Ordinary women absent in Indian media

Ordinary women absent in Indian media


Date: January 1, 1970
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The revolution by ballot accomplished through the general elections in India earlier this year caught the Indian media, as much as the media-consuming public in the country, on the wrong foot. While much newsprint and air-time have been expended on analyses of the unexpected election results, the media have devoted far less time and space to the critical question of how and why the watchdogs of society had failed to see what was coming.

The revolution by ballot accomplished through the general elections in India earlier this year caught the Indian media, as much as the media-consuming public in the country, on the wrong foot. While much newsprint and air-time have been expended on analyses of the unexpected election results, the media have devoted far less time and space to the critical question of how and why the watchdogs of society had failed to see what was coming.

The few introspective articles on this vital aspect of the 2004 elections concluded that the media had missed the story because they no longer seem to recognise ordinary people, especially the poor majority, as sources of news and opinion. In a country where the socially and economically disadvantaged habitually turn out in large numbers to exercise their franchise – if only because periodic elections constitute their only means of making their views known and, more importantly, count – that was clearly an incredibly big and foolish mistake.

Whether or not the Indian media acknowledge and learn from this wake-up call remains to be seen. If they do, they will surely see that the flaws that afflicted their election coverage are equally evident in their coverage of other aspects of society, including gender.

In the brave, new, market-driven world of Indian media in the new millennium, even news is increasingly being packaged and presented as entertainment. As celebrity and lifestyle journalism has slowly but surely seeped into influential sections of the news media, the realities and concerns of ordinary citizens – as opposed to consumers – have naturally been banished to the margins. There are, of course, exceptions but they serve mainly to prove the rule.

Women are no longer missing from the Indian media, whether as media professionals or as subjects or even sources of news. The question today is not “Where are the women?” but “Who are the women?” For instance, the women most prominently and consistently covered by the media now tend to be, in the main, film stars, beauty queens, models, designers, successful professionals and entrepreneurs, controversial or glamorous politicians, well-heeled philanthropists, and sundry entertainers and socialites – with a few celebrity writers, artists, performers and journalists thrown in for good measure. Even the women’s movement is generally represented in the media by a few activists who are either telegenic and/or can be relied upon to provide controversial sound-bites.

Of course women also make it to the news pages and bulletins as victims of crime or conflict, disasters or atrocities and, occasionally, as recipients of charity or beneficiaries of social welfare or income-generation programmes. In fact, it appears as if women have to be either victims of sob stories or heroines of success stories to catch the attention of the media. A third category that finds favour with the media includes those who conform to and reinforce gender-based myths and stereotypes. In addition, there is a clear tendency in the media to reinterpret the notion of women’s liberation and trivialise the concept of women’s empowerment.

These trends are equally, if not more, visible in the Indian entertainment media. Popular television soap operas cater not only to the market, as defined by votaries of economic liberalisation and globalisation, but additionally pander to the resurgence of “traditional Indian” – read middle/upper class, upper caste, northern – values associated with the aggressive Hindu nationalist ideology that has become an influential part of the political landscape in the country over the past decade.

It is clearly time for media criticism and activism in India to become more systematic, sustained, consistent, coordinated, rigorous and, above all, effective than it has been in the past. We certainly have a lot to learn from the inspiring southern African experience symbolised by the, unique Gender and Media Summit.

Ammu Joseph is an independent journalist and author. She is founder member of the Network of Women in Media, India.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information.

 


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