work is routinely defined and judged by their femininity ... Women are still concentrated in sectors to be considered ‘soft’ news such as those with an emphasis on ‘human interest’ stories, features and the delivery of magazine-style journalism. In television – where spectacle counts – emphasis on the decorative value and even sexualisation of women journalists is overt.”
According to British journalist Ginny Dougary [1994: 53], “the very choice of words is revealing: soft equals human interest, which for some reason is considered to be female, a suggestion of fuzziness, vulnerability, warmth, bordering on the sentimental; hard equals male, with inescapably phallic overtones, tough, gritty, unequivocal cold logic”.
“Symbolic annihilation”, a term coined by George Gerbner [1972: 34], is a powerful and widely used metaphor to describe the ways in which media images render women invisible. This ‘mediated’ invisibility is achieved not simply through the non-representation of women's points of view or perspectives on the world, but also by a ‘visibility’ which reflects the biases and assumptions of those who define the public - and therefore the media agenda.
Content analyses across several decades [for instance, Comstock: 1991; Greenberg and Brand: 1994; Signorielli: 1989, 1993] indicate that certain groups – minorities, elderly, women in certain genres – are not only misrepresented i.e. portrayed stereotypically but also underrepresented in relation to their numbers in the real world.
A study by the Delhi-based, Media Study Group, between 30 May and 3 June 2006 on the social background of 315 key decision makers (up to top 10 persons involved in taking news and editorial decisions of any news organisation) from 37 ‘national’ media organizations (newspapers, magazines, news channels and news agencies) revealed the following facts:
Hindu upper caste men constitute 71% of the key decision makers of the national media even though the barely comprise 8 % of India's population.
Gender bias rules: only 17 % of the key decision makers are women. Their representation is better in the English Electronic media [32 %].
Media's caste profile is equally unrepresentative. 'Twice born' Hindus [dwijas comprising Brahmins, Kayasthas, Rajputs, Vaishyas and Khatris] are about 16 % of India's population, but they are about 86 % among the key media decision makers in this survey. Brahmins [including Bhumihars and Tyagis] alone constitute 49% of the key media personnel.
Dalits and adivasis are conspicuous by their absence among the decision makers. Not even one of the 315 key decision makers belonged to the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes.
The proportion of OBCs is abysmally low among the key decision makers in the national media: they are only 4 % compared to their population of around 40 % in the country.
Muslims are severely under-represented in the national media: they are only 3 % among the key decision makers, compared to 13.4% in the country's population.
Christians are proportionately represented in the media (mainly in the English media): their share is about 4 per cent compared to their population share of 2.3 %.
Gallagher [1995: 3] suggests that the occasional promotion of a woman into senior management can sometimes function as a kind of alibi, allowing male-dominated management structures to continue unperturbed by any distinctly female influence: “this ‘one at a time’ mentality vis-a-vis women in senior media management precludes any possibility of women building up the kind of power base necessary for real change--either in terms of media output or in terms of the way in which media institutions are organised and managed”.
This is not to say that the situation would reverse itself were women to dominate the upper echelons of power. The situation as it exists today does so even as quite a few women are in key-decision making positions. The production house responsible for churning out the K-brand of serials is a woman--Ekta Kapoor. Many of the candy floss films, with item numbers thrown in for good measure, are produced by women. And plenty of inane magazines have women as editors.
Yet, women journalists are more likely than men to experience the working environment in terms of control by others – both in terms of getting responses to their own ideas and in terms of control from superiors. Referring to negative attitudes at the workplace as “subtle anchors” [1996: 15], the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) report pinpoints their manifestation in terms of stereotypes about working women both in and out of their work environments; pressures from families, peers and, in some cases, religious and educational institutions; traditional beliefs about women’s roles that lead to discrimination in access to jobs and in salaries, besides adding to the pressures of balancing work and family. These problems often lead to women passing up on career opportunities, after-office hours networking, avoidance of assignments that involve long working hours, thereby providing opportunities to management for questioning their commitment, which, in turn, translates into the pressure to perform.
