Portrayal of Women in Indian Media

Smiti Padhi*


This research article aims to highlight the various initiatives taken by the media worldwide and in India to promote a gender neutral society and enumerate certain case studies from films, ads and the media where the media has done its best to perpetuate gender bias and accentuate gender stereotypes existing in society.


While a 2012 report of the World Bank on “Gender Equality and Development” estimates that around 2.5 lakh girls were killed in India due to their sex over the last twenty years, the 2011 census shows that the sex ratio in the age group 0-6 had fallen in 21 states and union territories from 2001. Media, undoubtedly, plays a vital role in shaping our disposition towards women .The report of the world conference of United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Copenhagan, July 1980, acknowledges the power of mass media in the following words: – “……Mass media can help remove prejudices and stereotypes, accelerate the acceptance of the new role of women in society and promote their role as equal partners in the process of development.”

Such facts lead us to not only ruminate over the role of media in promoting a gender neutral society, but also deconstruct media messages and reflect upon the gender stereotypes or hierarchy created, maintained and accentuated by our mass mediums like the notions of a woman’s clothes being provocations for rape and abuse, a man being the head of the household, women being the property of a man who is created to attend his needs and comforts, ideas of ‘honour’ of a woman, homemaking being the sole responsibility of women etc. Many a time patriarchal ideology is made to emerge as ‘objective’, non-gendered’ and ‘neutral’ in mass mediums that masses perceive as reality. Working women constantly live with the additional guilt of not being able to coddle and care their family as depicted in mass mediums.

Study Methods

Case studies of Indian advertisements, films, newspaper articles and reports.

Objectives of Study

To assess gender sensitivity of media (films, advertisements, news stories ) in India (selection of stories, portrayal of women, use of gender neutral language, sensitivity towards issues of women etc).

Gender bias in media

Sex and sensation have been the prime drive behind coverage of stories in news media. (Carter & Steiner, 2004, p. 14).Some of the widely prevalent notions of Media organizations in India that result in a biased approach towards women’s recruitment and promotion are as follows: A male would be able to work for longer hours as compared to a female and would be easily available for a night shift as he would have no time constraints posed on him by his family, would not have the fear of being victimized sexually while commuting at odd hours of the night and hence would not demand a pick and drop facility from the media house. A man shall have to focuses only on his work unlike a women who has to  additionally  cater to the needs of family like taking care of kids and in-laws, cooking and doing other daily chores of the house and hence a male is presumed to be more dedicated and sincere towards his work. A man shall maintain continuity in his job even after marriage, unlike a woman who may quit or take a long break from work during child delivery or feeding period. Another prejudice is regarding assignment of beats. Women are mostly assigned soft beats like page 3, culture, health, education while men are allotted beats like crime and politics as they are presumed to do justice to those respective areas. Even if women are recruited they are lesser in number and are seldom able to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and reach decision making levels. This eventually results in a male dominated media house which paves the way for the below mentioned situations:

Most of the happenings are reported through a man’s perspective, women’s issues are inadequately covered, females are underrepresented which creates the notion of men being important and women being unimportant. Second, the language used is many a time not gender neutral. “In the world seen through the lens of the media, social and occupational roles are almost completely divided along gender lines. When women appear at all – and numerous studies around the world document their dramatic under-representation in almost all kind of media content – they tend to be depicted within the home and are rarely portrayed as rational, active or decisive”. Source: Women and the Media, by Margaret Gallaghe, UN International Author Series, UN Department of Public Information, March 1995.Celica Benoit author of Women, Work and Social Rights states that gendered stereotypes have made it more difficult for women to be taken seriously within the workplace, adding that male colleagues are more respected in these companies for they are perceived to be more dedicated workers (Benoit, 72). Benoit’s findings indicate that the media’s influence constricts both men and women, as the sexes are forced to conform to gendered ideals. It is important to realise that journalists and editors are socialized as men and women long before they choose journalism as their careers and hence it is but obvious on their part to share some, if not all, prejudices of the society. Realizing the importance of the issue, more and more countries all over the world are imparting gender training to the media professionals, issuing guidelines to use gender neutral language, designing strategies to combat gender stereotypes etc.

Gender bias in ads

“The women of the consumerist era is idealised neither as an enlightened mother nor as a self-fulfilled working person, deriving fulfilment from creativity both in realms of the body and the spirit as the equal partner and companion of the man in the process of living. A consumerist society puts the women on the pedestal as the glamorised sex object, alone, her supreme purpose becomes providing titillation to the male dominated world….”.

