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TV soaps are actually educating rural women in India!

August 30, 2007

Could anyone ever have imagined that our inane television serials would be educative? Well, certainly not those who called television soaps serial killers, convinced that all they had to offer were decadent moral values. Or those who felt that they were turning Indians into idiots because of their sheer stupidity and their inability to talk about serious social issues. Er…I too had similar opinions.

Not any more. These shows may not talk about serious social issues, but they are tackling serious social issues!!

A recent study of 2,700 households (in villages in the four states – Bihar, Goa, Haryana, and Tamil Nadu – and Delhi) from 2001 to 2003, by Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago shows that television is actually helping rural Indian women come out of their shell. Their attitudes seemingly underwent a change, even to an extent that women’s preference for male children fell slightly! And the authors’ “composite autonomy index jumped substantially, by an amount equivalent to the attitude difference associated with 5.5 years of additional education.”

How? Surely, television soaps show regressive values? They mostly show women crying and suffering in a patriarchal set-up. The fact that they often they grin and bear it is a matter of concern. But that’s exactly it. Rural women had no idea that these things were to be ‘borne.’ For them oppression is so normal that they feel it’s deserved!

Surveys from 2001-2003 show:

…that rural Indian women don’t have a lot of control over their lives. More than half need permission from their husbands to go shopping. Two-thirds need their husbands’ permission to visit friends. Spousal beating is common and accepted: Sixty-two percent of women believe that it is sometimes acceptable. Thirty-four percent of the women surveyed believed a husband could hit his wife if she neglected the children, while nearly a third believed that showing disrespect and going places without permission warranted a beating. One fifth of women believe husbands are entitled to hit them for cooking a lousy dinner.

Now these are the little freedoms that most urban educated women take for granted. But didn’t rural women know what sort of life their urban educated sisters led?

Well, to them an urban educated woman would be someone strange, someone alien. A character who probably led an immoral, wasted life and neglected her family. Men who do not believe in womens’ education like to perpetuate this myth. But once this urban educated character stepped right into the homes and hearts of rural women, she suddenly transformed herself from an alien creature to an intimate one. Someone whose heart and mind her rural sister could read. The result? A feeling that hey, she is a woman, and she is just like me.

This study’s findings are not something out of the blue. Earlier, there have been articles on how soaps are positively impacting women in small towns. The soap opera Astitva for example showed changing attitudes towards single and divorced women in a conservative India. A young girl from Bhopal interviewed by the author of this particular article said:

Things are changing. You just have to watch TV, or read the news and you know the world is no longer the same as when my mother was my age.

So even if the women in television soaps are shown suffering, even if they often pay a heavy price for standing up to society, they are also seen as strong and worthy, women who deserve better. And this is what has impressed rural women viewers. Sure, it’s only their attitudes which have changed, and that too far too slightly to have impacted their life in any significant way. But if their behavior hasn’t changed…it’s only a matter of time before it does.

(The second picture copyrighted to me)

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. B Chopra permalink
    August 30, 2007 10:15 am

    and If you notice most of these soaps – they are centered on “Dealing things in Luxury Joint family”.. mostly women is in top make-up, costly jewellary and high worth sarees or overdressed.. and mostly they are busy in solving family related problems.. and NO WORK AT ALL… I am afraid.. all of these things are uncommon in rural India and spreads wrong influence.

    Anyways.. Yes.. TV Soaps are changing our rural india.. Everyone is now dreaming of those lavish lifestyles and thinking of shifting to Metros.. he he

    I remember a old serial.. name: “Udaan”.. it had a good impact on Rural India and it really inspired the generation.

  2. gurdas permalink
    August 30, 2007 12:47 pm


    An interesting angle to the saas-bahu soaps! But before we celebrate the positive impact of these soaps let us also consider:

    1) What is their effect on URBAN women? Negative or positive? How much?

    2) Are there any negative impact on rural women?

    Having said that, I am glad these soaps have some good coming out of them πŸ™‚

    – Gurdas

  3. August 30, 2007 12:50 pm

    Bharat, you have brought out an interesting angle, the negative impact of these serials on rural women. Yes, there is bound to be a negative impact and consumerism is one of those. I am also rather kicked with the idea of a rural woman telling her husband. ‘Ji, can you change the baby’s nappy, I am watching kyuoki!’ πŸ˜€

    Gurdas, I think the impact on urban women would be negative, thats is my opinion. Like all soaps, the story lines are exaggerated and sometimes ridiculous. Anyone who believes that this is reality is in for trouble!

  4. B Chopra permalink
    August 30, 2007 1:43 pm

    One more: Ji, Us dukaan mein Tulsi vaali saree aayee hein.. worth Rs. 8000/-… Please.. I want that.. looks like it’s very trendy!!.. he he

  5. August 30, 2007 5:03 pm

    One more benefit of the TV soaps is that instead of discussing their bahus the old men and women discuss Tulsis and Parvatis. The bahus are spared. I have observed that in these soaps all men are shown as idiots and the women are smart(good or evil possible). They can control businesses manipulate their husbands and do pretty much everything on earth . So true women empowerment πŸ™‚

  6. August 30, 2007 5:08 pm

    I think if men are being shown as idiots perhaps we can hold Ekta Kapoor responsible! πŸ™‚

  7. maliha11 permalink
    August 30, 2007 6:00 pm

    i think that it is a good way to kill time for urban women because they are educated enough to know this is just pure entertainment so we don’t need to worry about that, its actually the young girls who are under 10years who watch these shows they put an idol for that this is how women are suppose to be and thats whats wrong i don’t think that young kids should watch these soaps it matures them way before time!! and for rural areas i think this is really good that they watch these shows because it does empower them, makes them more confident, and able to go on with there lives with out feeling bad. Soaps are good to let you see how funny (in a good or bad way) life could get πŸ™‚
    I think Ekita is doing a great job, and she is a real entertainer.

