Behind closed doors: Women on prime-time TV

How is primetime fiction affecting our lives and our sensibilities? A new study aims to examine how gender is represented on TV, especially at a time when the family is at a crossroads, struggling to maintain its traditional status in a post-modern age. The study aims to examine how men and women are being represented on both satellite and terrestrial channels across India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The study, titled ‘Towards Empowerment?’ was conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Advocacy and Research (CAR), the Nepal-based media magazine Asmita, the Bangladesh Centre for Development Journalism and Communication and the NGO Proshika. These organisations looked at 50 hours and 30 minutes of fiction shown over the satellite channels Zee TV, Star Plus and Sony, as well as 49 episodes over Nepal TV, and Bangladesh’s Ekushey TV and BTV which are all terrestrial channels. Data on these serials was collected in the first few months of 2002.

The conclusions of this study have been divided into 1) setting and milieu of the serials, 2) the occupation, age-group and marital status of the dramatis personae and 3) the manner in which men are seen interacting with the opposite sex. The serials looked at include Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Koshish, Kutumb, Kkusum and Kahin Kissii Roz.

The study found that the setting of the majority of these serials was urban, upper class and affluent, with the domestic/family space providing the backdrop for this drama (terrestrial 79%, satellite 71%). The office provides a much less popular backdrop, implying that the very affluent lifestyle being portrayed does not require the protagonists to be shown as engaged in any livelihood struggle. Interestingly, interaction at home seems to be the favourite activity of all the channels: Star (84%), Sony (56%) and Zee (53%), with women holding forth in up to 57% of these interactions as opposed to men, whose interactions average around 43%. The other most popular activity is talking on the phone, be it a mobile or a landline. This is especially true of Sony (15%) and Zee (11%). But while men appear to be predominantly modern in their appearance, women continue to dress more conservatively, using symbols like a bindi, mangalsutra and sindoor across all channels. Women are shown repeatedly restoring the core values of the family. Which seem to be always under some kind of threat. The family is the crucible in which all action unfolds. Akhila Shivdas, executive director, CFAR, points out, “The traditional family seems to be under threat and the resolution of this conflict often forms the central theme of these narratives. These conflicts invariably end up getting resolved by using traditional mechanisms. Many of these families consist of three to four generations living under the same roof as is the case of the Viranis in Kyunki… “

The joint families depicted remain a predominantly male construct. The women belong to their in-laws’ homes and are defined only in terms of their husbands’ families. These extended families are usually rich and work in a family business (96%) while nuclear families in serials tend to be middle class. There are variations: in serials such Koi Apna Sa, Justujoo and Mehndi Tere Nam Ki the main characters are professionals.

The presentation of sexuality within the family presents a major challenge. While adultery has become commonplace in Hindi serials, these extra-marital affairs generally end up in failure. Usually, the dutiful wife plays the moral card and triumphs over her confused husband. Articulation of sexual needs is kept deliberately low-key because of our cultural aversions to such depictions. More significantly, overt sexuality has no place within the dynamics of the joint family where the whole purpose of the sexual act is to procreate so that the children can carry forward the ‘vansh’ and the family legacy.

An extended joint family structure does not mean there is unity in such a household. The soaps thrive on generating conflict and then ensuring its eventual resolution. Eighty per cent of these conflicts are between family members, with 50% of these relating to marital problems. It is another matter that most of these intrigues are resolved though the intervention of a family elder as is the case in Kkusum, Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Heena, Kohi Apna Sa and Sarhadein.

The report arrives at two major conclusions. The serials reassert that a woman’s place is in the home. The women protagonists end up spending 80% of their time confined to the kitchen, living room, dining room and bedrooms. They enter the professional space only when they have to save their spouses or family from the clutches of some rival. But despite being homebound, these serials are a celebration of women power. Often, it is the male character who is forced to marry against his will or make other compromises.

Madhavi Mutatkar, president Zee TV, believes, “If a saas-bahu tear-jerker is successful on one channel there is immediate commercial pressure to put another on air. In many ways, these serials have brought real empowerment to women. A housewife sitting with the remote in her hand is the queen of all she surveys with FMCG companies and the white goods industries vying for her attention.”

But Anna Leah Sarabia, executive director, Women’s Media Circle Foundation from Philippines expresses unhappiness with this trend. “Media and advertisers are using stereotypes as a technique for sending out messages. Stereotypes are symbols that are projected again and again on the audiences. And like a bad habit this creates stupid formulas,” she says, going on to add that “we need to receive constant feedback in order to find out how these programmes affect women who for centuries have been silenced by culture, by political power, by religion, by laws, by traditions, by superstition.”

Manju Thapa, editor of Asmita also regrets that none of these serials focused on less privileged groups or on rural society. Women were invariably shown as submissive and passive homemakers but not a single male character was shown having a submissive nature.

Nargis Jahan Banu from Proshika feels it is the lack of clarity on gender issues which has promoted these stereotypes. She believes that initiatives must focus on convincing media controllers to change the prevailing notions of both recreation and education.

The study highlights the limited worldview of these serials, with their uni-dimensional portrayal of men and women provided with all the outward trappings of modernity. No family can exist in a social vacuum. Efforts have to be stepped up to portray the family within a social framework. If televison is to hold up any kind of mirror to society or represent a popular history of the times, it must become pluralist and representative. Given that South Asian nations have stark social disparities, it is important that TV channels, sponsors and producers be sensitised to the ethical problems of presenting such lavish and irrational lifestyles.

l Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based journalist.

July 2006
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