Journalism is often defined as a profession to “die for” rather than to “live for” and the statistics corroborate this fact. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists lists the deaths of 802 journalists during the course of duty since 1992 – 13 deaths have already taken place since the start of the current year. 38% of the deaths are amongst journalists covering the political beat; 35% amongst those covering war; 21% amongst those investigating corruption; 14% each amongst those covering crime and human rights; the remaining were covering business, culture and sports. These are the areas in which the stories lie and, by default, the fame. The men in the profession know it, and so do the women. But there are only a few amongst the latter who can take the stress and strain of these strenuous beats and that itself, gives rise to further stress--the stress caused by a feeling of inadequacy, of not being competent enough.
The absence of a women’s “grapevine” can also limit their access to information about fellowships, training opportunities and even promotions. It can also limit their access to contacts who could help them with stories and alert them to special opportunities. Many women point out that they face another disadvantage in cultivating sources, especially in the world of politics, where most important contacts are still men. It is difficult for women to develop the kind of easy, informal relationships with these men that their male colleagues can. But then, they also point out that such fraternising with drinking buddies does not necessarily result in worthwhile stories and instead, can hamper in journalistic work.
Conversely, says the IWMF report, if women journalists succeed in conquering these barriers, their accomplishments are sometimes downplayed and attributed not to merit but to the misuse of their gender. Some survey respondents also mentioned the backlash they experience when their colleagues--male or female--feel threatened by their efforts to move ahead.
While a debate on the origin of women’s oppression remains contestable, the fact there is a certain degree of universality to female subordination in that it exists within every type of social and economic arrangement and in societies of every degree of complexity, indicates a high degree of acceptance. In most national histories, the countries have idealised the private virtues of women and the public roles of men. Though Plato considered women competent to occupy the highest political office, he believed in the compatibility of the household with public life. Marxist feminists attribute the subordination of women to various modes of capitalist production of which family structure and domestic labour form an integral part [Bathla, 1998: 64]. Miles [1986: 37], has named this phenomenon capitalist-patriarchy, “to denote the system which maintains women’s exploitation and oppression”. Other schools of thought focus on social relations becoming the locus of antagonism insofar as they are constructed as relations of subordination. Still others attribute the status of women to their own passivity, “She totally accepts her environment because she has internalised acceptance and submission as a goal in her life” [Gandhi and Shah, 1991: 85].
India, trapped within the complexities of a transitional society with a modern face but traditional soul, is burdened with a collective mindset that is comfortable with men as the ‘food-gatherers outside the home’ and the women as the ‘nurturers within the home’ This public-private sphere divide prevalent in Indian culture is legitimised to a great extent by frequent citation of a section of Indian philosophers, thinkers and opinion leaders. The Manu Smriti, for instance, speaks of the duty that man has towards his ancestors in his worldly life and his duty towards the need of the spirit while a woman’s traditional task is strictly to help a man accomplish his duties. Manu wrote: ‘A woman should never be independent. Her father has authority over her in childhood, her husband in youth, and her son in old age’ [Liddle and Joshi, 1986: 63]. Even Mahatma Gandhi, who was instrumental in bringing women into the national mainstream and who agreed that “woman was suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible”, limited women’s participation to spinning and weaving, both of which he viewed as religious acts in conformity with the nature of womanhood [Gandhi, 1962: 224]. His “ideal woman was the mythical Sita, the self-sacrificing monogamous wife of the Ramayana, who guarded her chastity, and remained loyal to Rama in spite of many provocations” [Jayawerdena, 1986: 96]. Women’s demands were only recognised insofar as they did not interfere with male privileges. “The irrelevance of political equality in the absence of social equality was not recognised” [Liddle and Joshi, 1986: 37], while a male child continued to be recognised as the sole means of rescuing the souls of dead ancestors from hell [Baig, 1958: 112]. The constant misrepresentation and/or under-representation of any social category, points towards a problem that indicates that this disparity could not be an accidental result. It is no surprise then, to find the majority of media content based along conventional lines or rather, the conventions that suit a patriarchal mindset.
Our culture acquaints us with the feminine shakti (power). Does our media? Just how many of these avatars (personas) of the Goddess Durga do we see in our popular culture today? Shailaputri (power), Brahmacharini (devout austerity, way to emancipation--moksh), Chandraghanta (peace, tranquillity and prosperity through bravery and strength), Kushmanda (creator), Skanda Mata (giver of justice), Katayani (benefactor), Kaalratri/Shubhamkari (avenger/protector), Mahagauri (peace and purity) and Siddhidatri (healer).
