Mainstream television has been reinforcing and strengthening the gender stereotypes already present in Indian society.
Gender biased: Popular serials slot women into stereotypes. Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
THE attitude of women towards societal norms and values, her perception towards life, her consequent position and status in the family and broadly in society are shaped and moulded by the "models" of womanly conduct inherited from the past. Two most prominent "images" of Indian womanhood a pativrata and a `super mother" have, for long, dominated popular Indian ideology and thought and created an indelible impact on the Indian mindset
Of all the popular means of mass media, television has the greatest mass appeal and acceptance. These images are, in turn, superimposed and juxtaposed by the prevalent trends in mainstream television culture.
The construction of gender stereotypes by mainstream television has also reinforced the stereotypical definitions of Indian womanhood. Television represents and reinforces the contemporary mainstream ideology and also helps shape it. How real is the representation of women on television and how does it affect the mindset of the viewers?
According to S.K Behra, "Gender role biases in Indian television have served to reinforce and even enhance the degradation of women in the broader society."
In one study, he analysed the content of 20 news programmes, 20 fictionalised serials and 100 commercials over a period of three weeks. He found that women are mostly portrayed as victims, caretakers and sex objects while men are presented as masters, doers and intellectuals. It reinforces the sex-role stereotypes of men as assertive, dominant, protective, ambitious, practical and "doers"; whereas women are mostly projected as docile, traditional, adjustable, emotional, sentimental, sacrificing, eager to please and gain acceptance.
The "home" or the domestic sphere is the core setting for most soap operas, the fundamental theme is centred on women and their primary concern is family relationships. In this context, a woman's expertise is valued; she is responsible for running a successful household; her ultimate achievement is to settle in matrimonial bliss, bear children and make them ideal humans. Women are mostly portrayed in the light of approval or disapproval.
Most themes centre on a strong sense of good and bad, right and wrong, and mostly painted in white and black with no grey shades. These role stereotypes reflect the typical patriarchal mindset; the housewife is favoured while the women in power (power hungry and full of vices) are often depicted as villains. 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. Here again "modernity", or "Westernisation" as it is commonly called, is co-related and confused with debasement of morals and ideals.
The central protagonists of most popular prime-time soap operas are typical prototype of the "pativrata" and the "glorious motherhood" images.
She is an archetype of feminine perfection and is popularly held up as a model to be emulated.
The "super wife", "super daughter-in law" and "super mother" portrayal is unrealistic and lacks authenticity. This "superwoman" has multifarious qualities loyalty, compassion, sacrifice, devotion ... the list goes on her domain is her home and her family justifies her very existence. Her greatness lies in the obliteration of her individuality and self-worth; she is more an ideal, a superlative rather than a personality.
In the role of a mother she sacrifices her happiness for her children and family, she is the panacea for all ills that might plague the family.
Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels in The Mommy Myth: The Idealisation of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women point to the massive contradictions between the expectations raised by society (defining roles of an ideal mother) and the reality of most women in today's world.
The idealisation of motherhood puts serious physical and emotional pressures on women and, according to Douglas, "The `perfect mom' is not attainable... the first thing (women) should do is take the blinders off. This vision of motherhood is highly romanticised and yet its standards for success remain forever out of reach, no matter how hard women may try to `have it all'."
So enmeshed are these models in the Indian psyche that it is near impossible to demean their effect. Such stereotypes convey confused messages, which have a negative effect on impressionable young minds.
Torn between the past and the present, societal pressures to fit into these "role models" on the one hand and individual aspirations and ambitions to emulate the likes of Kalpana Chawla on the other, this is the dilemma that most young women face today.
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