Globalisation and Glocalisation

Fred Fejes, in his assessment of media imperialism, emphasises the dependency theory such that it’s relevance is not lost in a globalising world. This perspective of thinking is solidified when Both Manjunath Pendakur and Robert McChesney provides an illustrative account of how capitalist forces shape and influence the production of media, within and across nations, not just in terms of the content that the media produces, but also in terms of the strengthening of an already hegemonic economy. With India emerging as the core of the periphery in the last two decade, there are also strong forces within the country that seek to nationalise and globalise culture, portray consumerism in a productive manner, and redefine social structures. A further complication is brought forth by Joseph Straubhaar and Leela Fernandes, which will form the crux of this essay.

While dependency theorists argue of a dependency being formed by the peripheral nations to the core nations who have the industry to produce large film and television production, Straubhaar argues that there may be implicit references to audience passivity in such a perspective (Fejes also writes about this). He writes about how the cultural capital and language preferences have caused dependency to be more like “asymmetrical interdependence”, where even though nations with high capital majorly produce and earn through media, there exists a thriving industry of regional and local programming. The illustrations he provides when he takes the examples of Dominican Republic and Mozambique (non-industrialised nations with unstable economies and politics) producing media, can be even more closely examined within India itself. In spite of the hegemonic influences of the heavily produced Bollywood films, the South Indian film industry (especially Tamil and Telugu cinema) has been increasing its revenues in a very short time with an expected growth of 18% per annum in 2011[1]. Contrary to the perspective of dependency theorists, there is a thriving demand for local programming. Straubhaar addresses and attempts to explain such a phenomenon in the particular case of Brazilian television.

Straubhaar majorly divides his argument into two components:

  1. Language: Hindi Bollywood industry has evolved and achieved great success in India in spite of better produced English films from Hollywood. A clear distinction in such a scenario is language. While it may be easy to import action-adventures and slapstick comedies into an Indian audience, it is difficult to do so for other comedies, dramas and other such genres. Bollywood movies dubbed in Tamil or Telugu have proven to be only mildly successful in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh[2]. This idea can also be used to explain why many Hollywood films like Mrs. Doubtfire, Reservoir Dogs, Kramer vs. Kramer and others have been remade into Bollywood films (Chachi 420, Kaante and Akele Hum Akele Tum). Such remakes are made in Bollywood (from Tamil or Telugu cinema – for example, Bhool Bhulaiya, Singham, Ghajini et al.), Tamil cinema, and Telugu cinema (from Bollywood films – for example, Gopala Gopala, Green Signal and Settai) and may even be very successful. However, simply dubbed films across regions may not always be successful. Therefore, even though language does divide the market, it is hardly the major reason, and definitely not the sole one.
  2. Cultural proximity: Cultural capital can simply be defined as the sources of knowledge for an individual. These may be structures like education, family, friends and networks, religion, professional engagements, and media consumption itself. Cultural proximity is the inclination of people to engage with media in a particular manner, and is driven by one’s cultural capital. Straubhaar analyses the effects of cultural capital across class in the Brazilian society, and how different classes prefer different kinds of programming. In fact, this would explain the phenomenon of remakes in the Indian film industry in more depth; a majority of the people in a developing nation like Brazil (and also in India) prefer local programming not only because of language, but because the content of the media is more in line with their cultural capital. While middle classes may be more nationalized in terms of their media (due to which they watch TV Globo), poorer sections of Brazil tend to watch more local programming which is similar to rural culture and folklore (like SBT). It is important here to flag what Theodor Adorno reiterates in Culture Industry Reconsidered, about how “low culture” is not an intellectual pursuit, but means of escapism and profit only (especially considering the programming on SBT, which is akin to the quality and content of the Jerry Springer show). In India, regional channels are paying increasingly high amounts to producers of regional serials[3] with their own remakes of reality television and game shows like Bigg Boss, Minute to Win it, and Dancing with the stars, other than soap operas. Netflix (globalised, urban-centric media) has only 4.2 million subscribers (most of whom are probably upper middle class or upper class) in India owing to its high pricing[5]. However, class divisions amongst Indian audiences have not been closely examined.