For instance the brand Thumbs Up has always had only ‘Macho’ males  like Salman Khan as its brand ambassadors, to suit its punch lines like ‘Taste the Thunder’ and thereby represent strength ,while Katrina Kaif is sensuously portrayed in the Aamsutra advertisement of Slice. It’s always Hema, Rita, Jaya or Sushma shown as concerned with washing clothes using Nirma, rather than men. Most often women are shown doing household chores and men working in offices. The vice versa of the aforementioned rarely happens. Images of scantily clad women in suggestive and revealing poses are being used to sell all from mouth fresheners to deodorants today. Insurance companies in their advertisements generally talk about saving for a daughter’s marriage and a son’s higher education, while a contrary portrayal seldom happens.

Gender bias in films

Time and again, his lyrics were termed offensive and he was labelled a misogynist or was accused of churning out lines that were vile rape fantasies, it was ironical that the same Honey Singh went on to be one of the highest paid songwriters in Bollywood. In Bollywood, men are shown to routinely chase and harass women. From age-old flicks to the films of today, images of women being subordinate to men, as being possessions of males, as objects of pleasure etc have been time and again portrayed on the celluloid.

Events from history give us enough reasons to believe that rapes happened because women were considered as the ‘honourable’ belongings of men. In olden days when kings or clans fought, they took away each others’ land, wealth and women. Hindi films too portrayed women as a possession of men .Be it spoilt brats of zamindars or dakus or a filthy villain, their devil would find a way out by molesting or raping a woman. Not only this, a women’s existence was portrayed as vain after she was raped, through monologues and dialogues of Bollywood films like-‘main apavitra ho gayi hoon’ or for that reason ‘main aapke layak nei rahi’, who eventually commit suicide. Such depictions further victimised the victim by consolidating notions like a raped woman is not worthy enough to be marry and hence deserves societal boycott. While Jaya Bacchan in the film ‘Abhimaan’ is seen to say, “Main gana chod dungi”, Zeenat Aman in one of her films talks of quitting her modelling profession. Such portrayals show a woman’s career in secondary light, left to the mercy of the will and whims of her in laws and husband. Similar scenes of docile, delicate heroines waiting for a macho man to come and save her from the clutches of the villain consolidate the image of women as powerless and dependent entity. Besides movies like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, ‘Dirty Picture’, ‘Shootout at Wadala’ etc. portray women as mere objects of sexual pleasure. Amitabh Bachaan’s line in Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham that he reiterates a number of times ‘Bol dia toh bas bol dia’ again depicts the patriarchal mindset of society. It is only he, the man, and the head of the house, who has a say in the turn of affairs while his better half suffers emotionally for the formers’ decisions. These are just a few examples to think of, which quintessentially prove that Bollywood has seldom tried portraying characters without constructing stereotypes.

Changing Scenario

Abhisekh Bachchan is seen to cook and lay dinner for his wife when she returns exhausted after a daylong work in Prestige pressurer cooker ad, unlike the earlier Miss Mary cooker ad whose famous jingle is still fresh in our minds “Zarurat hai zarurat hai zarurat hai ek srimati ki kalawati ki…”.The Nirma girls are today shown to push out a stuck up car amidst a whole lot of passerby who stand watching them do so. Unlike old days advertisements, the Fair and Lovely cream is today used not just to get a good bridegroom, but to succeed as an anchor, actor, air hostess, commentator, model etc. Insurance ads that earlier projected women as beneficiaries of policies only after passing away of a man, today are seeing women as their potential customers and designing ads for them.  Dr A.L.Sharda, the director, Population First, a communication and advocacy NGO, worries at the miniscule level in which the stereotype portrayal of girls or women is changing. While the code for commercial advertising in Doordarshan spells out a clause forbidding ads stressing on “passive and submissive qualities” in women, Dr Sharda thinks lazy advertising and lack of creativity leads to biased and stereotyped portrayal of the fairer sex. She says that efforts to sensitize publications and ad agencies to break stereotypical and unethical projection of women, under her NGO’s decade long campaign titled “Laadli,” has found support from leading agencies like Leo Burnett, JWT ,Lintas etc.


Resulting to a large extent from the impetus provided by the United Nations Decade for Women (1975-85), enactment of the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986, protests and campaigns of media monitoring groups like Committee on the Portrayal of Women in the Media, Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group, Forum Against Oppressed Women etc, mass mediums in India have initiated action, altered codes and mulled over the issue of unethical, biased and stereotyped portrayal of women. Studies like that of Munshi (2000) states that the portrayal of women has changed, but only slightly. Though media alone cannot remove the biases against women in our society altogether that has resulted from centuries of subjugation, yet it can play a vital role in taking conscious initiatives to bring men and women at par and stop justifying the status quo. Given the commercialization of Indian media in the context of market economy today, restricting commoditisation of women would not be a mere cakewalk for the mass mediums.


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