The Media (Ted)woman: Gender Politics vs. Cultural Dynamics

Abstract: In today’s world of advanced technologies, mass media with its capacity to standardise, homogenise and transform ideologies plays a great role in the formulation of femininity as a set of social expectations created and nurtured in any patriarchal society. As in imaging women, the media has the potential to image/imagine nations too. This paper is an attempt to foreground the suppression, injustice and double standards, which are cleverly masked in the celebration of our national identity.

Keywords: gender ideology, Indian nationalism, capitalism, modernity, womanhood, liberation

Who is an Indian? What constitutes Indianness? In posing these questions my project in this paper is to foreground the suppression, injustice and double standards, which are cleverly masked in the celebration of our national identity. In today’s world of advanced technologies, mass media with its capacity to standardise, homogenise and transform ideologies plays a great role in the formulation of femininity as a set of social expectations created and nurtured in any patriarchal society. As in imaging women, the media has the potential to image/imagine nations too. Benedict Anderson points out that all nations are imagined and the mass media has a crucial role in this creative imagination (Anderson 20). Media has the ability to make what are “in effect national symbols part of the life of every individual and thus to break down the divisions between the private and local spheres, and the public and national ones” (Hobsbawm 142).

The degree of women’s ‘liberation’ is still one of the most controversial debates raging in contemporary Indian society especially in the backdrop of Indian nationalism’s problematic relationship to the women’s question. The abstract notion of nation is concretised through the repeated use of certain icons, motifs and images. But the same images can be used differentially to have variant meanings within a particular nationalism. Somnath Zutshi points out how Indian nationalism has used the image of women in this contradictory manner.

From its very earliest nineteenth-century beginnings, the ‘Woman Question’ has haunted nationalist thought. Moreover, the casting of woman in the role of nation resulted in ideological struggles being fought out on the terrain represented by woman. Though ostensibly the debate touched upon every aspects of a woman’s being, the hidden agenda was always that of control. Behind this urge for control lay a fear of the powerful forces that lay buried within woman as well as nation — sexuality in the one case and the demand for social justice in the other – forces that could easily become overwhelming. Resolving the ‘Woman Question’ in this sense meant that control of the nation (the body politic) was linked to the control of the woman (the female body). Further, the image of the woman as ‘other’ could be drawn from the same reservoir of popular consciousness as the image of ‘woman as nation’. It has thus the immeasurable advantage of being able to stand for both self and other, both that, which has to be controlled/excluded, as well as that which stood for the fruits of control/ assimilation. (Zutshi 85).

From the very beginning of Indian nationalism the image of the ‘woman’, the so-called ‘Bharath Matha’ supercedes by far all other images created by such an ideology. Romila Thapar speaks of the remarkable popularity of the Mother Goddess cults in various forms during the ‘brahmanical renaissance’ of the Gupta and post-Gupta period. Thus history illustrates that the project of sacralizing its women has always been one of the primary agenda of all nationalisms (Thapar 260). Tagore mocks this nationalist preoccupation in his novel Home and the World where the firebrand nationalist Sandeep idealises the heroine as ‘Mother’, the very image of ‘Mother India’, thus ensnaring her in the chains of her own glory and martyrdom. Nikhil her husband wants to educate and liberate her soul from the shackles of convention.

In casting India as a sacred holy land, a female deity, a Mother Goddess; one should discern the ideological preoccupations of the upper and middle class male Hindu. He, as the one who speaks for the nation, is also highly conscious of the fact that his secure ‘masculine’ identity is to a large extent dependent on the servility and dependence of his womenfolk, so much so that even his day to day needs from food and clean clothes to a cosy home most often rests on the services of his mother, wife, sister or daughter. Thus the average Indian male has very little doubt regarding the absolute nature of his superiority. But this casting of woman as ‘Mother’ incorporates only one kind of experience of womanhood and thereby excludes all other women. Moreover while India itself is ‘Mother India’ all Indians are ‘sons of India’. Thus the experience of being an Indian is categorically male, the female reality being elided over. At the same time women are idolised, placed on a pedestal and worshipped, provided they become ‘Mothers’ and sacrifice their sexual identity. The muting of their sexual space provides a one-way ticket to glory. This gender hierarchy organises, modulates and charts all relations between men and women in India and has permeated deeply into all our discourses, institutions, rituals and practices so as to have become a cultural system. Historically speaking, Indian nationalism too “in demarcating a political position opposed to colonial rule, took up the women’s question as a problem already constituted for it: namely, as a problem of Indian tradition.” (Chatterjee: 1993 page 119). It is the over determined gender coding of a patriarchal culture which holds the woman responsible for upholding the values of a nation.