The word Durga itself comes from durgatinashini, which literally translates into ‘one who eliminates suffering’. Yet, in story after story and in depiction after depiction, the Indian woman is projected as a victim, a foil, a commodity, an object or a body. Her character portrayal is black and white, a caricature of the reality she could be. She is either the sufferer or the one causing the suffering and invariably, it is on one who is of her own gender. The soap opera Saas bhi kabhi Bahu thi being the trend setter (The show ‘Mother-in-law was once a Daughter-in-law’, was the longest running serial on Indian Television, ending a continuous run of eight years in November, 2008 with consistently high Television Rating Points [TRP]. The story revolved around a well-to-do family and the scheming and machinations indulged in by the members, particularly the women).
Yes, life is about conflict. Contrast, after all, is the source of all meaning – good and evil, strong and weak, gentle and harsh, truth and falsehood and so on – it would be difficult to understand one without the presence/absence of the other. But what we see today is a ‘sameness’ brought about by formulaic gender stereotypes. Where are the greys of reality? Or the myriad nature of its conflicts? Is power play only about who will stoke the kitchen fire or jangle the housekeys? Is life’s theatre only within the four walls of the home? Is village life only to do with the tussle between the feudal lord and the peasant woman? Is urban life only to do with unrequited love and unwed motherhood? Are all mothers-in-law bad and all daughters-in law good? Are all sisters-in-law accomplices and all brothers-in-law rapists? Are husbands either tyrants or wimps? And is a happy ending always a foregone conclusion?
This stereotypical rendering does an enormous injustice to the diversity of women’s lives, roles and experiences and their contributions to the socio-political and economic development of society are often neglected. Further, the dissemination of these messages affects women’s self-confidence, mobility and subsequently access and participation in public spaces, solidifying the status quo.
The preliminary findings of the 4th Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP--he world's largest and longest-running longitudinal research and action initiative on gender in the news media conducted every 5 years) released on March 2, 2010 reveal that the situation has not improved remarkably from 2005. Based on a sample of 42 out of the 130 participating countries, the findings carry an analysis of 6,902 news items containing 14,044 news subjects.
Less than a quarter [24%] of the people heard, seen or read about in mainstream broadcast and print news worldwide is female. This represents just a 7% increase in 15 years: the first GMMP report in 1995 recorded that only 17% of the people in the news were women, the second recorded 19%, the third 21%. The increase in women as news subjects was even smaller in topics that rank high on the agenda of the news media: 4% in stories on politics & government and just 1% in stories on the economy.
To make matters worse, a significant component of the 3% increase in women in the news between 2005 and 2010 is apparently due to the notable increase in women as providers of popular opinion i.e. as ordinary citizens. But they continue to be under-represented as experts [19%] and spokespersons [18%]. In other words, less than one out of every five experts interviewed by news media is female.
It appears that women are still five times as likely as men to be portrayed in their roles as wives, mothers, and so on: 19% of women appearing in the news are identified by their family status while only 4% of men in the news are described in that way. Similarly, with regard to the occupations of news subjects, the categories in which women make it over the 50% mark are home-maker/parent and student/pupil/school child. The next few categories in which women are reasonably well-represented (just below 50%) are: villager or resident engaged in unspecified occupation; office or service worker/non-management worker in office, store, restaurant/catering; and unemployed. The only other categories in which women make a respectable showing are: celebrity, artist, actor, writer, singer, radio or television personality; and child, young person (below 18 years).
In the light of the above it becomes a moot point as to how women can mediate change on a large scale without the amplifying platform of the media being made available to the change agents? It also brings us to another point – what if we consider the media as a mere reflector? Two recent reports draw a grim picture of female reality, one that needs to be projected in the media but is not.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report, ‘Power, Voice and Rights: a Turning Point for Gender Equality in Asia and Pacific’, released on March 8, 2010, reveals shocking levels of gender disparity in the Asia-Pacific region. Even though women comprise 51% of the population in most regions worldwide, in Asia-Pacific it is 49% [India: 48.2%, Pakistan: 48.5%, Bangladesh: 48.8%, Nepal: 50.4% and Sri Lanka: 50.5%]. The “missing women” are a result of discriminatory treatment in access to health and nutrition or through pure neglect or because they were never born in the first place. Sex selective abortion and infanticide has resulted in approx 96 million missing women in 7 countries. And if born, the neglect does not stop. In India, on average 72 out of 1000 male children under the age of 5 died in 2006, as compared to 81 female children.
