A deep dive into women’s textual and visual representation in media

A panel hosted by Population First and UNFPA saw experts discuss the challenges women in media face and what can be done to break barriers

Jul 12, 2021 04:24:00 AM | Article | Eularie Saldanha

A recent virtual panel hosted by Population First and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) broke down the poor representation of women in media, the change that has already come about and the steps that can be taken to keep the effort going. 
 
The panel comprised Meenakshi Shedde, film curator, critic, communications consultant; Putul Sathe, faculty, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University; Vinaya Deshpande, Mumbai bureau chief, CNN News18, and Gokul Krishnamoorthy, founder and curator, ClutterCutters.in. The session was moderated by Daivata Chavan Patil, assistant professor at the University of Mumbai.
   
Women in the media and on screen 
 
The panellists began the discussion with a simple statement: the media not only reflects but also creates social and cultural norms. They also agreed that women continue to be very narrowly represented in the media.
 
However, they’ve also observed how the industry, particularly the advertising industry, is busting the same stereotypes it created to sell the same products.  
 
Speaking about the cinematic representation of women, Shedde explained how a majority of Indian films show the woman’s ultimate goal as getting married, being an object of a sex comedy and not makers of meaning. “Everything is decided by the patriarchy. It’s important to pay attention to what and how the message is given,” she said, comparing the content quality of a Pakistani series that she thought did a better job of portraying women in a fair light. 
 
Although there are several dark spots, Deshpande acknowledged that the industry has come a long way. She said, “Initially there wasn’t even an effort to speak about a crime against women. However, several women are now a part of the media and careful about sensitive coverage. The print has it down to some extent, whereas TV has a lot of space for nuanced coverage. The digital media comes in varied formats, for people with different sensitivities.”  
 
She also spoke about how women in the media get trolled for speaking their minds, without any action taken against the ghastly threats they receive. “The portrayal and the existence of women in the media, on-screen and the ones who cover it, is troublesome for me."
 
Getting into the creative framework of representation, Krishnamoorthy is of the view that people always look at the negatives. He stated that advertising has been tackling the roots of the problem and cannot go from zero to a hundred in a jiffy. “We live in times where people ask why we have a fair bride in an ad, instead of a dusky one, as was the case in one of the Tanishq ads. Or the Horlicks ad where people made an issue about the child repairing a car saying ‘Papa ko dekh ke kiya’ (I did it watching my dad). We have gone way beyond objectification conversations and must learn to look at the positives.” 

However, Sathe made a case that most ads and films are usually the voice of the middle class, and specifically of Hindus. She asserts that gender interventions happen only when a rupture is caused and felt that they need to be looked at, rather than continuing the dialogue. 
 
Shedde, on the other hand, expressed the need for writer workshops to help writers learn how to sensitise all genres and be aware of the subliminal messages their films impart.
 
Calling out double standards 
 
Here, Shedde stated how patriarchy doesn’t allow women the elbow room to make decisions and deprives men of expressing their vulnerabilities.
 
She listed out several regional and Bollywood movies which address the double standards most women face. “Men must realise that if they can watch porn, they shouldn’t mind their mothers working as pornstars either,” she added. 
 
Deshpande laid down how women are relegated to the background even in social issues. She spoke about a drought-related issue in a village where women carried heavy pots of water on their heads to sustain themselves but weren’t even asked to speak to the media.
 
“It took me half a day to convince them to speak on camera, and even then, only one spoke. The patriarchy is so ingrained that even women think in a specific manner when approached. Men speak the most even across community leaders. Unless she is the subject of a situation, she is not asked, whether it is environmental or political stories. Anything given to women is considered a quota. Even being in politics is a glass ceiling for women, whereas men have the chance to go ahead and cultivate their aspirations,” she shared. She said that this is the main reason why women don’t land up getting significant coverage in the media. 
 
Breaking barriers 
 
Commercials by brands such as Raymond, which shows a father staying back home to take care of his child while the mother goes to work, is an example of how advertising is moving from an imbalanced portrayal to a balanced one, according to Krishnamoorthy. 

However, Deshpande believes that the improved representation of women in the media has more to do with the fact that they are paid less, as compared to their male counterparts. 
 
She stated how the digital space has been a respite for women, giving them the leverage they need. “We have at least a few startups where senior women journalists have their own platforms. This disruption is helping break gender barriers, but mainstream media is still a concern regarding equal pay. Although taking a break mid-career and returning is a gender-agnostic concern, women have to really go through the drill to get back. It’s something that conventional families don’t want their daughters or spouses to do.”
 
Shedde wishes for all genders to be included and highlights how one needs to be aware of the patriarchy, which to some extent is harmful to men even. “Women also perpetuate the patriarchy. Bollywood and other cinemas need to give the man space to be vulnerable. It is great when men are not punished for it,” she added. 
 
Analysing the responses of her fellow panellists, Sathe concluded that no one category homogeneous. She said, “We have to be very careful about the class, caste and gender we’re talking about. We have dominant as well as alternative representations. We need to understand the role of the media, conduct good research and our departments should be able to criticise dominant narratives. Stay away from a directive framework. We have to analyse the practitioners.”  
 
In closing, she shared how she sensitises her students to various voices and helps them read the silences. “Feminism modules should be taught at the school level, too. There has to be serious engagement with feminist political theories and how they’re translated in the classroom,” she concluded.