Read a special article on International Women's Day

Women on TV: Now and what next?

Feminism has wrought a monumental change in the repressed realm of female empowerment. Women the world over are celebrating a new kind of freedom- freedom from inhibitions; freedom from the traditional roles of being home-makers and child-bearers assigned to them by a patriarchal society; and freedom from the shame heaped on them for demanding, and getting, their place in the scheme of things.

Modern society is increasingly being dominated by feminist notions and veering encouragingly towards feminization. This surging feminist movement has caught Indian television entertainment on the wrong foot.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in daily life of women’s social awakening and breaking of stereotypes, Indian media and television continue to be in complete denial of it. Contemporary shows aimed at modern audiences have an abundance of outrageous incidents of gender bias and double standards when it comes to depiction of women.

Indian TV clearly hasn’t jumped onto the female equality bandwagon, the equality that has permeated all layers of society today. The current television dramas continue to have a warped outlook on societal mores and it suffices to say that TV-land on the whole is inundated by out-dated ideas and a puritanical attitude when it involves the portrayal of women.

Television is instrumental in perpetuating stereotypes regarding a woman’s role in society, and in ingraining the myth that timid and docile women are good, while outspoken and assertive women are ‘bad’. Indian TV thus becomes an effective vehicle for the vilification of women who dare to break the shackles of patriarchy and assert their rights.

And even in the shows where a woman is shown to follow her heart and achieve success in her life and chosen career, it is always with the blessings of her in-laws and the support of her husband; never without – never ever without. It is as if women on TV lack the willpower to make it on their own steam. And woe betide a woman whose family and husband do not support her endeavour. She is never shown to go against the wishes of her family and build a successful career against all odds. She will mope and weep, but will fall in line with ‘pati parmeshwar’s’ wishes. Such storylines do more harm than good. They only serve to underline the lore that a woman ‘needs’ her man’s support to accomplish whatever she does. If that’s isn’t undermining and questioning a woman’s capability, then pray tell us, what is?

Another major area that Indian TV falters in is the choice of careers heaped on woman protagonists. She could be a dancer, fashion designer, doctor, divorce lawyer, singer or any number of ‘soft’ roles; while all the CEOs, scientists, chief justices, surgeons, presidents or prime ministers, in short, all the high profile protagonists are shown to be men. And where, accidentally or just to balance the numbers, a woman is shown in a high profile career, it is only as an accomplice or a subordinate, working in the shadows of the big guy.

Why this duplicity? It’s like Indian TV serial makers just don’t want to look at the bigger picture even if it smacks them right in the face. In today’s equality-oriented times, modern Indian women have stormed every bastion known to mankind. They are CEOs, astronauts, surgeons, boxers, mountaineers, scientists; ours was the first country in the world to boast a female Prime Minister, for heaven’s sake. Is it asking for too much to move with the times?

Media is a wildly influential tool, which when leveraged in the right way, can bring about far-reaching changes in society. Yet, what do our TV show makers do? They take every chance to display the subjugation of women in all its ugly reality. Rape is still the tool of choice to suppress an outspoken, assertive woman. The recent rape sequence in Nimki Mukhiya is a case in point. On Indian TV, sexually assaulting or humiliating a woman is the de rigueur means to rein her in. It is the most brutal reinforcing of everything that is wrong with Indian society.

And Indian TV, for that matter.

In the midst of all the glitz, glamour and larger-than-life grandeur that are predictable ingredients of our TV  shows, an element of objectification and gender stereotyping hangs in the air and makes its presence felt time and again. Women are inevitably depicted as sex objects who are obsessed with looking good and desirable, while men confirm to roles showing them as decisive and strong.

The guys in the shows get to have all the fun, bashing up villains, being outspoken, macho and aggressive, and generally ending up as glorified heroes in the process. But any girl character who displays the same characteristics is damned to defamation. She is either slut-shamed, made to feel guilty and ostracized for her assertiveness or characterized with negative connotations. The unspoken commandment of TV for good girls is definitely- ‘Thou Shalt Not Speak Up.’ Modesty and chastity in a woman become pre-requisites for her survival.

Indian shows blatantly perpetuate social double standards amongst an impressionable population that develops much of its beliefs on values and morality from television. It’s time for the producers of these shows to wake up and smell the coffee. Being independent, assertive and taking a stand is no longer a male prerogative and the sooner they realize it, the better.

Under attack by the marauding forces of feminism, the Indian television industry has been rendered impotent in the bargain. It has been dissected to bits, yanked under the unyielding microscope of radical feminists and re-invented into a strange concoction of contradictory elements. In the emerging social order, the Indian television world faces the perilous risk of slipping into oblivion.

A number of different factors have congregated to give rise to this situation. The new-age woman’s interrogation of age old assumptions about gender equations and their relentless questioning of conventional masculinity have had a seismic effect on popular culture and the way womanhood is perceived and depicted in the prevailing era and media. Many taken-for-granted facets of traditional patriarchal values have been critiqued and replaced with a different set of qualities. Thus the stage has been set for the creation of a new milieu, which is conducive to the flourishing of this new wave of female empowerment.

Taking the good with the bad in her stride, the modern woman marches ahead confidently into the future.

The new woman is as vitally aware of her place in society as never before and isn’t about to give up her new-found financial and emotional freedom for anything in the world. The ball is now in the court of TV show creators, and it’s up to them to shape up to her or ship out.

(Written By Rashmi Paharia)

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