The report also said that women suffer from some of the world’s lowest rates of political representation, employment and property ownership in the Asia-Pacific region. (Despite the Women’s Reservation Bill having been passed by the Rajya Sabha in India, it still has a long way to go before becoming an Act) Nepal already has 33% women in parliament without quotas while Afghanistan has reserved 27% in its lower house. Even Pakistan, with a reservation of 17%, now has 21% women members. Overall, the number of female parliamentarians in the Asia Pacific are 18.2% - lowest after the Arab states. Average participation of women in public life in countries without quota is 14% and in those with quota is 22%.
The report also looks at areas of economic power and legal rights to analyse the status of women in the Asia Pacific region. Citing how gender equality makes for good economics, the findings show a rise in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) with an increase in women workers. “Reaching 70% - the level of women’s labour market participation in the United States – would boost GDP in India by 4.2%,” the report says. Lack of women’s participation costs the region about $89 million every year, it estimates. To overcome discrimination, the report stresses on women’s rights to ownership and control of assets, quoting a study from Kerala, where 49% of the property-less women reported long-term physical violence by spouses relative to 18% and 10% to those owning land or a house respectively.
Many schemes put in place, notably the incentive-based Ladli (girl child) scheme by the Delhi Government introduced from Jan 1, 2008 saw the skewed sex ratio right itself to 1004 girl babies per 1000 boy babies in early 2008. But since the ratio as per registered births went down to 975 in the latter half of the year, certainly there was corruption somewhere as is the case with various other schemes. The Shagun scheme of the Punjab Government being one such instance. Cheques of Rs 15000/- were found issued to even issueless women as opposed to two daughters of Scheduled Caste families.
But we do not see development support communication happening in the media. The schemes are treated as events where the focus is on the politician launching it. A raid on a sex-determination clinic is another event as is an incident of domestic violence. The focus is barely ever on the issue because there is no drama in the details. Moreover, news is constructed within the parameters of a bureaucratic universe. The news which requires trouble to be obtained is invariably marginalised as the resources to do so are usually inadequate. Therefore, the press normally records what has been recorded for it by the apparatuses of the institutions in their beat areas. It also implies that ordinary people have only a remote chance of being caught in the news net because of their invisibility and lack of power [Bathla, 1998: 81].
Yet another study brings forth another dismal picture. Conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences, Mumbai and the Population Council, New Delhi in 6 states - Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu – wherein 2/5ths of India lives, revealed that only 1 in 7 respondents had met her spouse before marriage. Only 27% said they took their own decisions as compared to 56% men. 58% felt it is fine if their husbands beat them up. Only 4% men had curbs put on their movements as compared to 22% unmarried and 31% married ones. 25% never attended school as compared to 8% men. Only 11% had a bank account. Out of these less than half had the freedom to operate it. Political and community participation was negligible with only 15% women as compared to 45% admitting to participating in health drives, festivals etc. Only 60% eligible women voters did so. 1/5th got married before 15 and 47% had their first pregnancy before the age of 18.
Television is more than a stimulus to which people unconsciously respond. For many people television is a rich and intricate part of the social fabric of their everyday lives. They retell jokes and stories seen on television. They incorporate television characters into their dreams and fantasies, memorize dialogues that then become part of the lexicon of popular culture.. young children act out scenes from programs and news events, pretending to be televised characters and people. To many, television serves as a friend, teacher and advisor.
Condry  charted the three most frequently engaged-in activities of sleep, school and/or work, and watching television at 5-year intervals from birth to 70 years of age. Except for the very first few months, television viewing is omnipresent. Only among very young children does any other leisure activity, free play, outrank it [Timmer et al: 1985].
