Media Portrayal of Women

Dippanjeet Kaur*
Dr. Sheetal Thapar**


This article highlights some structures of social relations which influence the formation of images of women in society in the mass media. Media plays a vital role in women’s empowerment and its development. The media can create an awakening and inspire women to achieve their potential as a prime source of change in society. With its potential and influence, the media has the capacity to persuade and mould opinion. Whatever image women have in our country is influenced by the media.

Portrayal of women in media

In India, the media or the advertisers do not provide a balanced and true picture of women’s contribution to the society. The commercialization of media has only led to exclusion of social goals in general and those of women in particular. The Indian mass media projects women as one of the following: good housekeeper, submissive daughter, wife and mother, and if she is a working woman-a vamp, sufferer both at home and office, neglecting children. The Indian patriarchal norms further bring discrimination against girl child which is the direct outcome of the preference for a male child. The media strengthens it by portraying the typical stereotype image of girl child or woman. Women’s portrayals are erotic and soft because soft focus is feminist. It is aimed at titillating men. Courtney and Lokeretz [1979] examined the images of women in magazine advertisements. They reported the following findings: women were rarely shown in out-of-home working roles.

  1. Not many women were shown as professionals or high level business persons.
  2. Women rarely ventured far from home by themselves or with other women.
  3. Women were shown as dependent on men’s protection.
  4. Men were shown regarding women as sex objects or as domestic adjuncts.
  5. Often women were shown in ads for cleaning products, food products, beauty products, drugs, clothing and home appliances.
  6. Men were most often shown in ads for cars, travel, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, banks, industrial products, entertainment media and industrial companies.

Sullivan and Connor [1988] found that there has been a 60 per cent increase in advertisements in which women are portrayed in purely decorative roles. They also claimed that the women’s role in advertising is sexy and alluring. Kibourne [1986] found that exposure to advertisements employing stereotypical sex roles for women resulted in significantly lower perceptions of women’s managerial abilities than exposure to advertisements depicting women in professional roles requiring such abilities. Saswati and Soumya (2012) revealed that patriarchal mindset is reflected in the way women are portrayed. Advertisers have cashed on visual appeal of women to attract the attention of the viewers.

In order to promote women’s equal participation in the media;

  1. Encourage and recognize women’s media networks;
  2. Encourage the development of educational and training programmes for women;
  3. Promote research and implementation of an information strategy for ensuring a balanced portrayal of women;
  4. Develop balanced and diverse portrayal of women by the media;
  5. Encourage establishment of media watch groups to monitor the media;
  6. Train women to make greater use of information technology.

Mass media and women empowering

Mass media comprises TV, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines and newsletters and technology such as the Internet and E-mail as well as other media that may not be as obvious such as children’s comics and cartoons, theater, puppetry, dance and song. The media is a vehicle used to inform as well as entertain the public. The media is a carrier of information, ideas, thoughts and opinions. It is a powerful force in influencing people’s perceptions on a variety of issues. The media can be both positive as well as negative in terms of the position and views of women as well as a powerful mechanism for education and socialization. Although the media has played an important role in highlighting women’s issues, it has also had negative impact, in terms of perpetrating violence against women through pornography and images of women as a female body that can be bought and sold. Overall, the media treatment of women is narrow and continually reinforces stereotyped gender roles and assumptions that women’s functions are that of a wife, mother and servant of men. This is especially so in advertising.

According to Jensen and Oster (2003) cable television was impacting the attitudes of women and the authors find an increase in the female school enrollment and decrease in fertility. Pandey and Charu (2012)find in their studies that the position of women and their status is an index of the civilization. They are to be considered as equal partners in the process of development. But exploited and subjugated for centuries, women have remained at the receiving end. Women empowerment demands a life cycle approach where empowerment is viewed as a process and not as an event. Although a unique creation of nature, women are sufferers in society under the domination of men. They are much behind men in socioeconomic and cultural matters. Murthy & Padmaja (2010) revealed that the television serials influence the lifestyle and also influence customs like celebration of family functions, dresses of wedding couples, decoration of wedding place, engagements customs. Manoj (2010) analyzed the content of different media like radio, television, newspaper, e-paper and portals. Some of the media has welcomed the historic right to education act describing it as the beginning of a new morning. But there are hurdles and complications in implementing the act.