This argument may seem to depart from the core of dependency theory as in the work of McChesney & Schiller, Pendakur and Fejes, but in fact, it provides a base to understand the future of regional programming. Due to the success of local programming, production houses like UTV Motion Pictures are producing and distributing regional films like Irudhi Suttru, Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai and Yatchan. In Marathi television, Hindi channels may be losing out on news viewership due to Marathi channels, but Zee Marathi still has the highest share of the market, followed by Star TV’s Star Pravah[4]. It opens way for capitalistic forces to monopolise even regional media, where production itself should be more regionally open. This also opens the discussion for hegemonic Indian production houses (akin to transnational corporations) and the perception of their products being shaped by regional identities, an idea that Fernandes discusses on a national and global scale.

Fernandes makes the argument that “the global” itself is defined by changing perceptions of national identity. The change in the discourse of what constituted national progress, from industrialisation and rural poverty alleviation to consumer goods as symbols of wealth and upward mobility of the middle classes, is testament to how globalisation was defined in India. This change occurred over a long period of time, starting from the post-independence perspective of thinking, to the late 1990s, post-liberalisation.

Fernandes flags several examples of “fetishization of hybridity”, which is when commodity fetishism evolves under a combination of global and national identity. When a corporation has to “Indianize” a product in order to create value for the market that exists in India, it leads to the creation of an image of the nation as well as how the global product fits in the context of India. This solidified the image that using an inherently Western product is not a threat to the Indian value system, in fact, the product fits perfectly well with Indian values, and this is what the transnational corporations used (and continue to use) in their advertising strategies. In the more recent times, the emergence of online shopping has become a site of such discussions. Take for instance the advertisement for Amazon “Garden ka sapna” produced for television[6]. With online shopping (especially Amazon) gaining traction amongst middle class families, Amazon has also sought to portray the nuclear families as their ideal customers, while also keeping nostalgia as the main factor for dreams that such families might have and the idea that they can be fulfilled by buying more items from Amazon. In spite of the fact that the urban protagonists in the advertisement yearn for a garden in a high-rise building, Amazon can fulfill this need and aspiration of a home with a garden.  

An argument that Fernandes makes is that the aspirations of the middle class were transformed under the effect of foreign capital flows. Take for instance, the recent advertisement of AMFI mutual funds[7]. The risk-averse tendencies of the Indian market is sought to be placated in the ad, while also asserting that using these financial products is beneficial to the middle-class household economy, and may lead to great profits, enough for upward mobility. This is more apparent in the older advertisement for ICICI mutual funds[8]. The idea that purchasing a house and a car is the ideal middle-class dream has itself defined who should identify as the middle class. There are also clear connections between the respectability of the middle class (and not the second-generation business persons) and the notion of the brand.

The most interesting aspect of Fernandes’ argument is drawn when she writes about gender becoming a symbolic site of the anxieties that plague the middle classes. With increasing foreign capital flows, there is always a fear of dependency on other countries, because the economic prosperity of both, the nation and the transnational, seems counter-intuitive. So while middle-class families may want to consume Western products (media or otherwise), there is also a need to protect women, who have generally been the bearers of value and honor in India. The notion that Indians should be buying Indian products is evidence of how internalized consumerism really is. For example, Patanjali, which has an advertising strategy built around using “herbal”, “natural” and inherently “safe” ingredients derived from tradition, released an advertisement advertising their range of beauty products[9]. Simply put, the advertisement idealises a certain kind of woman; who respects tradition, and demonises the other; who is “bindass and a wannabe type” of girl. The success of Patanjali in the FMCG market shows us that the anxiety over using Western products is real, but more than that, the baggage that Westernization brings to the gender roles to Indian tradition, is also anxiety-inducing.

