Where is the real working woman in our TV soaps?

Nalanda Tambe*
Nidhi Shendurnikar Tere **

Over the years, female characters in popular soaps on Indian television have been portrayed repressively; as housewives engaged in domestic chores, as scheming experts playing kitchen politics or as sacrificial goddesses wanting to please their husband and family. The absence of dignified, real and ambitious working women in these soap operas successfully creates and reinforces misleading images of Indian women. It also deepens existing gender stereotypes that prevail in Indian society. Even as traditional realities are glamorized, the distortion of the working woman’s image is apparent. The article examines popular serials and the portrayal of working women professionals in the light of television as a mass medium thriving on ‘infotainment’.

Keywords: working women, television, gender stereotypes, Indian society, distortion, portrayal

Television soaps go Traditional

The advent of globalization and technological advancements raised the bar of television as a mass medium, especially after India liberalized its economy in 1991. The entry of foreign media into the Indian media landscape provided viewers with plethora of choices in terms of media content. However, this was no guarantee of television as an agent for social and political change – a vision for which the state run channel Doordarshan was created after independence. Television became obsessed with the concept of ‘infotainment’ – a combination of ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’ as a result of which profits, revenues and ratings were prioritized. Even as the idea of ‘global village ‘ propounded by Canadian philosopher and theorist Marshal Mcluhan, was realised, the portrayal of women on television left much to be desired. The projection of hackneyed and unoriginal female roles noticeably distinguished between the ‘reel’ and the ‘real’ woman. Headway in technology and modes of production unfortunately could not harmonize with bold and original sketches of Indian women – especially in the context of daily soaps which continued to capture the imaginations of women irrespective of age, caste, language, profession, culture. Though television soaps debate societal issues like marriage, divorce, crime against women, patriarchy, family system, the working Indian woman is conspicuous by her absence.

Trending with the popularity of Ekta Kapoor’s Kahaani “Ghar Ghar Ki” and “Kyuki Saans bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” (2000-2008), women characters were domesticated, seeped into cultural and family values and had roles and responsibilities within the domain of the ‘private’ . These portrayals influenced target audiences to such an extent that female leads in soaps were recognized by the characters that they played. The most prominent example being the recognition of Smriti Irani as ‘Tulsi’ and Sakshi Tanwar as ‘Parvati’. However, female portrayals during this period were completely unreal – with leading ladies as ‘Sanskari’ daughters-in-law whose only job was to hunt for an eligible match, marry, cook, take care of family/children/in-laws, keep the family united and sheltered from of all kinds of evils. The representations were idealistic and idolizing. Female characters were devoid of any natural sense of ambition, desire and self-respect. Audiences were influenced by the way these leading ladies decked up –  patterns and trends in sarees, jeweler, hairstyle and make-up were emulated by young and old alike. However, critics pointed out to evident lacunae in terms of the absence of working women in these serials.

The domestication of Indian women in popular TV soaps continues to dominate the screen even after a decade of the success of Ekta Kapoor’s formula . Thus, the claim that the Indian woman no longer occupies only the household and is very much a part of the professional world remains a false one. It is rare to witness stories that depict women successfully in both personal and professional roles. In the following section, we present glimpses from many popular soaps and their understanding of domesticity of women and Indianness.

Glimpses

Jaya Chakravarty in her book Women in Journalism observes the inclination of popular soaps to project and encourage women “to become better housewives by keeping their homes pretty, learning to cook the best foods, to win the man through his stomach and take lessons in body and skincare” – thereby turning them into sophisticated slaves of the modern age. As decorative elements, these women rarely are shown as capable professionals. Economically independent, ambitious, career-minded women who assert their individuality and attempt to act rationally are termed as self-centred, ruthless, domineering and the ones who are not bothered about their husbands and families. The economically independent woman is portrayed as a smoking, boozing neurotic who pursues men with single-mindedness, unbecoming of a woman (Chakravarty, 2002). In the popular serial ‘Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai’ (2009) on Star Plus the protagonist Akshara (Hina Khan) is content to raise a family with Naitik Singhania (Karan Mehra) and be with her in-laws until Naitik injures himself in an accident and is bed ridden for four years. This is when Akshara is expected to take up the responsibilities of the business that the Singhania’s run. Until then she remains aloof to the professional activities of her husband. After her husband’s condition lends him incapable to work, she goes to office and handles the responsibilities of business along with her father-in-law. This stereotypical and clichéd representation depicts women working only in the case of an economic/family compulsion and not out of her own choice. After Naitik recovers, Akshara is not too keen to go back to work in order to spend time with her son and family. This signifies that her professional avatar (role) was meant to be short-lived and dependent on her husband. Thus, women in these soaps are looked upon as objects of family desire and their roles are restricted to – biological, domestic and decorative, with hardly any storyline that challenges stereotypes (Kaul & Sahni, 2010).