In their experiment on the priming role of stereotypical depictions on subsequent interpretations, Hansen and Hansen [1988: 287-316] found that participants who had been exposed to stereotypical programming where women were shown as pawns and sexual objects and men were shown making sexual advances, were more primed to accept stereotypical gender behaviour as opposed to those who watched neutral programming.
Just what are the emotions aroused in us by this commodified gender depiction? Do we have a climate of sexual respect? Do we get to applaud the village woman who took on the khap panchayat? [The concept of Khap emerged in the 14th century on the behest of the upper castes in Haryana. It comprises of a cluster of villages united by caste and geography. Khap Panchayat is the governing body. They have recently come into disrepute for ordering the killings of all couples who marry within the caste, as, according to the khap panchayat, they are siblings]. Do we get to read about the group of women who started a rural newspaper or who manage the community radio station? Does the media bring us the real heroines with as much frequency as it does the pseudo ones cluttering Page 3?
But is this the position I want to occupy? – is what the New Age Woman needs to ask herself. She needs to stand up and question the pictures put in her head by the media. The younger generation has begun to debunk the stereotype. The metrosexual man and the New Age Father are no longer oddities but they are still not the norm.
The National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) Crime Clock reports: one rape every 29 minutes, one murder every 19 minutes, one kidnapping every 23 minutes, one dowry death every 77 minutes, one molestation every 15 minutes, one violent crime 3 minutes, one cheating case every 10 minutes, one dacoity every 2 hours, one riots every 9 minutes, one arson every hour, one theft every 2 minutes, one property crime every 5 minutes, one crime against children every 35 minutes. The Percentage increase in crime since 1953 has been astronomical: Rape: 678% Murder: 231% Kidnapping: 356% Robbery: 120%.
Certainly the media is not responsible for it all – issues of economic parity, migration, literacy…all make up a complex fabric of reasons. But media is responsible for the representation and projection of the sexual climate operating in our country and ultimately our perception of it. And perception, as you know, is often the precursor of action.
Yes, we can blame the market, the consumer, the women who are the prime viewers of the soap operas. We can also blame those who object but keep quiet, giving rise to the oft quoted adage: ‘The consumer is not objecting’. TRPs do not lie and they are the crux in the business of communication. But should profit always be the end objective? What about giving people what they need rather than what they want? Other than being a reflector, the media is also supposed to be an educator, a change agent, a catalyst.
Jennings et al [1980: 203-210] conducted an experiment to examine whether viewing traditional or non-traditional images of femininity might affect women’s subsequent self-confidence and independence. Two groups of female participants were asked to rate two sets of TV commercials, one showing males and females in traditional domestic roles and the other showing role reversal. After this the participants were assigned tasks that tested their self-confidence and independence of thought. It was found that the women who saw the counter-stereotypical commercials exhibited more confident verbal and non-verbal behaviour as compared to those who saw the stereotypical commercials.
Majority of the content in the entertainment industry follows the formula laid down by the Box Office success stories. As is the case with the TRP-attracting soap operas. Any deviation from the formula does not go down too well nor does too direct an attack on patriarchy – the controversy over films like Fire and Water being cases in point, the former showed males in a poor light, the latter, the system. Bollywood films like Arth, Kya Kehna and Damini, which too were radical, did not attract the same amount of social ire because both had the male protagonist in an actively positive role.
But being entertainment, we deal with it at a different level. There is a willing suspension of belief and a rational knowledge that our emotions will be played with. The real tragedy is when the news channels too jump onto the entertainment band wagon. Terrorism becomes theatre, tragedy becomes a farce and heroism becomes cinema, complete with background score and special effects. And we climb on to the emotional roller coaster again but now dangerously in real time.