  1. https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-07-03/tamil-films-give-bollywood-run-its-money  
  2. http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-why-hindi-films-dubbed-in-south-indian-languages-are-gaining-popularity-2149472
  3. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/media/entertainment/how-regional-channels-are-catching-with-local-versions-and-attracting-advertisers/articleshow/51950930.cms
  4. http://www.livemint.com/Consumer/ZDUEJi5dFGQdJY27NNuVFM/Marathi-channels-edging-out-Hindi.html
  5. https://qz.com/937773/netflix-has-a-big-battle-ahead-to-win-subscribers-in-india-kpmg-india-ficci-report/
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdFUTLSZP0I
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItA0PkrSCHQ
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDGEyUOmrjs
  9. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBh7VzLVh1U
  10. Straubhaar, Joseph D. “Beyond media imperialism: Assymetrical interdependence and cultural proximity.” Critical Studies in media communication 8.1 (1991): 39-59.
  11. Fernandes, Leela. “Nationalizing the global’: media images, cultural politics and the middle class in India.” Media, Culture & Society 22.5 (2000): 611-628.

 

Advertisements

Media Imperialism

While Theodor Adorno, in “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, critiques the effect of profit-making interests on the quality of art produced in terms of its effect on masses, Fred Fejes makes a similar argument on a more international scale. Newer modes of questioning communications media has impulsed media to not be thought as a tool for development (which is a Western thought), but as an obstacle in developing nations. How transnational corporations structure their businesses in Third World countries is a matter of empirical research, but a theoretical grounding is necessary to anchor the questions and the scope of study, Fejes emphasises. Instead of generalizing models of development as ‘modernization’, the last decade has seen interest develop in the dependency theory. Dependency theory, although not described in detail in Fejes’ work, asserts that the economic interests of wealthy nations aid in deepening the inequality between “center” (dominant, industrialised states) and “periphery” (dependent states with low per capita GNPs) states. (Ferraro 2008)

Fejes also argues that within nations themselves, there is a fault line that places the urban sector (or the economically and politically powerful) aligning with the interests of dominant nations, and rural sector which is exploited for these economic interests. Keeping this in mind, it is also important to understand the historicity of these dominant structures, especially with a neocolonial approach. While Marxist views would argue that the end of imperialism occurs with power changing hands (for example, when British and France taking over German colonies after WW1), dependency theorists would argue that imperialism continues regardless of the specific identity of the dominant states. The idea that colonizing forces are modern and developed, and that developing nations are today at the position of developed nations in history, is thoroughly rejected by dependency theorists.

There are also internal conflicts in a country that aid in strengthening of an imperialist structure; caste and class may form the basis for this. It is not just the external factors that affect the development in periphery countries (Fejes asserts these are only good for conspiracy theories), but the way these interact with internal factors. Dependency theory also does not provide researchers with testable propositions, but frames a way of questioning the hegemony of power in developing nations. With this, Fejes concludes media should be analyzed in how it affects the power structures within a nation, and then this study should be linked with how transnational investments encourage dependency and dominance.

The main crux of the argument is to realise the commercial interests of transnational corporations, and how they seek to dominate national interests. For example, the advent of Free Basics (started as a partnership between Facebook and 6 other companies) to provide “free” internet in developing countries, while also violating net neutrality. In India, it was planned to be released with Reliance Communications (also a leading corporation in Indian communication technology) (Russell 2015). This clearly demonstrates the idea that internal power and economic structures (Reliance) share commercial interests with external factors (Facebook). While being marketed to provide internet access to communities without it, there were deep commercial interests in the venture that conflicted with national rights of privacy, net neutrality and data protection. Only Facebook-approved applications could be accessed with Free Basics (with Facebook as the only social-networking site and Whatsapp as the only messaging app), the submission guidelines for which disallowed HTTPS connections (which means that data going through the platform would be readable by Facebook) among other things[3]. While Free Basics was banned from India by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) a year after it was started, it found roots in Pakistan with Telenor Pakistan (subsidiary of Norwegian Telenor). Free Basics is an example of the attempts of transnational corporations attempting to monopolise markets.

