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Media and the Power of Responsible Representation

Abstract art, coloured in shades of olive green, black, peach, pink, yellow, orange, and purple. It appears to show two silhouettes, to the left are distinct parts of a woman's face and to the right a darker silhouette looking at these parts.

It is the winter of 2013, and my father and I are sitting at an awkward distance from each other on the living room couch, our eyes trained on the television set as a popular prime time news debate discusses a subject we have never before talked to each other about – homosexuality. It is only a few days since Section 377 has been reinstated by the Supreme Court, and the television and print media bombards us with discussion after discussion on ‘alternate’ sexualities and LGBTQ rights.

That was one of the few times Indian mainstream media had even spelled out the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexuality’ without a degree of wariness, and conservative middle-class households like mine where sexuality has always been a taboo topic (and homosexuality an even bigger one) were finding themselves  exposed to a sudden outburst of media discourse over LGBTQ rights. In fact, my conservative, right-leaning Hindu father was regularly watching debates and reading op-eds arguing the pros and cons of anti-homophobic legislation. This one incident in itself is proof of the influence and conditioning power the media we consume can hold. In an interview a few years ago, Karan Johar, when called out on the kind of homophobic stereotypes his film Dostana (2008) perpetuated in mainstream Bollywood, had defended the film, saying that it had at least “brought the conversation of homosexuality into the drawing room of every urban home”. Perhaps the impassioned response that Section 377 evoked in December 2013 as a result of the wide media coverage surrounding it was a continuation of the same phenomenon: of homosexuality becoming a household conversation. In both cases, queer sexual politics gained visibility and some amount of representation in media. But the question remains, was it good representation?

When it comes to the representation of sexuality-related issues in mainstream media (whether it be journalism or popular culture), the question of responsible representation has been constantly brought up by critics and commentators in the West. Queer and feminist culture commentators have discussed at length how simply the presence of women or queer characters aren’t enough in visual media if they aren’t being seen as properly fleshed-out individuals with positive character arcs. The trend of introducing women only as a love interest or foil for the hero, or introducing an LGBTQ character just for token representation and not doing them justice, has been criticised, especially with the increase in social justice awareness in the past few years. Similarly, sexist or homophobic standards in things like advertising or news reporting have been panned. But in India, the same kind of awareness has somehow evaded us. More often than not, Indians uncritically consume media and popular culture, unable to discern what’s positive and what’s not.

In a country where societal stigmas and certain regressive cultural norms make sex and sexuality sensitive subjects, popular and news media have an added responsibility to positively influence public discourse. When harmful norms are portrayed, misinformation is spread and problematic notions are internalised. For example, in a case of stalking and kidnapping that took place in 2016, a reason the perpetrator had cited for carrying out the act had been the inspiration he’d taken from a popular Hindi movie, Darr, in which the male protagonist incessantly stalks the female protagonist in lieu of romance. Similarly, sensationalist reportage of the Kathua rape incident (where an eight-year-old girl was raped and murdered), led to the Gujjar community clamouring for the ‘death penalty’ for the rapists, ultimately leading up to the said death penalty being put into place for those convicted of raping a child below 12 years of age.

When such incidents are presented to us, we realise just how impossible it is to not be swayed by what the media tells us, even if we are seemingly passive observers. What we see on TV and in the newspapers filters down to our value systems and thought processes whether subtly or unsubtly, and invariably influences how we form opinions about things.

With great power comes great responsibility, but are Indian journalism and popular culture really taking any responsibility for the power they hold?

When it comes to visual media – films, music, or even advertising – it’s relatively easier to point out how this power and influence are being misused. Most of us, by now, have learnt to identify the sexism in Indian cinema – the blatant condoning of stalking and harassment, the sexual objectification, the dependence on the hyper masculine male hero to ‘rescue’ the hyperfeminine heroine, and so on. Young men use these toxic pop culture examples as justification for their own sexism and acts of violence and discrimination against women (just like in the 2016 stalking case), and problematic male heroes like Salman Khan are still idolised despite a known history of misogyny and predatory behaviour.

The misogyny has by now become so deeply internalised that we’re almost desensitised to it; we’ve given up trying to protest it and seem to have resigned ourselves to it. Even those of us who can see it critically are tired of the lack of change and we’ve accepted it as the norm.

But within the news media, the problems are far more insidious and perhaps not as black and white. In a culture where we are asked to put unquestioning faith in power structures and to conform to them, we end up considering something supposedly as fact-based as the news as yet another institution that is sacrosanct, and many a times fail to challenge it when its modus operandi is flawed. In an ideal world, news reportage is free from bias and emotional influence and relies on only factual evidence, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case in India. More often than not, when it comes to sexuality, media outlets – even when they supposedly have best interests – falter in trying to present an unbiased view.

