Honey, dinner is ready!

Indian media’s sexism is grossly insulting to women, but its new-found faux-progressiveness is just as problematic

One of the greatest discoveries of our times yet to be made is ‘the line’. ‘The line’ that stands between a joke and a prejudice. ‘The line’ that divides an opinion and a judgement. ‘The line’ that warns office camaraderie from becoming sexual harassment.

A meditation on this elusive line cropped up in the mind again when Facebook recently started vehemently tut-tutting a fashion shoot called ‘The Wrong Turn’ conducted by an Indian photographer. The series showcased poker-faced female models clad in rather unremarkable nets and bling, while some male models made dramatic poses of harassing them sexually. Reactions to the project orbited around the insensitivity of it all, because the shoot was conducted on a public transport bus, instantly bringing to mind the infamous Nirbhaya gang-rape case. The photographer involved, Raj Shetye, took to touting a high moral ground here, claiming in a post that he wanted to show that well-dressed women using public transport can become targets too. Very few, if at all, though were impressed by his supposedly noble intention.

This incident thereby highlighted the existence of another avatar of the line – the one between real and imagined feminism.

The Indian visual media, including the advertising, film, television, and fashion industries, has never been the torchbearer of progressive representation of women. A plethora of soap operas, filled with often comically over-dressed women, continue to sell the idea that the most eligible young woman is the one who is the most coy and homely, and has the superpower of always catching the draft that will make her silken hair billow ethereally. Some of the most successful films of late have been the ones where the heroines are well-dressed pliant spectators to the chosen hero’s incessant stalking, harassment, and abominable dance moves. While world over the ‘real women, real bodies’ movement is being hotly promoted and debated in equal measure, the Indian fashion industry remains steadfastly committed to thin, fair, and tall. The advertising industry, arguably the most visible of all the mediums given its frequency of exposure, has surely upped the ante when it comes to its messages, but can hardly claim to have got it all right, yet.

For women the country over, this lack of true reflection of their thoughts and dynamism can be frustrating. To address this, some forms of the media have often attempted to include story-lines and characters that seem modern and accomplished. It will be an oversight to not commend the rise of a Queen or an English Vinglish, or the inclusion of a woman’s remarriage and motherhood as the centre-point of a jewellery ad.

But for every success story, there still is a long line of defaulters who have got the message seriously mixed up.

Case in point – the much reviled boss-wife Airtel ad. If at all it meant to celebrate the female boss as a natural progression in today’s corporate environment, it effectively drowned the message by making her go back home, cook a lavish meal, and end the day with coquettishly tempting the husband to ditch the work and come to dinner. What is this ad trying to tell us? The utter meaninglessness of it barely distracted us from the fact that the boss is mysteriously dressed like a stiff 1980s air hostess. Was that supposed to be a sign?

Another example is of the old favourite punching bag of Indian feminists — Fair&Lovely. Its latest ad is supposed to be progressive, because it shows a young woman bargaining with her father for a three-year embargo on marriage while she builds her own career. Of course, this epiphany was made possible only by her new-found fairness and its side-effect of refreshing self-confidence.

All these instances prove that a change in how you think about women and how you present their stories is indeed skin deep. The advertising and the art worlds, often in a hurry to make a point or create a flash, forget that cosmetic changes don’t change perceptions. If your character is well-dressed and well-spoken but has her life and narration looped around the men, or anyone else for that matter, in her life, then you haven’t yet found her voice. It is another level of wrong when you try to justify such missteps with shallow ideas of empowerment. ‘The Wrong Turn’ took a highly-publicised and shameful event as convenient inspiration, and then tried to justify it as some artistic homage to the power of women and their honour.

All said, misrepresentation and sexism are still the top points of grievance when it comes to women in the media. But faux-progressive representation is emerging to be just as important, and just as dangerous, a problem.

Because therein lies a line.

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