References:

  1. Ferraro, Vincent. “Dependency theory: An introduction.” The development economics reader 12.2 (2008): 58-64.
  2. Russell, Jon. “Facebook Takes Internet.org And Its Free Mobile Data Services To India.”TechCrunch. TechCrunch, 09 Feb. 2015. Web. 27 July 2017. <https://techcrunch.com/2015/02/09/internet-org-india/&gt;.
  3. Facebook. “Technical Guidelines – Free Basics – Documentation.” Facebook for Developers. Facebook, n.d. Web. 27 July 2017. <https://developers.facebook.com/docs/internet-org/platform-technical-guidelines>.
  4. Fejes, Fred. “Media imperialism: An assessment.” Media, Culture & Society 3.3 (1981): 281-289.

Theodor Adorno: Culture Industry Reconsidered

Right at the outset of the essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, Theodor Adorno corrects his previous work with Max Horkheimer by replacing the word “mass culture” with “cultural industry.” “Mass culture”, he articulates, suggests that the culture is being produced by the masses, which he debates is false.

Adorno’s inclination to argue from a Marxist perspective is clear; he is a harsh critic of commodity fetishism and the fact that the culture industry was serving capitalism. He argues that while cultural artefacts boast of being for the masses (the term mass-media suggests this), the industry that produces them understand the masses not as the subject of the artefact, but as the object. The culture industry assumes that ideologies that exist within the masses cannot be changed, and that the masses will consume what they desire to consume. The idea of commodity fetishism takes the form of art having value in accordance with its monetary worth, and not the art itself due to its intrinsic form. This blatant preference for profit while producing art, the planning and lack of spontaneity in art, are aspects that Adorno is uncomfortable with. For example, in India, the level at which Eros International Media Ltd functions, with operations in many countries and languages while making high revenue, is evidence of this. This argument is clear when he writes,

“Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.”

While questioning the intention with which the culture industry manufactures cultural entities, Adorno also outlines how popular art standardizes the way in which masses perceive ideologies. He argues that culture produces encourages “eternal sameness”. His disdain towards industrialisation of art is apparent, especially when he argues that products of the culture industry seek to create illusions only as far as relieving the masses of the real issues that plague the world. Since the manufacturing of culture is so firmly rooted in technology, the correction of art does not lie within artistic boundaries (say, correction in the content), but in the techniques used to produce the art, which results in a lack of “aesthetic autonomy.”

When Adorno writes about popular art with skepticism, he underlines the fact that just because popular art caters to the masses, does not mean that the quality of the art cannot be questioned, especially when questioning makes the critic arrogant. In fact, the monopolistic nature is the reason why the culture industry needs to be questioned. Moreover, the industry cannot be allowed to exist freely without criticism simply because it provides the masses with social orientation during times of distress. Adorno is also inclined to believe that popular culture does have regressive effects on its viewers (“that steady drops hollow the stone”), even while admitting that such research has not been performed yet.

“The color film demolishes the genial old tavern to a greater extent than bombs ever could: the film exterminates its imago. No homeland can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it, and which thereby turn the unique character on which it thrives into an interchangeable sameness.”

Although Adorno’s essay was written in 1963, a lot of symptoms of the culture industry are relevant more so now than ever before. Adorno does leave room for the possibility of individual expression in the culture industry in spite of all the criticisms, but that has also been sandpapered away today. This is especially so because the individual human need to make art is lost, and behind every piece of art (film, music and television), there are contributions from many individuals whose primary purpose is not to make art, but to create an image that can be sold.

