India has chosen to be part of the global village in late twentieth century opening the door for a consumerist, tech driven and market oriented economy. The perceptible changes in our consumption behaviours, pop culture and life styles post 2000 reflect the impact of this decision on our lives and society. While it helped India to become an emerging economic super power, thanks to its demographics and ability to be a service hub for the BPO and software industry, the globalised world has its own downside.
The consumerist market and profit driven economy commodifies everything – people, emotions, relationships and what have you. Media, advertising and films aid and abet this commodification, creating a pop culture that is majoritarian, heteronormative and ableist. Nuanced communication that reflects the diversity and intersectionality of caste, class, religion, gender, disability, age, etc., is not reflected in the media and advertising. The focus is entirely on the demographic groups that have the disposable income to indulge in desired consumer behaviours.
Commodification of women is an important aspect of this economy. Though, women were always commodified in the media, the scale and extent is entirely different in the current times. Media and advertising in particular, commodify women as targets of consumption, as influencers of purchasing decisions and as eye candy for the male target group. It creates and sustains itself on insecurities, stereotypes and unrealistic body images and aspirations of women. Whether it is the happy woman, dishing out unrealistically perfect poories for her family, or a young woman achieving her dreams by using a fairness cream, or the adolescent girl having a panic attacks on sighting a pimple on her cheek, the media repeatedly undermines the value, aspirations and very identity of women as individuals in their own right. When it comes to men they are stereotyped as providers, decision makers, protectors and controllers reinforcing in many ways that such behaviours are desirable behaviours.
Media and advertising in particular, commodify women as targets of consumption, as influencers of purchasing decisions and as eye candy for the male target group. It creates and sustains itself on insecurities, stereotypes and unrealistic body images and aspirations of women.
While discerning public, activists and communicators are irked by such depictions, the question remains – how do we bring in greater sensitivity in communication where the target driven, target audience oriented, TRP and Ad revenue controlled media of the globalised market economy works within its own constraints?
The bottom line is, it has to sell products, ideas and lifestyles at any cost. But is it possible to bring in change within that framework by using the available spaces, using the existing regulatory systems? Is it possible to create an ecosystem that provides traction to positive deviance?
A look at the changing trends in advertising shows that the emerging demographic of educated, professional women with purchasing power are determining the way certain brands are positioning themselves, for e.g.Titan, Tanishq, Bharat Matrimony and Havells. The focus is on the independent, assertive and successful women. The social media visibility of these ads has further contributed to their identity as high end, women centric and sensitive brands. Yet ads for detergent powders, bars, cooking oils aimed at the traditional middle classes continue to use the stereotypical images of women and men.
It is important to note that while brazenly objectionable ads attract public ire and action from regulatory bodies, the ads that normalise stereotypes in the most appealing manner, are accepted uncritically.
We need to change the narratives to redefine the equations between men and women. For instance could we look at the way space is used and chores are distributed in the household thus normalising certain behaviours – like men helping around in the kitchen, cleaning after the kids, taking care of plants, pets, elderly and children?
Often activists feel we should not be working at small changes. Why be satisfied with men helping in kitchen when they can be shown cooking? Ideally we should be able to show that, but that is possible only when the gender equations change at the societal level or at least there is an overwhelming desire for such change in society. Communication influences society and society influences communication. Therefore, there is a need to work with the communicators while at the same time initiating conversations in the public domain, outside the activist circles, about gender issues. Both should happen simultaneously. The almost universal access to mobiles and increasing influence of social media may help create public opinion that would make market sense for advertisers to promote progressive, nuanced, inclusive and sensitive content.
Till then we should work on incremental change driven by subversive, disruptive, and nuanced messages interwoven into every communication that goes in to the public domain while keeping the conversation on with the communities on the need for a more inclusive and gender sensitive society.
Dr A L Sharada is the Director of Population First. The views expressed are the author’s own.