Women in print media

Woman is armored under traditions, customs and mass media of the society. With the coming of electronic media the print media has become more sensational and commercialized. The importance of print media can be traced to India’s struggle for independence when it played a major role in initiating the fire of freedom struggle in the society. Present day newspapers have some space for women on weekly basis. It is assumed that women are not interested in general happenings and they are more interested in recipes, beauty tips, latest fashion, relations, furnishings, luxurious items and new women products. Out of the total coverage on women issues, maximum news reporting is related to violence against women. Such news items are sensationalized to get more readerships. Women in newspapers are visible on the first page only if they are politicians, rape victims, murdered, commit suicide, or in reports on domestic violence. Besides this, stories on glamour and sex are never missed out on the last pages. The print media has portrayed women sporadically because of the sexiest bias and in complete disregard of her reality. The media has presented a glamorized version of her situations. The picture that emerged was that of a woman who never produced knowledge or wealth, but always a sort of hanger on to her male. The issues affecting women, women encouraging stories, information on rights that every woman in India should know, women building their careers from scratch are rarely published. Due to which only sex stereotype images of being dependent, passive and homemaker is presented in the print media. Sensationalism is the key word in the media. Newspapers give catchy headlines to make news more and more sensational. Often such stories are exaggerated and the blame is put on women without proper investigation. This is all done to increase the circulation of the newspaper. Such reporters don’t even give a second thought to what they are actually doing. Women issues are just taken for granted and not considered serious reporting. It results in complete distortion of image of women. The stories of working class women are rarely published but articles on film stars, their fashion statements, sexy photographs dominate.

The images of women in advertisements do not symbolize women at all in a correct manner. These images are demeaning and are simply show them as a selling object. The print media in the last decade has seen a gush of growth. Women issues have increased as compared to the 90s. The credit goes to women journalists, women movements brought by the government, women groups and NGO’s that have become more active concerning women issues and development and they all make sure that their voices are heard. Today one can find a lead story, article or a news analysis published on women issues. But still a lot needs to be done; whatever coverage the print media is giving is minimal considering the population of women–almost half in the country. The need is to print more positive women related stories, so that they can contribute to all round progress of the country. Women journalists are trying to change the sexy distorted image of women in the print media but until and unless developmental stories are given preference and the readership profile changes, it’s a difficult task ahead and much remains to be achieved.

Politics is considered to be the bread earner of newspapers. Women politicians are rarely given preference over male counterparts. It is only on the last few pages that performances by female artists, female dancers or painting exhibitions by women artists, hot and sizzling models with erotic photographs are focused on. The Tribune publishes one page in its Sunday supplement devoted to women development stories. The Hindustan Times has a page for women’s issues once a week. Once in a while sports pages have news on Serena Williams, Venus Williams or Sania Mirza. For one half of the population, our media planners and editors can give us only a single page, once a week, devoted to women issues.

Women in electronic media

A UNESCO study in 1978 on portrayal and participation of women in media found that globally women were portrayed in a poor manner. There was totally under representation of women in media who earned less than their male colleagues. Analyses of several of these programs prove that prime-time serials, dramas, film-based programs reveal women and their subject in a poor manner. Women are mostly presented as docile homemaker, caregivers, compassionate listeners and objects of male desire. The programs on women are mostly based on lives and customs of urban society which are strongly dominated by male chauvinists. More often, women are portrayed as patient sufferers, decked up all the time and excluded from intricacies of human emotions; while the other half is allowed to express their anguish and ordeal. The image of women as sex stereotype for male’s lust is well centred. Middle-class women are shown as dependents, homemakers taking care of children and the old ones in the house, listening to husband in their youth and doing as ordered by their sons in old age.

Women’s freedom is curbed and she is forced to witness social ills of the society. Very few programs concerning rural women’s problems and plights are shown. Till date they seem to have been completely ignored. On the other hand, the role of new modern woman as an agriculturist, industrialist or educationist is rarely shown and highlighted. Women in circumstances like facing the death of father or husband are shown as being forced to take up responsibility; but never shown as career oriented, working with their own will and desire. Women are often shown as extroverts, headstrong, sex stereotype with short hair, short dress, and ready to do anything to reach the top for their career. A woman’s character as a demoralized individual is often represented without a second thought about the effect it could leave on young minds. The film-based programs also completely underestimate the image of woman. The subjugation met by her is often highlighted in the movies and TV programs. The true feelings of a woman are not reflected on the screen; they just acquiesce to their fate. The electronic media does give more coverage to women but the way it projects women is pathetic. No balanced image of women is ever presented and women are never shown as economic contributors to the nation.