What Adorno is writing may be misconstrued as being elitist and uplifting “high culture”, criticising “low culture”, and asserting that only the former can intellectually stimulate people and fulfills all the needs that art can provide. This becomes especially questionable when high culture has generally been consumed by people with higher economic, social and cultural capital. However, in my opinion, Adorno assumes, in fact, that it is the culture industry that is creating the needs of the masses for profit-making interests. Does this mean that the mass audiences are “vulnerable” enough to not know what their true needs are, and that capitalism can misguide them into thinking that what they need are consumable goods? This raises the question of what Adorno considers to be art, and what art does to humans. Why do we have an inherent need to consume and/or produce art? And are new forms of media functionally replacing older media without also replacing all the needs that media and art fulfilled in the first place? The question of whether people today are more isolated than ever due to crumbling social order and transformations is an important one to ask. If the state of means of production in a neoliberal society alienates people from the larger picture of how goods are produced and what their contribution is during production, can the same be said about media and art? If we assume that we consume art as social beings, does the manufacture of art cause us to lose sight of our social needs?

Reference:

  1. Adorno, Theodor W., and Anson G. Rabinbach. “Culture industry reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19.

The Default

I have been asked why I take so much offence at everything more times than I can count on my fingers. Close friends have asked me this, and it is a question that has, in its own nature, made me feel quite uncomfortable, and I have had to ask myself whether I have had the justification to raise questions regarding thoughts that deeply unsettle me. One instance of this question came up when I was slightly critical of a play that I saw being performed in college, and my friend asked me why I couldn’t just leave the sexism aside and just enjoy the comedy. I will come to this later.

I also recently came across this video. Although this video has very low production value and is quite poorly made, what came across to me was the exceptional presence of women on the screen. I am hoping people reading (and watching) this will feel similarly. This parody trailer made me realize that the overbearing presence of women on screen like this is not what audiences may be used to, even if the audience is a feminist who tries as hard as she can to not attribute characteristics to either gender. Every time we see more than a few women on screen talking, it is different and gives it a feel of a romantic-comedy (‘chick-flicks’), while this is seldom noted when the same thing happens with men. It is normal to watch men interacting on screen, but not women. No wonder so many movies fail the Bechdel test.

This is not to say that the Bechdel test is a test to disregard a film, but it is evidence to a much more compelling problem in media today. This is true especially for Indian cinema, where there is glaring difference between how actors of gender are treated. The female characters are commonly bland, uni-dimensional and mere plot devices, if not dancers in an ‘item-song’. Most movies have a male lead who is the driver of the story, and the female character is a device used to pleasure the audience gaze. The dancers (mostly major actresses of these times) use sexual suggestions to grab the attention of the audiences, and one may argue that this is just a healthy sexual expression, something that women have lacked in India for a long time now. But there are two responses to this:

  1. This healthy sexual expression is only done by these ‘item-song’ dancers; the leading women characters are still virtuous, virginal and coy. This tells us that even if there are women expressing their sexual interest, it is still not a desirable quality in a woman that you are supposed to admire. These women are nice and wise, albeit with some quirks. This is much unlike the leading men who have had areas of grey, and not just black and white. There is a dearth of what I call ‘imperfect women’ in the cinema today. For example, it is common to see a male pursue a female romantically in movies, but that kind of forthcoming nature is rarely seen from women.
  2. When an actress that I suppose is a decent actress does a role that has no value as such, it makes me want to take her less seriously, something that I don’t like doing, but is a personal preference. Amazing actresses have had still to do songs that appeal to nothing but the audience gaze. The song “Ram chahe Leela”, “Chikni Chameli”, “Shelia ki jawani” and many others solve no purpose other than for the movie and the song to sell. These are definitely things that the audiences prefer to watch, but this in itself should be a concern since there are talented actors (both male and female) who have to resort to bland musical performances to earn popularity. I would repeat again that this would not be a problem had there also been other kind of movies running mainstream. My only concern is, after all, a lack of variety.