Earlier, Hindi soaps such as ‘Tara’, ‘Hasratein’, ‘Saans’, ‘Shanti’, ‘Aurat’ projected women in different roles of a wife, mother and homemaker. They also dealt with issues of working women, divorce, extra-marital relation-ships, sexual harassment, rape, abortion – and women fighting for their rights. Well-known shows on Doordarshan (DD) like Hum Log, Buniyaad, Circus, Fauji, Kachhi Dhoop, Nukkad, Rajni, Udaan – to name a few; were extremely popular and are still memorable. While these shows did talk about traditional Indian values, culture and depicted women as housewives, there was still a positive side to the portrayal. Unlike present day soaps, housewives were not scheming, jealous individuals out to destroy the family. Portrayals were dignified and real; devoid of any kind of glamour yet attempting to address pertinent issues in the most poignant manner. Some like ‘Circus’, ‘Rajni’ and ‘Shaanti’ presented women in working roles. What has changed today thanks to the current crop of serials is a shift towards glamour, sensation and appearance more than content. Entertainment has overtaken substance and ratings have outdone content. All that seemed natural in yesteryears shows is today artificial and unconvincing. Highlighting this contrast, Dr. Niti Chopra, Dean – Faculty of Journalism and Communication, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara, Gujarat says, “Most of the commercial serials and soaps on television in India today portray women in unrealistic, garish, and unworthy roles, with majority of them characterised within unimaginative storylines projecting stereotypical, Indian family settings. In contrast, even though the women shown in similar kind of format shows on television in the late eighties and nineties, (on Doordarshan, and a few years later on other channels), did have their share of suffering and pain owing to cultural subservience and gender discrimination;(but) there was definitely an intrinsic dignity and naturalness in that struggle.”

In Sony TV’s show ‘Love Marriage ya Arranged Marriage’, two friends Mansi (Samaira Rao) and Shivani (Rishika Mihani) are married into the same family, the only difference being that while Mansi’s marriage is an arranged one, Shivani’s is a love marriage. The show tried to establish the supremacy of an arranged match over a love marriage as is usually believed in Indian traditions and the superiority of a housewife (Mansi) over a working wife (Shivani, who is a wedding planner and is working to support her parents). Even as an independent working woman, Shivani readily agrees to give up her job when Sahil’s (her husband’s) mother places a weird condition of leaving her job if she has to get married into the family. She desperately tries to convinces her mother-in-law to let her work in order to support her parents. The serial depicts working women in a bad light – as morally inferior and incapable. Though subtly, the serial tries to deride Shivani and mould her into domesticity like Mansi.

The story lines of TV serials portray an endless competition among housewives and working women. Eventually, a housewife is superior and capable and a working woman is a home-breaker who neglects her family for her professional ambitions. Says Prof. Shagufa Kapadia, Director – Women’s Studies Research Centre, M.S.University, “The portrayals are an insult to women who are homemakers as their significant contribution to the household is completely disregarded or rather, regarded only with reference to their inclination to gain the favour of their in-laws. I strongly wish there would be more television shows that depict “Normal Contemporary Indian Women”, who are foregoing ahead to meet the challenges involved in breaking traditional cultural barriers and asserting their independent identity.” This is evident in Zee TV’s Aaj Ki Housewife Hai…Sab Janti Hai wherein a journalist Sona (Suhasi Goradia Dhami) stops working to prove to her in-laws that being a housewife is indeed a challenging task. The dichotomy between being a housewife and working woman is reinforced to show that a woman is incapable of handling responsibilities at both fronts.

Some other prominent examples are as follows:

Bade Acche Lagte Hain (2011) – What started off as the portrayal of a confident, young working woman Priya (Sakshi Tanwar) – the leading lady who takes tutions for college students and is dedicated to her family, turns totally insipid after her marriage to a rich, business tycoon Ram (Ram Kapoor). She is transformed into domesticity and a ‘trophy-wife’, never shown going to work after marriage. There is no reference to her profession after marriage as if it were a natural tendency for women to forsake their work aims after marriage.

Kya Huaa Tera Vaada (2012) – This soap stereotypes the working woman as evil, scheming and a home breaker who lures after married men. Mona Singh and Pawan Shankar’s (Mona and Pradeep) marriage ends after Pradeep has an affair with his boss and ex-lover Mouli Ganguly (Anushka Sarkar). Mona starts working after she is divorced, before which she is shown to be content with family, husband and nurtures no professional ambitions. The realization or rather the need of a career dawns upon her when Pradeep leaves her for a career-oriented glamorous working woman who is very conveniently labelled as a home-breaker notwithstanding his betrayal. A working woman turned vamp, Anushka wears ultra-glamorous outfits to her company, is scheming all the time trying to attract Pradeep’s attention.