As an example, take three major news events: the 2012 Delhi gang rape case; and the two events I mentioned earlier – the Section 377 debate of 2013, and the recent rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua. All three of them had one thing in common – they started nationwide conversations about sexuality.

The 2012 gang rape case was possibly the first major rape case, in recent memory, that had made national news to the point that it had the entire country talking about it. News outlets were having a field day, sensationalising the story so it seemed as if it was only then that violence against women in the country was suddenly being seen and being regarded as a genuine concern. Multiple news reports talked about how India is “unsafe for women” (an epithet that keeps recurring in media reportage every time a case of gender-based violence becomes a point of conversation), which unnecessarily painted the issue in broad strokes. Sure, it was an extreme case of gender-based violence and definitely symptomatic of a larger problem of the prevalence of rape culture in the country, but the media seemed to put it across as if the country as a whole has a moral responsibility to ‘protect its women’, which was not at all the point. This kind of public discourse only took away from what should really have been discussed – the ineffectiveness of rape redressal systems in the country, the problem of toxic masculinity which fuels such violence, and so on, but instead, the victim became the focus. Her ‘bravery’ was hailed (she was even named ‘Nirbhaya’, which means ‘fearless’) and the gory details of the incident kept being needlessly emphasised. Of course, this is not to say that the incident didn’t lead to any constructive conversations at all, but those conversations weren’t always led by mainstream media reporting. For the large part, what news channels and major newspapers did was to only heighten the sensationalism and try to push the narrative of women being ‘vulnerable’ in the country.

The Kathua incident suffered a similar fate. And, since the victim in question was a minor, so much more went wrong in the way the news addressed the issue. Not only did multiple news outlets reveal the child’s name and image (which is illegal under Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code), the amount of ‘outrage’ that media outlets tried to instil in its viewers through prime time debates and unnecessarily moralistic op-eds led to an overwhelming emotional reaction from the larger public. Talks about how India is “no country for women” and that we have “failed our girl children” abounded, which again pushed the narrative of women ‘needing protection’, instead of addressing the systemic failures in approaching rape culture within the country. Even the death penalty that was put in place as a result of all the outrage is only a band-aid.

With the Section 377 debate too, the media continued to focus on things that were hardly relevant to the actual issue. Even the news outlets which tried to argue the anti-377 side of the debate often kept falling back on exoticising the LGBTQ community and still seeing them as the marginalised ‘other’. Despite the heated prime time debates bringing conversations about LGBTQ rights to middle-class households, there was still very little constructive discourse on mainstream news.

This again brings us to the issue of responsible representation. In all three examples, if only mainstream media had used the correct terminologies and hadn’t stretched out certain aspects of the issue only for the sake of gaining viewership, perhaps our perceptions of the incidents would have been different. Perhaps, these incidents could have become a means to challenge certain taboos around sexuality, or to inform public opinion about the nuances of sexual violence, but things didn’t quite turn out that way.

Despite the change in times and the push from most urban millenials for a more socially aware and inclusive mainstream media, the cultural conversations we see on the news and visual media seem to be stuck in the same regressive loop. Perhaps it is our fault too, as  disinterested, disillusioned consumers who can only be stirred by extreme images of violence or graphic content. Media sources seem to depend on this to ‘sell’ their stories: the more a news outlet emphasises the gory aspects of a rape incident, the more one is able to evoke shock and horror and gain public attention; the more a victim’s ‘bravery’ is emphasised, the more sympathy the news outlets can evoke. For example, since the media publicised the name of the Kathua victim, the social media campaign against the incident revolved around her name, and putting a face to the brutally violent incident evoked a more visceral emotional reaction.

This is how we inadvertently end up giving media the power to indoctrinate us, often in negative ways.

How, then, can this problem be circumvented? Of course, there’s no one monolithic solution. Alternate media (or rather, online media) and social media have become powerful tools of activism, of spreading positive messages about sexuality and starting critical conversations. Multiple platforms, like The Ladies Finger, Feminism In India, and so on, have sprung up in recent years, all dedicated to reporting on sexuality responsibly. Even visual media is slowly evolving, with the release of women-led films like Veere Di Wedding (despite it being problematic at different levels) which encourages candid conversations about female sexuality. Maybe the future isn’t all too bleak. Here’s hoping mainstream newspapers and primetime debates also pick up a hint or two, sooner rather than later.

Cover Image: Flickr/(CC BY 2.0)

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