Exceptions do exist. I suppose Queen handled the idea of a female lead extremely well. But, Indian cinema is based on the idea of escapism. India is dirty; show the audiences beautiful beaches which are spotless. Sex is a taboo to be talked of; show scantily clad women and resort to voyeurism. That said, the movies which do have female leads, them being female is a major selling point of the film, as if being female is a shift from the normal. Why is this so troublesome to me? I also watched this video a while back, too. The video is not flawless, the study more so, but it does reveal to us a worrying thought. That people will start to believe what media will tell them. It made me extremely sad to watch the video where kids as young as in the video, were falling trap to standards of “goodness” and “badness” in particular races. This is true for gender as well. For example, if a child sees that being virtuous and rejecting every notion of sexual interest by the innate nature of it is what a woman is supposed to do, that is what he/she is going to learn. Young girls will learn to inculcate these qualities, and boys will look for them in girls. Another example would be the lack of variety in superheroes. Most superheroes are male, and the female ones are generally an extension of the already existing. The female heroes that come to me from the top of my head are Catwoman and Wonderwoman. These women share the characteristics of being wise, intelligent and composed, while the male superheroes have a variety of characteristics, even being goofy. These are then the characteristics I assign myself, even though it is actually perfectly acceptable to be goofy and silly. This lack of variety is extremely evident in Indian cinema as I already mentioned.

You can look at the clothing sections for children, and the girls’ clothing is predominantly pink, red and purple, and the boys’ clothing is blue, green and yellow. There is a major difference not just in terms of clothing, but also in terms of toys. Building sets, car sets, train sets, even Legos are still marketed as boys’ toys, and dolls, baking ovens are still girls’ toys. And then we wonder why there are still less women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Gender behavior will guide us about what traits are admirable and what aren’t. I have anecdotal evidence too. A girl, someone who is intelligent and academically potent, told me that she did not believe that “girls were dumb” until she was narrated an incident by a male friend about a girl who did not know simple mobile phone operations. Or that when a male friend ordered green apple vodka, everyone else said it was a “girl’s drink”. Which brings me to my most important evidence; the play that I watched in college.

The play was a musical one, riddled with the idea of a guy in college trying to find a girlfriend for himself. It included the supposition that the Teaching Assistants pay more attention to the female students during lab hours, and not enough to the male students. A line that also stayed with me was when a male TA asked a female student why she had put curly braces (in a piece of code), she replies with a cloying, “But curly braces are so cute!” The stereotype blew me away; and to people in denial, I’d ask if there was any chance a line like that would have been given to a male student. Eventually, the said TA did find a girl to go out with (one of the students he was partial with), and when he asks her to be his girlfriend explicitly, she rejects him (which has since been perceived to be such a bad thing). This does also fit in well with the entire idea of males being “friend-zoned” by girls, as if sex and a romantic relationship was an entitlement.

I will not go into the details but the end of the play saw the line (in Hindi), “Girls are like jeans, and friends are like underwear. Even if the jeans come off, the underwear will save you from embarrassment.” The play made me angry; mostly because it made me feel alienated. There were several girls in the audience, and there was nothing in the play that I could relate to. They even claimed by the line subtly that girls and friends have to be mutually exclusive groups; a notion that made me feel even worse because I would like to think I have the ability to be a decent friend.

I have been told I was reading too much into the play when I confronted a few people with my thoughts, and I cannot deny this. I am truly reading into the play, but I do not regret it. I would have not have a gender related problem with it had it only been about relationships and sex, even so from the male’s perspective, since then the issue would not be about gender stereotypes. But that is not currently the case. The main issue here is that there is a severe lack of voice from the side of the women, and I wish I had the creative excellence to do something about it. But I know that even if I could, it would barely be popular simply because it is not something the audience is used to seeing. If there would be a female student pining for a male in just the same way as the play showed, there would be no question of how accepted that kind of behavior will be. The solution can only come from people making these plays, to try and bring a uni-sexual voice into the entire conception.