  8. August 30, 2007 6:13 pm

    You are bang on Maliha! Adults watching such serials is different…but I have also seen people who are addicted to these serials and frankly I feel their world view also changes. There has been a lot of research conducted on the bad effects of tv viewing, in fact hundreds and hundreds of studies! The basic conclusions are that heavy tv watchers tend to have a slightly distorted view of life and of people. They tend to be more suspicious and hostile than those who do not see tv for the simple reason that in serials most the characters are always plotting and conspiring against each other. they have to, because otherwise it won’t make for an interesting serial. in real life, there is more innocence.

  9. August 30, 2007 6:29 pm

    The conclusions of the study as described in your post were not surprising at all, but some of the comments above are more insightful! πŸ™‚

  10. August 30, 2007 8:11 pm

    While I am largely ignorant of daytime soaps or serials as can be seen in Canada, the very few time i have tried to watch, my reaction was to be amazed that only the trappings of “the good life” were emphasized, yet the labours that underscored achieving any kind of reasonable living standard were minimized or not at all showcased. To my mind this represents a severe disconnect from life as we all must live it and sets up a fantasy that we must try to achieve because “desire” is what the soaps are selling. Frustrated desires cause an awful lot of needless discontent, and sometimes adopting behaviours that are, in the long run, unhealthy and socially divisive. Just a thought.
    As one of your commenters stated, the shifting urbanization of populations in India (and elsewhere) perhaps this dissatisfaction with life propels large groups to congregate in cities – in search of a better life – and this puts a lot of pressure on infrastucture of cities and as well degrades the value of rural living and of it’s necessity to provide sustenance for the cities. Maybe such structural problems might be addressed in the soaps in India (and alsewhere) but soaps peddle the fantasy, not reality with all of its difficulties. G

  11. August 30, 2007 9:48 pm

    This is nothing new. Hum Log in the 80’s was produced using the Sabido method.

  12. August 30, 2007 10:01 pm

    Mahendra, actually I was a little surprised! Never realised that rural women would accept these kind of ideas.

    Suburban, I agree with you whole-heartedly. These soaps peddle fantasy. People who are addicted tend not to see that.

    Amit, I got the impression that the serials mentioned in the link you gave were deliberately made to create social change. I remember Hum Log, it was during my time. that too had a similar objective. It was meant to have a social message. This study is about the zillions of inane soap operas on tv like saah and bahu type of serials. sure, the social message serials would be included too I am sure. but its about cable tv and soaps in general.

  13. oemar permalink
    August 31, 2007 7:06 am

    Nita, by writing this post you have saved a life. Not mine….. Ekta Kapoor’s. Reading all the good effects of her mindless soaps, I think I can postpone the murder plans πŸ˜‰

  14. Nil permalink
    September 1, 2007 4:39 pm

    The matriarchal roles in Ekta Kapoor-made soaps do indeed portray women who struggle yet fight against the wrong doings around them. It might not seem too much on the surface–generic, wealthy, traditional Indian families based in Mumbai and other cities. HOWEVER, within this environment the mothers, daughters, daughter-in-laws, etc do have personal battles and are shown to come out on top. I’m actually quite surprised with how much power and influence these women have, despite being fictional characters. The storylines can be a bit farfetched, but it’s wonderful if they have this empowering effect on rural women.

    Looks like there’s a lot more to the Tulsi’s, Parvati’s, Prerna’s, Gauri’s, etc than meets the eye πŸ™‚

  15. Prasenjit permalink
    January 19, 2008 5:08 pm


    I hate these serials. Only once I sat thru the whole evening. Then, in the last five years simply didn’t see one single episode, except one serial of Smriti Irani (name forgotten) where she fights on issues stretched between family and busines. A relatively better one.

    However, a few observations.

    1. The market and society is multilayered. there’s a space for everything. Hence, perhaps, there’s space for Ektaa too.

    2. Umpteen experiments on social engineering has proven that you cannot truly engineer society directly. You can only induce. It will be difficult for a badly packaged serial like Humlog to make any effect today. However, a better packaged Taare Zameen Pe makes an effect. Hence, induction/inducing is a better way than preaching. But someone has to take the initiative. I guess some media concerns are rising up to the opportunity. I surprisingly find workers in a barber shop keenly watching a Discovery Show. But please remember you can’t always make content with messages.

    3. The greatest flaw in Ekta’s serials is that she shows women with staunch patriarchal values to be good and succesful. However, it may be a double edged sword. It may have actually helped the rural women (and many others) to identify themselves and gain self -confidence, that even within this parameter they may make a mark.

    But, on the lighter side, sometimes it’s really relaxing to check out the well-packaged women in the eve, say for 5 or 10 minutes. πŸ˜‰

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