Here too stereotypes come into play. Media is often accused of generating the ‘Weeping Mother’ syndrome. The theatrics, the drama, the breathless reporting and the hyperventilation were the same in the coverage of 26/11 [the terrorist attack on Mumbai] as it was in Kargil [a mini war between Pakistani and Indian troops in the Kargil border area over violation of the Line of Control], the first televised war of May 1999 and the Kandahar hijacking [an Indian Airlines flight from Nepal was hijacked to Afghanistan supposedly by a Pakistan-based terrorist group. Three Islamic militants were released from Indian jails in return for the safety of the passengers] that followed in December. There was a round-the-clock crescendo of television news bulletins, special newscasts, a slew of ‘expert analysts’ and everything was ‘breaking news’ with excessive footage of the destruction, the blood, the mayhem, anguished relatives, old mothers, young brides, dramatic headlines and constant hectoring of an inept government by the media. Media generation of the ‘Weeping Mother Syndrome’ was seen in full swing and in the Kandahar case constructed a fast-forward effect, leaving no time for procrastination which is a significant feature in all hostage negotiations. This limited the options available to the government and forced an eventual, essentially premature and sub-optimal decision that led to the release of five terrorists in exchange for the hostages. One of the militants went on to kill Daniel Pearl and participate in the 9/11 massacre; another went on to form the Jaish-e-Mohammad and lead the attack on Indian Parliament in December.
Effects of media representation can also be seen in terms of privacy issues. Meyrowitz  opened up a whole new set of questions in his provocative book, No Sense of Place wherein he posited that the changes that take place in one’s perceptual mindset is through the access that television provides to people’s “backstage behaviour”. This is behaviour that is not meant to be seen by the audience, behaviour outside of a person’s public role-playing behaviour. For instance, on television children get to see parents’ marital problems, which might be hidden from their view at home; or teachers’ personal lives or the personal foibles of politicians. Access to backstage behaviour, Meyrowitz posited, leads to a sense of closeness with these authority figures but also a loss of respect – both familiarity and contempt. He also introduced the concept of media “friends”, the illusion heightened by television of knowing and interacting with people one has never met. Horton and Wohl  called this a parasocial relationship and noted that it has the greatest impact on the socially isolated. When the same presentation is made across media, a particular climate comes into existence and becomes the mediated reality. For instance, the perception of gender.
The work of Kinder  discusses similar issues in a more extreme form. In taking up the issue of the effect of the primacy of image over thing, she drew attention to the impact of prior media exposure on subsequent interaction with and evaluation of many types of people of various ages, occupations, genders, ethnicities and nationalities. What is “the impact of seeing an imaginary world so full of rich visual signifiers before having encountered their referents or acquired verbal language?” [1991: 35]. A central issue in her work is the postmodern prevalence of the sliding signifiers that “change meaning in different contexts and that derive their primary value precisely from that process of transformation” [1991: 3]. Kinder questioned whether the primacy of image over thing in the media-dominated world [particularly television] encourages “the sliding of the signifier, so that by the time one first encounters, say, an elephant in the zoo, the living animal is merely another signifier for the image already seen on TV in documentaries and animated cartoons – i.e. merely part of the paradigm of elephant signifiers?” [1991: 35].
Yet, one set of propositions that has received minimal empirical testing is Greenberg’s [1982, 1988] “drench hypothesis”. In explaining the potential impact of television’s often stereotypical portrayals, Greenberg proposed that “critical images may contribute more to impression-formation and image-building than does the sheer frequency of television characters and behaviours that are viewed” [1988: 100]. As a result, the strength of particularly salient or meaningful portrayals may override the impact of a media blitz where other messages are concerned. Greenberg’s notions differ from those of cultivation theory in his emphasis on the power of individual portrayals and performances. He asserted that not all portrayals have the same impact and that viewers probably “attend more closely to a limited set of portrayals, ones that become significant for us” [1988:99]. This focus on specific portrayals is especially relevant now because television networks appear to be developing more programming aimed at particular viewing populations instead of general programming that appeals to everyone. This is another area where media can play a development support role.
Interestingly, a growing body of research indicates great variation in viewers’ interpretation of even the most obvious actions and behaviours. For instance, in their examination of undergraduates’ interpretations of two music videos of Madonna, Brown and Schulze [1993: 225-247] reported that perceptions varied greatly and that even this relatively homogenous set of viewers “did not all agree about even the most fundamental story elements”. Thus, given the complexity of actual network content, it should be expected that individual viewers often would see the same material differently and that the effects of this content would vary based on these interpretations [see Gunter: 1988, for a discussion on viewers’ perception of television violence].