Diya Aur Baati Hum (2011) – Sandhya (Deepika Singh) is accidentally married off into the conservative Rathi family where women are not allowed to work and nurture professional dreams. She is the girl next door with middle class Indian values; however she is shown to be tough and determined. At the same time, she is portrayed as a sacrificial lamb ready to give up her career ambitions to please her marital family. Even though the dream of becoming a police officer is close to her heart, she prioritizes the wishes of her family. She is shown to be too timid and very accommodative of all the demands that are made on her to actually have the time to pursue her ambition. The serial subtly reinforces the fact that for an Indian married woman to have a career the support of her husband and family is essential.

Pyaar Ka Dard Hai Meetha Meetha Pyara Pyara (2012) – Pankhuri (Disha Parmar), a small town girl marries Aditya (Nakuul Mehta), as a result all her energies are driven towards reuniting the Diwan family for which she leaves her job. Her mother-in-law, Avantika (Mansi Salvi) is a stubborn and brutish working woman who had a troubled marriage. Very stereotypically Avantika is shown to be rude, nasty, selfish and disoriented to family values just because she is a successful business woman while Pankhuri works for the sake of family unity.

Pavitra Rishta (2009) – Archana (Ankita Lokhande) is an uneducated housewife married to Manav (Hiten Tejwani). Circumstances lead to the separation of the couple, during which Manav shifts to Canada and is a successful businessman. During this time, Archana is shown to be a working woman who manages her house as well as her job. However, after a leap of 18 years when Manav returns to Archana, she stops working. Thus, again the need for a job is reinforced only during extremely trying circumstances when the woman does not have a man’s support.

Sasural Simar Ka (2011) – This is a tale of two sisters Simar (Deepika Samson) and Roli (Avika Gor) who get married in the same family. Before marriage, Simar wants to achieve her dream of becoming a dancer.  However, due the patriarchal system prevailing in her family she sacrifices her dream. Roli helps her to achieve her dreams but somehow both of them fail to hide the episode of dancing in a reality show from her family and in-laws. The melodrama then continues to that of a traditional family with both sisters becoming sacrificial housewives.

Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha Season 1 & 2 (2012-13) – This is the story of two journalists Mohan Bhatnagar (Kunal Karan Kapoor) and Megha (Aakanksha Singh), working together for a magazine and falling in love with each other. Megha is a widow who works for the upbringing of her children. She marries Mohan after which she stops working and occupies herself in domesticity. In season 2 of the same soap, she is a dance teacher living separately with her first husband’s family but the focus remains on the sacrifices she makes. It is clear from the story that in the absence of a male in her life she is shown to be working but after his entry she is domesticated.

From the glimpses above, (though these may not account to be representative), there is an evidence of a complete lack of multiple dimensions conferred to the Indian woman’s personality. These do not account for the fact that an Indian woman possesses the capability and intellect to make intelligent choices in her own life. The ‘reel’ woman has a uniform character with no shades of grey. Either she is docile, perfect, putting up with a philandering husband while going to bed in flashy sarees/make-up or she is a woman wearing western clothes and shown to be having loose morals (Kaur, 2008). A research titled ‘Women in Television: Depictions and Distortions’, concluded that such stereotypes reflect the typical patriarchal mind-set; where the housewife is favoured while the woman in power (power hungry and full of vices) is depicted as a villain. Men are showing going to office while women stay at home. The vamp is the antithesis of the protagonist; portrayed as ultra-modern, mostly working (the boardroom woman), with a plunging neckline, short hair, bold, conniving, heartless, ruthless, and perfect in the art of seduction. Modernity and westernization are equated with moral degradation and the working woman is the epitome of modern values while the housewife embodies Indian values. Star Plus’s serial ‘Saath Nibhana Saathiya’ (2010), portrays two daughters-in-law Gopi (Jiaa Manek), an obedient bahu and Rashi (Rucha Hasabnis), full of malicious intentions and disrespect towards everyone in the house. The attire selected for both lead protagonists convinces the audiences of their respective roles. The obedient bahu Gopi always wears a simple saree covering with a ‘pallu’ while Rashi wears designer sarees.

Perspectives from real life ‘working women’

It is shocking how in majority of these soaps working women are portrayed in negative light – how they are ambitious and independent, which is a curse for the family and for the society. There is hardly any popular daily soap where one can find characters that one can relate to – women who share the ambition, drive, strength or vulnerabilities but still preserving the spark of womanhood. As a working women, I feel irritated and offended by these portrayals. It is surprising how there is a large audience for such programmers.