On the basis of a comprehensive analysis of portrayals of women in the mass media across many countries of the world, Gallagher (1983) has shown that women and their concerns are not only misrepresented and underrepresented on television, but women’s images on television consistently follow traditional stereotypical patterns and are very often derogatory. The question before us is: have things really changed? They have, though not for the better. On the other hand, soap operas are also used in many developing countries for imparting pro-developmental messages. For example, in Mexico the private television network Televista has produced pro-developmental tele-novel as on family planning, adult literacy, child care, women’s equality, adult literacy and so on. In India, the public television network, Doordarshan introduced the first development-oriented soap opera Hum Log during 1984-1985 that emphasized the themes of family planning, the status of women, family harmony and family welfare. Although there is considerable research on the effects of such soap operas in attaining their educational-developmental goals, critical analysis of gender issues in these programmes is very limited. A study of the effect of Hum Log on the Indian audiences reveals that exposure to such pro-social television soap operas did not make viewers more aware of women’ status issues (Brown and Cody 1991).

Women in films

Cinema is a complex medium of communication that combines sight, sound, motion, drama and messages to capture audience attention. In the milieu of widespread illiteracy, it is the most important medium for entertainment. Popular cinema is an extremely potent medium since it influences us at the subliminal level through powerful images and various successful genres, such as family and social dramas, romance, vendetta sagas, mythological stories, etc., around familiar conflicts and resolution of family and society. These narratives create a myth, which infiltrate the unconscious world of collective psyche and reinforce patriarchal ideology. Thus, popular cinema is an integral part of popular culture and reflects the distorted mirror of modern society.

The representation of women in cinema has been a major issue of debate among the western feminist scholars in communication. The feminist film theory has made a significant contribution to understand how the mass media construct definitions of femininity and masculinity (Gallagher 1992). Semiotic analysis of films by feminists shows that in cinema, a woman is presented as what she represents for men, not in terms of what she actually signifies. Thus, films reinforce myths about women that exist in society.

In developing countries, there has been hardly any similar effort to build a feminist film theory or examine the question of women in cinema through systematic research. In general, analysis is related too closely with specific film narratives. Nevertheless, a closer look at media images of women in Indian films will give us some insights into understanding how the powerful medium of films has attempted to redefine femininity and masculinity in the changing context of modernity. While tracing down the changing versions of idealized femininity over 75 years in mainstream films and since the 1960s in the “new wave” (art) cinema, Rao(1989) shows that although images of women in films have changed from goddesses to dream girls to the “new” women, the heroines are still depicted to project patriarchal norms and values. She argues that the form and content of Indian popular films have changed over the years with technological advancement in cinematography and social milieu. However, the traditional mythical female characters of the ideal women have continued as archetypes and are reinforced even today in characterization of “modem” women in Indian cinema in one-way or the other. Women are continued to be depicted in the roles of caretakers(mothers and wives) in the family. Until the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Indian popular cinema projected dichotomous images of women. Women were primarily depicted in relationship to men.

Despite increasing participation of men and women in the work force, work is an underdeveloped theme in the commercial Indian films. On the basis of an analysis of several Hindi films, Kishwar and Vanita (1987) highlight diminished importance of women’s work outside the home in film narratives and examined how middle class ideal of a domesticated woman is reinforced in divergent work roles.

In general, the work life of a hero usually exists to feed to the film narratives of romance, family melodrama and violent conflict. Women are mostly shown as working only when compelled by circumstances. Even educated middle class women are shown without any occupation. When they do work, they are confined to stereotyped jobs such as typist, secretary, school teacher and occasionally as lawyer and doctor. The working middle-class woman, in general, is a young woman, a modem miss, who is doing a job while waiting to get married. But, by and large, women are shown to work only in the absence of a male breadwinner, a father, a brother or a husband. These women are presented as unfortunate victims sacrificing their own interests to support the family. It is only when she tries to rebel against her role as a wife and a mother or chooses to work to assert her independence, the hostility against a working woman surfaces.