In a land where the woman has been brought up believing with great pride that she is the symbol of the nation and its honour, women’s education and her capacity to leave the domestic sphere to find work is not the same symbol of liberation as it is for the western woman. Her liberation is fraught with guilt, as also double labour as she has to take up the challenges of being the ideal ‘wife’, ‘mother’ and ‘daughter in law’; at the same time fulfilling the challenges of her career. Under changed economic conditions the monetary security afforded by her job coerces her to cling to her employment, thus often making one wonder whether this indeed is freedom or oppression.

Just as the nation, home is another place, which has been zealously guarded by the man. An intensely private space, it is also a place of complete patriarchal autonomy where the rights and liberty of women can rarely be ensured from outside, unless in extreme cases. As Schneider points out “The decision about what we protect as private is a political decision that always has important public ramifications” (Schneider 978). It is maintained by many sociologists that there are more rapes committed inside our homes than outside. What is brutally utilised here is the woman’s economic and emotional dependence on her home and family. Is this the reason why even educated women disavow being feminists today? They know that they are under surveillance and power of a wide range of collective institutions, and thus are products of a disciplinary power, which make docile not only their bodies but also their minds.

The supposedly philanthropic anxieties for the amelioration of the woman’s condition started in the 19th century with the rise of nationalism and received great popularity through the mass media. But modernity was acceptable to the Indian man only as long as it confined itself to science, technology, economics, management or administration. The moment it engages in cultural criticism or gender issues, he develops a paranoid aversion for it. “Though themselves the creators of modern society, middle-class Indian men vented their spleen against modernity for its ability to create the educated independent woman, capable of overturning traditions without any qualms whatsoever” (Zutshi 137). Thus it is that our newspapers, television, or cinema, even while seemingly celebrating women’s liberation, are careful to delimit it through the criterion of ‘normal’ female sexuality as defined by them.

If one closely observes our media one can see the efforts, both covert and overt, to uphold institutionalised male supremacy. Often we fail to recognise this, for power vested on the male has reached a stage where it passes itself off as ‘normal’ instead of ‘power’ itself. This gender hierarchy automatically controls not only the production of knowledge but also its form, content and circulation. An example which comes immediately to mind is the cover story in a popular magazine in Kerala of the four adolescent girls who indulged in a little bit of wild fun by taking semi nude pictures of each other in their hostel rooms. The story in the magazine was replete with pictures and tales of the wanton ways of our girls. The report brought to my mind the concept of the ‘panopticon’ where one is watched by power structures without being able to see the one who watches. Foucault describes the panopticon as a “laboratory of power” (Foucault 202). This blatant exercise in social control is something constantly felt by our women today. One is subjected to surveillance and one can feel the omnipresent, omnipotent panopticon gaze. In the case of the four young girls, the eyes of the camera became the center of the panopticon, which intruded into their private space and converted it to a spectacle. Even as society lewdly and lip-smackingly enjoys this spectacle, it at the same time reconstructs it as surveillance, which obviously leads to control and punishment. It is high time we ask ourselves why the same surveillance cameras become blind stone gargoyles in the boys’ hostels in India.

If we examine the language of our media, we can decode our culture’s preoccupations, its values and ideological determinants. Language is not neutral. Our media perpetuates our sexist language and our sexist stereotypes. Let us take the example of the Indian Express of Friday, 10 August 2000. On page 7 is a 4-column article titled “Actress of Substance”. The article reads thus “What else do our heroines do in films except look pretty, lip-sync to a few saccharine dripping songs and gyrate with the heroes?” It is obvious that the question is a rhetorical one. The reporter then goes on to record the protest of an actress who says that she is “on the look-out for substance in her roles”. But the title “Actress of Substance” with the photo of the scantily clad actress in a highly provocative posture has already spoken the message out loud and clear, for the innuendo just cannot be missed. The reporter here can only collude with an ideology that denigrates and trivialises women, mainly professional women, and especially actresses at that. Through the title and the photo the newspaper communicates that a woman of substance is different from a man of substance, at the same time illustrating what a woman’s substance is really all about. This is one way of how an apparently innocent discourse can constitute a woman. Though one speaks of a non-sexist approach to issues obviously for public relations and political correctness, sexual semantics continues to haunt our media.