Kanan Dhru
Founder and Managing Director at Research
Foundation for Governance in India, Ahmadabad

Working women in daily soaps are still portrayed with their deep rooted Indian value systems with respect for elder, blissful married life and other behavioral norms. In their quest for tradition in modernity, they are usually depicted as enacting a fine balance between there value system and the demands made on the by pursuit of their careers.

Dr. Mandakini V Jha,
Asst. Professor, Department of Sociology,
The Faculty of Arts, M.S. University

What I have generally observed is that the working women is either the one who suffers the most or the one who has best of the fate. She either rules the place or is a slave. There isn’t any balance in any characters which is a requirement for a working woman.

Girija Kannal Bhadadia
(Advertising and Design Professional,
Co-Ower Eeksha Design and Coummnication Solution)

These serials to a large extent endorse the nation that a working woman can only be portrayed as a positive character if she is successfully able to take care of the household duties and her responsibilities. A woman who is only good at building a career is shown as a vamp. It is also observed that a female protagonist who is very liberated and career oriented tends to be shown as becoming a ‘typical’ housewife post marriage. Her biggest talent of course is only looking after the house (a good cook) or decking up for the male in her life.

Bhakti Gala, Teaching Assistant
Dept. of Library & Information Science, M.S. University of Baroda

There is seldom any female character that is shown working in the TV Soaps. If at all she in shown working, she is either a responsible member whose family is suddenly suffering from economic crisis or when her picture perfect family loses her husband and she has suddenly support her children for a living. It is always that the working woman portrayed on screen always have to be either the femme fatale or the helplessly suppressed or the sex symbol or the arrogant dominating vamp, or the nasty corporate worker using all means at disposal for climbing steps of success. I cannot relate myself to either of these.

Shveta Yadav Mehta, Freelance Architect, Vadodara”

To sum up …

Our society is influenced by various aspects of television programmes which affect the behaviour and attitudes of people. The negative depictions of working women in these serials may lead to social disharmony. Serials portraying daughters-in-law in search for identity and participating in so-called Agni parikshas ; for example Star Plus’s show ‘Sanskaar – Dharohar Apno ki’ (2013) are demeaning. Here, the traditional joint family’s head Ansuba (Aruna Irani) does not accept the new bride Bhoomi (Shamin Mannan) who marries Jaikishan Vaishnav (Jay Soni) in a foreign land. Bhoomi goes through various tests to prove and gain a status in the family.

What do these flawed portrayals mean for the Indian society currently faced with increasing crimes against its women? In the light of the gruesome Delhi gang rape incident (December 2012), a debate has sparked off over media portraying women in a poor light; especially raunchy item numbers in Bollywood flicks. A part of the debate has also brought to light the regressive portrayal of Indian women in serials having serious implications for the status of women in Indian society. It would be disastrous for TV as a mass medium to ignore its social responsibility and demean Indian women. This does not mean that TV has to stop entertaining and start sermonizing, but it certainly has to acknowledge its role of nurturing a society that feels responsible towards its female populace. What prevents stake-holders in Indian television from offering a more progressive treatment of women characters, innovative and fresh concepts and substantive content is probably a fear to hurt the sensibilities of audiences as well as commercial motives. Says Najuk Trivedi, Senior PR Consultant, “As a woman of today I have many important things to focus on like my work, my family and many positive aspects of life contrary to what is shown in the daily soaps where women are the reason for all the misdeeds and wrong things. These soaps also negatively influence and increase impractical expectations from women. TV is a very influential medium and so the makers of these daily soaps should understand their responsibility and should channelize their energies on making more productive and responsible programs that focus on the positive aspects of womanhood.”

There is no doubt that these TV soaps are passing the wrong message about working women by categorizing them in black and white – either as scheming and bullying or as ideal ‘bahus’. Concepts, storylines and characters would require undergoing a complete revamp if some of the major concerns faced by ‘real’ Indian working women are to be addressed in mainstream television. Till then we wonder what keeps women glued to the daily doses of sheer distortion, spin and typecasting!

Bibliography

  • Chakravarty, J. (2002). Women in Journalism: Media for Women’s Development (Vol. 2). New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.
  • Kaul, S., & Sahni, S. (2010). Portrayal of Women in Television (TV) Serials. Studies on Home and Community Science, 4(1), 15-20.
  • Kaur, H. (2008, September 10). The sad state of Indian soap operas. Retrieved June 8, 2013, from Reuters:
    http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2008/09/10/the-sad-state-of-indian-soap-operas/

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