In the case of the poor women, work is represented as economic necessity. Poor women’s work life is either romanticized or is sensationalized by depicting her as a victim of poverty and sexual harassment. Sexual molestation is presented as a dominating reality of poor working women’s lives. Such portrayal obscures harsh working conditions and injustices and reinforces the myth that work outside the home exposes women to sexual violence. At the same time, the molestation episodes cater to the voyeuristic impulse of the audience. In creating new archetypes of modem Indian women, commercial films also use the progressive films and women’s movement. The new woman is shown as a “strong” character — educated, articulate, independent and capable of taking initiative in a relationship with a man. She signifies “good” modernity. In contrast to the earlier traditional image, her appearance also reflects a kind of freedom moving easily from western clothes to neo-ethnic Indian style of dressing.

However, the bright new image of “modern” women in popular Indian films is superficial. Her femininity is defined within the boundaries of patriarchy. She continues to need the protection of a macho hero and does not rebel against his dominance. However, characterization of women in the women-centered films is ambivalent. Sometimes in the mainstream cinema, a heroine is portrayed in old familiar plots as an avenging angel like a hero (for example, as a dacoit, a fearless police officer, etc.). However, in imitating the role of a macho hero she neither appears credible nor powerful as the “strong” woman character as she continues to be depicted as submissive in her romantic relationship with men. Furthermore, women who protest against the institution of marriage and patriarchal oppression have been ossified into new stereotypes. They are either depicted as home wreckers in the role of “other” women or as irrational and hysterical wives abandoning their villainous husbands. Even when a woman sets out to find herself as an individual, eventually she is shown as finding solace in motherhood or in another romantic relationship.

Occasionally, she takes up career as a consolation prize for the broken marriage or relationship and not for defining her identity. Commercial cinema has created certain gender stereotypes with considerable ambiguity for keeping the audience emotionally involved. However, underlying the spurious concerns for women’s oppression in the mainstream cinema, deeply entrenched ideals of femininity are disguised in the glossy images of “liberated” women. With the emergence of alternative cinema (often known as the “new wave” or art cinema) since the late 1960s, there have been some efforts to bring women at the centre of film narratives. The new wave or progressive cinema in the two decades of its existence has attempted to move away from the traditional stereotypes of Indian woman and characterize her as a person with distinct identity by projecting her as a strong and often dominant character. The redefinition of femininity produced and portrayed in cinema under the “new wave” cinema in India, in fact, highlights the tension between “modernity” and “tradition” (Mazumdar 1991).

Women are often used in the new wave films as symbols of resistance and victims of exploitation. The emphasis in the new wave films is on replacing the “myth” in popular films by “reality”. However, realistic cinema can also create new myths about women through powerful and controlling narratives and cinematography (Laxmi 1986). To establish visual authenticity of filmic reality, the penetrating gaze of realism often exploits the sensuous female body and use women as ideal symbols to represent a social “issue” (Rao 1989:452-54).Representation of women in the new wave cinema is also constrained by dominant ideological discourses on women that perceive the women’s question as only a gender war within the framework of liberal feminism (Mazumdar1991).

Until recently, commercial and new wave cinema in India has been the exclusive domain of male directors and writers. However, now a few women have entered the field as directors and writers. To what extent they have succeeded in shifting the perspective on women and related topics in films? At one level, women directors have created a much-awaited constructive space in the films for promoting feminist ethos and views. But, the terrain opened up by women directors is still uneven and patchy. In the prevailing economic and cultural context of commercial films, women directors are mostly allowed to deal with “women-oriented” issues such as the family, romantic relations, maternal relations, etc., which are thought to be traditionally the domain of women (Gupta1994). Some of the women directors reflect more sympathetic understanding of women characters. However, there has not been a significant shift in the roles assigned to women in the films of women directors who operate within the boundaries of gender stereotypes in the commercial cinema. In summary, there is an increasing concern with women-centered issues in both art and commercial films since the beginning of the 1980s. However, both kinds of films use images and issues from each other and reinforce mythical portrayal of the new Indian woman in the guise of modernity to ensure mass appeal.



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