Are Indian ads reinforcing unrealistic expectations from women?

five female motorists

Imagine a day in the life of a married urban Indian woman. As a homemaker, she runs a house in the capacity of an entrepreneur, sometimes with multiple employees; maintains balance sheets and makes budget allocations; functions as a family nutritionist; and acts as universal caretaker/nurse; all unpaid and sometimes thankless jobs.

On the other hand, a working woman, is no less overburdened. According to a recent survey of 6,500 women from 21 different nations, Indian women are the most stressed in the world. An overwhelming 87% of Indian women said they felt stressed most of the time, and 82% reported that they had no time to relax. The respondents blamed this on the difficulty of juggling multiple roles at home and work. Career opportunities for women in India are rapidly expanding, but family expectations and social duties remain rigid.

Ishmeet Nagpal

In this age of ever increasing screen viewing time, TV plays a major role in not just representing real life, but also ‘re’-presenting it, and I’m afraid it sometimes falls on its face even while trying to do something good. Take for example this Airtel ad  where a woman is her own husband’s senior at work. She asks him to work late in order to complete a project and leaves to go home. Once home, she proceeds to cook a gourmet meal (remember she is at a senior position and has probably handled similar if not more stress at work than the husband), and then calls the husband to sweet talk him, almost apologetic for asking him to do his job. The creators probably had the best intentions but there is an evident undercurrent of patriarchy in this sweet couple’s story.

Another omnipresent stereotype is all domestic products marketed only to married women, who let’s face it are just a fraction of the consumers. Before Ariel decided to “Share the load” almost all ads about washing powders, cooking oil, or even condiments and rice, have been consistently targeting the Indian homemaker exclusively. Even the recent ads for Fun Foods feature a radiant Sonali Bendre obsessing over how to make food appealing to her children. It is in fact a nice surprise when women recommend something other than household products in ads, for example toothpaste ads, which sometimes show women dentists.

Why is this representation so skewed? I would love to see washing powder ads target young bachelors in hostels. I remember our college mates all dedicating their Sundays to washing their clothes. Where is the product marketing to them? Ads recommending healthy cooking oils consistently make it about a woman wanting to better her husband’s health. Could more ads show her tending to her own? And heaven forbid any ailment interfere with her household chores! In swoop medications –aah se aaha tak- so she can go about her endless tasks without having to waste time resting.

Wouldn’t we like to see Indian women recommending engine oils for trucks and cars, or are we not imaginative enough to think their opinion matters while selling something other than male deodorants ? It is actually refreshing to see Priyanka Chopra in a mouth freshener ad.

As for cosmetic products, let’s not even start with the ones that recommend a product to increase a woman’s desirability for her husband/crush/boyfriend; because hey, if your skin ain’t smooth, why would your husband be attracted to you ? God save you if you have prickly hair on your arms because that’s grounds for a breakup. No man should have to tolerate that!

I am not generalizing here, because a majority representation of our women on celluloid falls under any of the above categories, and rarely deviates; but when it does, we get beautiful and pathbreaking art. In the past few years, there has been a definite surge of ads that are aware of their gender messages and the power of their communication. Recent ads like United by Half (Benetton), Da Da Ding (Nike), It takes two (Pampers), etc. are breaking the gender binary stereotypes and allowing men and women to break our of rigid definitions of their role in society and labor market.

Do leave comments about ads and serials, that you feel are breaking the mold to show real men and women on screen. Wishing a happy Labor Day to all, irrespective of gender!