Our Cinema and our television reinforce the power relations that exist in our homes. They are complicit in enhancing the exploitation that is tacitly woven into our domestic relationships. By highlighting and idealizing the sexual division of labour, they effectively naturalise these domestic ideologies and nurture them in the new high-tech age. In fact as Kumkum Sangari points out, “ ‘the non-market sphere’ of domestic labour was, and persists as one of the spaces or meeting grounds where some of the adjustments between pre capitalist and capitalist ideologies and practices – with their underlying essentialism and characteristic pressure against women’s individualisation – come to acquire a new domain of effectivity and, in the process, are themselves reshaped”. (Sangari 286). Thus when our advertisement industry focuses on ‘woman’ as the primary consumer, it in fact very condescendingly offers a colonial, capitalist rationale for all forms of unpaid labour. For example ads like “If you love your wife, buy her an ‘X’ brand pressure cooker”, very covertly reiterates an apparently obsolete domestic ideology of marriage as the site of a convenient congruence of male provision and female labour. In their attempt to legitimise women’s role as unpaid domestic labourers, they also realise that the institution of the home is crucial to this role and its status quo should be maintained in order for capitalism to survive. Thus what we see today is the consensual arrangement of patriarchal cultural indigenism with capitalism to effectively check any subversive play of gender politics.

Even as the construct of India as nation is too vast and heterogeneous to claim one language as ‘national’ or one ethnicity as common, what it indeed shares is the other construct of ‘gender’. On the threshold of the 21 st century, this gendered approach to ethnicity continues to bind us as a social organisation. It has become a shared reality among the imagined community of Indians and the onerous task of our cultural boundary setting continues to pivot on our idealised womanhood. In a society, which has always striven to make mothers of its women, gender becomes a mark of proto-nationality.

The ‘other’ to the trope of ‘mother’ as nation is the ‘modern’ woman where ‘modern’ denotes ‘Western’. Thus through this other-isation nationalism implies that the threat from cultures outside India is more critical to the woman as the representative of the nation’s traditions and its spiritual essence. Critics like Partha Chatterjee argue that such a paradigm is in fact not a dismissal of modernity but an attempt to make modernity consistent with the nationalist project (Chatterjee 1989 page 240). The ‘new’ woman defined in this way becomes subjected to a ‘new patriarchy’ (Chatterjee 1989 page 244).

A desire for this ‘other’ can be seen in our fascination with western models of the feminine, as is to a large extent exhibited in our cinema, advertisements and soap operas. The westernised woman is a sex object and therefore illegitimate according to the norm. Thus “signs of illegitimacy become the sanction for behaviour not permitted for those who are ‘normal’” (Chatterjee 1993 page 132). Though inferior, it is the alternative subject position of this ‘other’ that privileges or even legitimises the continued presence of the ‘mother’ as the ideal of Indian womanhood. It is precisely the deviant status of the ‘other’, her marginalised and ambiguous identity that is celebrated by our media. As the ‘other’ to all that is normal according to the nationalist ideology, she has a freedom, a wantonness, a promiscuity that is too tantalizing to be resisted by the commercial media. Thus it seems to be the ‘otherness’ of Indian womanhood that is commodified, packaged and sold in the market today.

Feminisms in India can become meaningful endeavours if and only when they rip the mask off this spiritual humbug. As long as the chastity of the woman remains one of the primary constituents of our national honour we will be a society eternally striving to gain legitimacy for our women citizens even at the high cost of buying them wifedoms, so that they can eventually become the glorified mothers of our culture. Deconstructing the gendered inception of Indian nationalism and its collusion with Orientalism and of late, paradoxically with capitalism, should make one see how our media is effectively tapping all these terrains and is in turn used by these ideologies to gain control over the woman both as ‘Mother’ and ‘Other’. Thus both ‘tradition’ and ‘liberation’, used as binaries, are wielded by our media as required of the situation to mediate a compromising resolution to the women’s question.

Anderson, Benedict Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1990.

Chatterjee, Partha “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question” in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History eds. Kumkum Sangari,Suresh Vaid. New Delhi: Kali, 1989.

Chatterjee, Partha The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Foucault, Michel Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prisons. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Sangari, Kumkum Politics of the Possible: Essays on Gender, History, Narratives,Colonial English. New Delhi: Tulika, 1999.

Schneider, E. “The Violence of Privacy” in The Public Nature of Private Violence Ed. M. Fineman. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Thapar, Romila Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. New Delhi:Orient Longman, 1978.

Zutshi, Somnath “Women, Nation and The Outsider in Hindi Cinema” in Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India eds. Tejaswini Niranjana, P. Sudhir. Calcutta: Seagull, 1993.

Teaches in the Department of English, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady. Recipient of two international awards – the Fulbright Fellowship to Ohio State University and Sastri IndoCanadian Faculty Research Fellowship to Concordia University, Montreal. Interested in Women’s Studies and Media Studies.

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Teaches in the Department of English, Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady. Recipient of two international awards – the Fulbright Fellowship to Ohio State University and Sastri IndoCanadian Faculty Research Fellowship to Concordia University, Montreal. Interested in Women’s Studies and Media Studies.

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