Wo-man has always been an extension of man. To be a man is the default, to be a woman is a defect. Hence when a woman is asking for equal representation in arts and media, it is asking for something that doesn’t exist by default, something that needs to consciously be provided. To finally clarify my position further, I would quote Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex:

“In the midst of an abstract discussion, it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true’ thereby removing my subjective self from the discussion. It would be out of question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary since you are man,’ for it is understood as a fact that being a man is no peculiarity. “

The only way to battle this is to create a medium where it is not necessary to ‘leave your brains aside’ to enjoy a show, and to be critical is not undesirable, but a habitual reaction.

The Default

I have been asked why I take so much offence at everything more times than I can count on my fingers. Close friends have asked me this, and it is a question that has, in its own nature, made me feel quite uncomfortable, and I have had to ask myself whether I have had the justification to raise questions regarding thoughts that deeply unsettle me. One instance of this question came up when I was slightly critical of a play that I saw being performed in college, and my friend asked me why I couldn’t just leave the sexism aside and just enjoy the comedy. I will come to this later.

I also recently came across this video. Although this video has very low production value and is quite poorly made, what came across to me was the exceptional presence of women on the screen. I am hoping people reading (and watching) this will feel similarly. This parody trailer made me realize that the overbearing presence of women on screen like this is not what audiences may be used to, even if the audience is a feminist who tries as hard as she can to not attribute characteristics to either gender. Every time we see more than a few women on screen talking, it is different and gives it a feel of a romantic-comedy (‘chick-flicks’), while this is seldom noted when the same thing happens with men. It is normal to watch men interacting on screen, but not women. No wonder so many movies fail the Bechdel test.

This is not to say that the Bechdel test is a test to disregard a film, but it is evidence to a much more compelling problem in media today. This is true especially for Indian cinema, where there is glaring difference between how actors of gender are treated. The female characters are commonly bland, uni-dimensional and mere plot devices, if not dancers in an ‘item-song’. Most movies have a male lead who is the driver of the story, and the female character is a device used to pleasure the audience gaze. The dancers (mostly major actresses of these times) use sexual suggestions to grab the attention of the audiences, and one may argue that this is just a healthy sexual expression, something that women have lacked in India for a long time now. But there are two responses to this:

  1. This healthy sexual expression is only done by these ‘item-song’ dancers; the leading women characters are still virtuous, virginal and coy. This tells us that even if there are women expressing their sexual interest, it is still not a desirable quality in a woman that you are supposed to admire. These women are nice and wise, albeit with some quirks. This is much unlike the leading men who have had areas of grey, and not just black and white. There is a dearth of what I call ‘imperfect women’ in the cinema today. For example, it is common to see a male pursue a female romantically in movies, but that kind of forthcoming nature is rarely seen from women.
  2. When an actress that I suppose is a decent actress does a role that has no value as such, it makes me want to take her less seriously, something that I don’t like doing, but is a personal preference. Amazing actresses have had still to do songs that appeal to nothing but the audience gaze. The song “Ram chahe Leela”, “Chikni Chameli”, “Shelia ki jawani” and many others solve no purpose other than for the movie and the song to sell. These are definitely things that the audiences prefer to watch, but this in itself should be a concern since there are talented actors (both male and female) who have to resort to bland musical performances to earn popularity. I would repeat again that this would not be a problem had there also been other kind of movies running mainstream. My only concern is, after all, a lack of variety.

