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How the popular media fails representation of women

Picture of Anshul Tewari, the founder of Youth Ki Awaaz. He's wearing a black shirt and dark rimmed glasses

Being a journalism student once, and having a network of seniors and batch mates who came from a journalism background, we got to hear a lot about how the world of journalism really is. I still clearly remember how one of my friends at college explained a brief incident that happened with her at one of India’s leading Hindi news channel she was interning with. On the third day of her internship there, one of her seniors (let’s call him A) tried to make a ‘pass’ at her after asking whether she had a boyfriend or not, and then going on to talk about how she must have a boyfriend – suggesting that being a senior in the organization, having a boyfriend like him would help her grow faster. Uncomfortable with the situation, she ignored the sign but was shaken and worried about her days to come, in the organization. This continued for a while until another senior of hers (let’s call him B) came up to her to show his concern about how she should stay away from A, who is known to lure young girls who want to make a name in the news industry, and has had an incident of attempting to harass one them in the past. When she confided in B, he also tried to get close to her by calling her and sending her suggestive messages late at night. A similar incident happened with another friend in another news outfit, soon after.

A recent case of a journalist with India TV being harassed by her seniors was under-covered and silenced by the other news channels. The only similar case that we probably remember was when Tehelka Editor-in-Chief, TarunTejpal, allegedly molested his female employee in a hotel.

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Popular media is a highly patriarchal place. From using women’s bodies as a tool to gain viewers and readers, to shaming women for choosing how they want to live. Most of the coverage of the recent ‘scandal’ of actor Shweta Basu Prasad was centered around suggesting how her choice to indulge in sex work was possibly the worst decision she could have made for her career–  and this is just one of the hundreds of news items presented to berate people and their sexuality, their choices and the decisions they make for themselves.

The realityremains that popular media has led young boys, men and even women to believe that there is a clear demarcation that we as a society need to create – that men and women are different. That men are stronger, and women weaker – physically and psychologically – hence creating the burden to behave in a certain way, on both men and women. We do not lay focus on personal and political freedom, rather, we lay a lot of focus on how to abide by preset notions, and not question the status-quo.

Inequality furthers when popular media demarcates the kind of freedom a man enjoys as opposed to what a woman enjoys –  and these are just two of the known gender divisions we’ve been shown. It further builds a sense of fear in women that they are the ‘weaker’ sex, which the popular media pushes further through the highly patriarchal daily soaps which show the weaker woman as the lead character, and the independent business woman as the problem creator.

The media has successfully divided women into ‘the good women’ and ‘the bad women’. Good ones are the ones who we care for. If violence is inflicted upon them, we feel bad and want to fight back. They are the cultured ones who respect their elders and spouse. However, when violence is inflicted on the bad women, we are divided. These are the women who make independent choices and do not think twice before fighting back against sexism. Some people fight for them, most don’t. Case in point being the recent controversial coverage by the Times of India of Deepika Padukone.

When the actor decided to call out the blatant body-shaming and sexism by India’s leading English daily, the paper tried to shame her. And while many people criticisedthis act by TOI, there were thousands who supported it, because according to them, the actor was ‘asking for it’. TOI successfully furthered the idea of victim blaming and shaming.

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As we head into times when conversations around sexuality are picking up steam, and religious sentiments and corporations are taking over popular media, newspapers and TV channels need to understand that the next time they force someone to ‘be a man’ or ‘behave like a woman’, the next time they ridiculesomeone’s sexuality because this is not how things are meant to be – they should think about the society they are creating, and their privilege. They need to think about how they have supported the normalization of violence, and how our Indian culture has forced us into believing that a woman’s place is in the feet of her husband, and how subjugation is always, consciously or unconsciously, our first way to assert power.

When Youth Ki Awaaz started, the idea was to let opinions flow and generate awareness on issues that young people thought were important. Till 2012, gender or sexuality never scored in the top 3 issues that people wanted to talk about, openly on the internet. There were and have been forathatexisted, but the conversation never wasmainstream. At such a time, we took it upon ourselves to move beyond awareness, and into advocacy, talking openly about sex and sexuality education and the gender spectrum. The conversations often led into fiery debates and rebuttals about how Youth Ki Awaaz had been taken over by ‘feminist forces’ trying to create a propaganda against men, and even today – there is a force of both men and women who will not lose the opportunity to attack if you stand up for the rights of women, or queer people.

It is high time the media woke up, responsibly, and looked within for the demons it has been creating, and the hypocrisy it represents when it comes to sexuality and the right to choose.Hundreds of people came out in support of DeepikaPadukone when she first rebutted TOI. We need hundreds to come out every time the media fails the representation of sexuality and gender. The onus lies onus, the audience and the viewers to fight against the stereotypes that the media builds. Are we ready?