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Media portrayal of women

October 17, 2006

Some thought it ‘cute’ – a photograph in an English daily of the future mayor of Mumbai shown cooking in her kitchen.

But why, one wonders, should a person who wishes to hold an important public post, be placed in the kitchen? Who has ever seen a picture of a male politician carrying the bazaar bag home, or changing the bulb?

Media decides the context in which a woman should be placed, and reinforces it constantly. Take, for instance, an episode of Crime Time on TVI channel. The subject: difficulties of a woman police officer’s job. The very first visual is of Pratima Sharma, a police inspector, combing her child’s hair and saying how much she loves to cook. In the next scene, her husband describes how much the family suffers due to his wife’s job.

Even Phoolan Devi the dacoit was shown serving food to her husband.

The media loves to see women as home-makers. And it loves to see her as an avid consumer. The woman is the one who buys without end and her hair, her dress, her shoes, each bears the stamp of the latest, the most expensive products. Practically no woman in any of the serials repeats a dress. She makes sure that her house is decorated with the latest gadgets and that her family spends their holidays in places straight of out travel company brochures.

‘Though the media purports to project the modern, liberated woman, it is actually endorsing women as consumers,’ says Malini Bhattacharya, erstwhile M.P. and professor. ‘This is derogatory to the image of women and is only remotely linked with their real concerns.’

A study conducted by the Delhi based Media Advocacy group highlighted instances of stereotyping and of discrimination.

Interviews of men in newspapers, says the study, hardly ever mentions their marital status or their dress sense. The focus is on their work. By contrast, women achievers are subject to irrelevant, even distasteful queries. Take for example the interview of Tarjani Vakil, a banker, which was carried in a leading daily. The interview treated the reader to colourful details about her appearance and personal life, such as her penchant for beautiful sarees, her decision to stay single, and her living in an extended joint family. Her feminine qualities like her soft voice were emphasised and she (so said the article) was ‘no power lady.’

The amount of coverage women get overall is also much less that men do. The study reveals that men are provided with a larger number of opportunities to present their viewpoints and shown in diverse roles…in all areas like administration, law, business, science and technology. Representation of women varies from negligible to total exclusions and women in certain accepted professions are interviewed and talked about. For example women educationists or women doctors. If they are interviewed for achieving success in a ‘male’ profession, then the article often goes to great pains to point out her ‘feminity’. For example in a television interview the senior police officer Kiran Bedi was asked if she liked to cook.

Even when the issue of reservation of seats for women in panchayats was discussed on television, it was men who did the talking while women sat as silent spectators.

When expert opinion is sought on an issue, 90 per cent of the people interviewed by the media are men. When women were shown leading dharnas against the Dunkel Draft, not even a woman parliamentarian like Margaret Alva was approached for her views.

‘We have been living with this stereotyped representation of women for years,’ says Father Rosario, the executive Director of the Chitrabani film Institute. ‘The media does try to establish a woman’s feminity, especially if she is a successful woman.’

While the women in Bollywood films may no longer be portrayed as self-sacrificing door-mats, they are often portrayed as hysterical bimbos. Screaming, yelling, and crying is part and parcel of woman’s reaction to a stressful situations, never mind if in real life it’s the men who make the most noise. Also, there are any number of movies where women who assert themselves are considered ‘bad’ while men, even if they tease and hit women are considered ‘heroes’.

(This is an edited version of the article that was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta.)

Note: Not much has changed where portrayal of women in the media is concerned. Though more films are being made with women in strong roles, these are mostly the women-centric films. An exception was seen in the latest commerical Hindi film Kabhi Albida Na Kehna. Preeti Zinta was portrayed as a calm, cool woman who could take her own decisions. However the film itself wasn’t a good one! And today on Indian soaps, women are portrayed quite badly, perhaps worse than before. As evil scheming and selfish.

October 30th: Even Kiran Desai, the winner of the Booker prize this year for her novel The Inheritance of Loss was questioned about why she was not married and did not have children. In her characteristic way she replied that writing took her to a ‘lonely dark place’ and she would not have been able to give a child what he/she needed…but I wonder if a man would have been asked this question? I mean, here is a woman who is obviously not married and she must have good reason for it…why embarrass her about it?

Related reading: Women are not supposed to have any feelings!
Widowed,divorced, unmarried -single mothers face an uphill task
How hollow beauty contests really are
why men beat women
India’s poor sex ratio
Is India really superior to the US when it comes to empowerment of women?
Side-effects of the shortage of women
The devaluation of cooking
Matriarchal societies – did they ever exist?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Shrirang Talwalkar permalink
    October 21, 2006 4:40 am

    I don’t recall seeing Mrs Indira Gandhi in the kitchen. I doubt Sonia ever is shown cooking. Why do these women get a different treatment?

    I think the media appeals to the lowest common denominator (LCD) in the society. It (LCD) can be raised only through education and getting away from social and religious dogma. Until that happens this will not change. It is no different in the US as witnessed by the fact that a woman has little chance of becoming the President. May be Hillary Clinton will be an exception by the sheer force of her personality.

  2. October 21, 2006 7:09 am

    True, both Indira and Sonia were revered personalities…they have a demi-god status in India.
    I always wondered how it was in the US. For example, how are successful women portrayed? Or why hasn’t a woman become President till now? Why a woman became PM here is clear. Our society always worshipped women, its in our religion. We have goddesses. Intrinsically, Hindusim revers women, notwithstanding later literature.

  3. November 30, 2006 5:34 pm

    I am carrying out research into the representation of women in action adevnture films and would be greatful if you could look at my blog and tell me your view on the way women are represented. thankyou

  4. May 5, 2007 10:11 am

    It is the same in every developing country. for some reason, you have to be the one to “balance” a home life with one at work. Whilst the man can basically do as he pleases. i guess it stems from not making men accountable for their actions. For all the corruption out there, carried on by men I might add, not one of them is being called out. Just let one woman be caught in a compromising situation and all hell will break loose.
    Frankly as a Nigerian woman, I am exhausted by the whole issue. The problem is also because women themselves are unwilling to go above and beyond their abilities. In every home where a woman is unhappy, her greatest protagonist is usually another woman; one that has either alot of influence over her or her husband

  5. Pat permalink
    March 17, 2008 8:59 am

    Media that reinforces women’s vulnerability or service role in society teaches men to trivialize women, and to justify female chastisement by men which leads to sexual objectification and tolerance of female rape, battery, and domesic violence.

  6. February 25, 2011 5:30 pm

    it is nice 2 hear something interesting in this page many things are quite new to me
    felt very gud for getting all the information under one page itself

  7. Deependra permalink
    January 27, 2012 11:14 am

    I may sound a bit naive but I could not find what is so demeaning in the activity of cooking. It may be questionable that why only a women is shown working in the kitchen but if both the genders start thinking that cooking is the responsibility of other half then I am sure young members of the family are going to starve. Somebody has to do it but please dont show the activity itself in poor light. I doubt if in the families which have attained affluence and could afford domestic help as well, the woman there don’t look after the kitchens. There has to be a division of work in the family – if the woman wants to take up the jobs which man used to do earlier then it is time that man should switch over to take up the jobs which woman used to do. It may happen that family would have to bear with the poor culinary skills of the man and swallow burnt pancakes or half cooked curry – although no doubt there are number of top chefs amongst men but it can not be deinied that generally their skills are not so good. Or the lady of the house may have to face numerous problems in changing the flat tyre of the car or mending the fence of the house.


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