Exceptions do exist. I suppose Queen handled the idea of a female lead extremely well. But, Indian cinema is based on the idea of escapism. India is dirty; show the audiences beautiful beaches which are spotless. Sex is a taboo to be talked of; show scantily clad women and resort to voyeurism. That said, the movies which do have female leads, them being female is a major selling point of the film, as if being female is a shift from the normal. Why is this so troublesome to me? I also watched this video a while back, too. The video is not flawless, the study more so, but it does reveal to us a worrying thought. That people will start to believe what media will tell them. It made me extremely sad to watch the video where kids as young as in the video, were falling trap to standards of “goodness” and “badness” in particular races. This is true for gender as well. For example, if a child sees that being virtuous and rejecting every notion of sexual interest by the innate nature of it is what a woman is supposed to do, that is what he/she is going to learn. Young girls will learn to inculcate these qualities, and boys will look for them in girls. Another example would be the lack of variety in superheroes. Most superheroes are male, and the female ones are generally an extension of the already existing. The female heroes that come to me from the top of my head are Catwoman and Wonderwoman. These women share the characteristics of being wise, intelligent and composed, while the male superheroes have a variety of characteristics, even being goofy. These are then the characteristics I assign myself, even though it is actually perfectly acceptable to be goofy and silly. This lack of variety is extremely evident in Indian cinema as I already mentioned.

You can look at the clothing sections for children, and the girls’ clothing is predominantly pink, red and purple, and the boys’ clothing is blue, green and yellow. There is a major difference not just in terms of clothing, but also in terms of toys. Building sets, car sets, train sets, even Legos are still marketed as boys’ toys, and dolls, baking ovens are still girls’ toys. And then we wonder why there are still less women interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Gender behavior will guide us about what traits are admirable and what aren’t. I have anecdotal evidence too. A girl, someone who is intelligent and academically potent, told me that she did not believe that “girls were dumb” until she was narrated an incident by a male friend about a girl who did not know simple mobile phone operations. Or that when a male friend ordered green apple vodka, everyone else said it was a “girl’s drink”. Which brings me to my most important evidence; the play that I watched in college.

The play was a musical one, riddled with the idea of a guy in college trying to find a girlfriend for himself. It included the supposition that the Teaching Assistants pay more attention to the female students during lab hours, and not enough to the male students. A line that also stayed with me was when a male TA asked a female student why she had put curly braces (in a piece of code), she replies with a cloying, “But curly braces are so cute!” The stereotype blew me away; and to people in denial, I’d ask if there was any chance a line like that would have been given to a male student. Eventually, the said TA did find a girl to go out with (one of the students he was partial with), and when he asks her to be his girlfriend explicitly, she rejects him (which has since been perceived to be such a bad thing). This does also fit in well with the entire idea of males being “friend-zoned” by girls, as if sex and a romantic relationship was an entitlement.

I will not go into the details but the end of the play saw the line (in Hindi), “Girls are like jeans, and friends are like underwear. Even if the jeans come off, the underwear will save you from embarrassment.” The play made me angry; mostly because it made me feel alienated. There were several girls in the audience, and there was nothing in the play that I could relate to. They even claimed by the line subtly that girls and friends have to be mutually exclusive groups; a notion that made me feel even worse because I would like to think I have the ability to be a decent friend.

I have been told I was reading too much into the play when I confronted a few people with my thoughts, and I cannot deny this. I am truly reading into the play, but I do not regret it. I would have not have a gender related problem with it had it only been about relationships and sex, even so from the male’s perspective, since then the issue would not be about gender stereotypes. But that is not currently the case. The main issue here is that there is a severe lack of voice from the side of the women, and I wish I had the creative excellence to do something about it. But I know that even if I could, it would barely be popular simply because it is not something the audience is used to seeing. If there would be a female student pining for a male in just the same way as the play showed, there would be no question of how accepted that kind of behavior will be. The solution can only come from people making these plays, to try and bring a uni-sexual voice into the entire conception.

Wo-man has always been an extension of man. To be a man is the default, to be a woman is a defect. Hence when a woman is asking for equal representation in arts and media, it is asking for something that doesn’t exist by default, something that needs to consciously be provided. To finally clarify my position further, I would quote Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex:

“In the midst of an abstract discussion, it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true’ thereby removing my subjective self from the discussion. It would be out of question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary since you are man,’ for it is understood as a fact that being a man is no peculiarity. “

The only way to battle this is to create a medium where it is not necessary to ‘leave your brains aside’ to enjoy a show, and to be critical is not undesirable, but a habitual reaction.