Even if viewers did interpret a given material in the same way, some might choose to accept the messages inferred whereas others might be offended by or even reject them. Content is likely to be interpreted in a way that reinforces one’s existing views and perspectives. For instance, Carder  reported that adult females who viewed sex stereotyped commercials as compared to neutral ones, became more offended by sex role stereotyping after viewing them. Similarly, Ward and Wyatt  reported that even when particular characters were seen to represent specific messages, some chose to emulate and embrace such portrayals whereas others rejected them.
Miller and Reeves  found that 3rd and 6th graders who were familiar with female television characters with non-traditional occupations were more accepting of girls aspiring to them. This is how the media can break the stereotypes.
An inclusive and responsible media would evolve over a period of time, but for that a democratic contour is a necessity.
A Call for Change
Explanations for the marginalisation of women’s issues in media range from the perceived ‘non-newsworthiness’ of the issues, role of social stereotypes, lack of female media personnel at the top level, male domination and associations in the public sphere, the ideology and organisation of news itself and so on. But the voices of dissent are becoming louder. Greater rural-urban migration, literacy, information communication technologies, financial independence … all are contributing mechanisms. Suffice it to say that the world has changed and this change transcends national borders and influences state policies, private attitudes, and social behaviour. There is a plurality of discourse that needs to be taken up by the media and for that the women of today have to adopt a multi-pronged approach.
One strategy would be to forge an alliance with the media. To identify the sympathetic and the responsive journalists, documentarians, producers et al. Networking is the need of the hour as is constructive criticism. Browbeating only boomerangs. Gender orientation workshops can be held with media professionals to discourage gender insensitivity and to promote issue-centric rather than event-centric coverage.
Formation of advocacy groups can be another strategy. Docu-dramas, street plays, puppet shows, community radio programs, conferences, seminars etc can be not just platforms for gender equity but also talent spotting occasions for identifying the extension workers who would continue with the work of gender sensitization even after the core team leaves the area.
It is said that to stamp your foot, you first need a leg to stand on. Therefore, it is important to conduct research – surveys, content analysis – to monitor how the media covers the issue of gender and the reaction of the audience to it. The data, collected scientifically, lends its weight to any lobbying that is done with policy makers.
Media literacy is of course a necessary aspect of any gender sensitization exercise. Every profession abides by a code of conduct and so it is with the media. As consumers we need to be aware of what dictates the work ethic of a media professional and ensure that ethics are adhered to. Arrogance without merit and accountability is becoming the hallmark of journalists today. The old guard too have reservations about the new generation of journalists who they perceive to be self-important, self-absorbed and self-indulgent, unwilling to research, listen or take down facts accurately. Says Sathya Saran [2000: 243], former editor of Femina: “There is a major problem of attitude. We were more conscious that we belong to a larger universe and are mere cogs in the wheel. They believe they are the wheel. As a result, they are not willing to learn. So there is a lot of misreporting, sensationalizing, irresponsibility and lack of empathy in their work.” A competitive, corporate media compounds matters. Instead of the editorial hierarchy being party to the crime, there is an urgent need for the seniors to play mentor.
A holistic media education is also the need of the hour, one that sensitizes students to gender issues and human rights within the socio-politico reality.
Information Communication Technology has blurred all standard definitions and theories of communication. New Media is an empowering agent that allows one to surpass all boundaries of public and private sphere provided one harnesses its technology. It can generate support groups, turn each person into a citizen journalist and make every voice heard the world over at the touch of a button.
When we turn the media into our narcotic, what does it tell us about ourselves? Are our lives so drab that any excitement, anywhere would do? Is an intellect born out of reason to be sneered at? Or perceptions born out of understanding? We cling on to the stereotypes because they are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.
There is the need to understand that at a particular level, we all transcend gender. It is the underlying urge in us which attains the ‘perfect’ or leads to the ‘perfect’ – to a space where there is unanimity, equanimity and a complete fusion of the possibilities of self. To be born is not to begin life but to become life. To begin life is to posit a subject who can be made use of by others. To become life is to affirm a creative self, a constantly changing and mutating self; a becoming self which can live in affinity with others [Pande, 2004: 30].
The obstacles will always be there – patriarchy, stereotypes, sexual harassment, pay inequities, gender hierarchies, skewed role allocations and other systemic challenges – but if we come back full circle to the concept of Ardhnarishvara, then the Shakti is within us all – both men and women.
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