It starts like this.
You’re five years old, and you watch a cartoon where the lead character is cool and smart and funny. You want to be him but you can’t because he’s a boy and you’re a girl. At least, you have the female side character to look up to.
You’re ten years old, and you’re watching Star Wars. Leia Organa is beautiful and strong and yet, she’s always the one who’s rescued. She’s in a skimpy golden bikini- why couldn’t she just be arrested in her own clothes?
You’re fifteen. The new Marvel movie just came out. Tony Stark has his suit, Captain America has his shield, and then there’s Natasha Romanoff fighting the bad in an extremely body fit leather jumpsuit and no armour.
Women in the media exist for objectification. Donning a tight fit on a socially acceptable figure, the female character is nothing short of a two-dimensional personality who furthers the male character’s story. And when a female character doesn’t fit your wildest fantasies, when she doesn’t align with the acceptable body, she’s usually the comic relief, the joke being her body type. She’s assigned a personality of the not-so-smart, funny best friend or the side character who exists to ease the tension.
When you’re done assigning a woman’s personality based on her body figure, you move onto her hair, her eyes, her skin tone. You have the dumb blonde, you have the doe-eyed shy girl, you have the ‘strong’ black female who is an amalgamation of every racist stereotype society has latched onto for years and years.
Women are objectified and disposed off in pop culture but is the alternative to not being victimised any better?
With the feminist movement gaining track over the years, and women demanding better representation came the existence of the strong female lead. She’s smart, she’s resourceful, who can MacGyver her way out of any situation and she will do it all while dressed in a tank top. She is nothing but a traditionally masculine personality wrapped up in a body straight out of male fantasies. It’s a pseudo-narrative meant to inspire and empower women, and yet she is devoid of the so-termed femininity— empathy, vulnerability, kindness.
That being said, masculinity isn’t horrible, and femininity isn’t weak and vulnerable. We have exalted one and belittled the other. How do we restore balance? And how do we move on from the limitations of these gendered binaries?
According to a leading news portal, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on an average basis, 51.8% of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects. Whether it is a perfume brand or a lingerie brand, objectifying women and sexualizing them has been a trend in advertising campaigns since time immemorial. But the reality is entirely different. The supermodel roped-in on these ads or shoots have been made perfect by hiding their real self with layers of make-up and various photo editing applications. The advertising and marketing industry should instead urge women to love their bodies for whatever or however they are.
The controversial ad for Amul Macho showed conjuring images of a young bride as she washed her husband’s clothes, which was supposed to be symbolic to marital bliss. Still, the ad was full of sexual innuendos and was distasteful. The condom ads in India focus more on close up shots of the different body images and suggestive expressions of a female celebrity rather than highlighting the primary role of the product in family planning and as a means of protection.
Another important aspect of portrayal in media can be seen through the Bechdel test. It’s defined as ‘a set of criteria used as a test to evaluate a work of fiction based on its inclusion and representation of female characters— at least two women are featured, that these women talk to each other, and that they discuss something other than a man.’ Most movies fail to pass this test. However, with the rise of female directors in the public eye, certain shows and movies have begun to pass this test flawlessly. Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ and Phoebe Waller Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’ are some of such content.
We have often heard people pass sly comments on women for not being the ‘wife material’ like the women of the past years. However, the question that arises is who should be the deciding authority of the DOs and DON’Ts of women? Should it be the society, like it currently is, or should it be the person whose body it is? Before answering the problem, we need to dig deep into the roots from where these thoughts have cropped up. Various forms of media play a significant role in the mindset of people. The movies we watch or the soap operas telecasted during the prime time of 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM on the channels with a large viewership has contributed significantly in people having unrealistic expectations from women. The daily soaps have defined an ideal woman as someone who looks after her husband and lets his dreams take precedence over hers. If the husband returns tired after a hectic day at work, then the wife should put her problems aside and tend to him. This shows the unrealistic expectations that the media has taught society to have from a woman.
Another matter of concern regarding gender equality in almost all industries, including media, is the ‘wage gap’ between male and female professionals. Several actors and actresses including Tapsee Pannu, Alia Bhatt, Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan, Arjun Kapoor have addressed this issue in interviews. According to Tapsee Pannu in one of her interviews, it is seen that actors often draw a bigger crowd than actresses in the theatres, which is why actresses are paid less for the same amount of work. She also added that although they are working along known names like Akshay Kumar or Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t mean that they would be given the same wage. After all, audiences would be attracted more to a film by Akshay Kumar rather than Tapsee Pannu.
Despite there being a common belief that the portrayal of women in media has improved from where it was fifteen years ago, the reality is that it is far from where it needs to be. Movies and television shows that have women, are about women or are made by women have to be given equal exposure. The time to stand around and act like nothing’s wrong is long gone. The only solution is to actively protest against offensive depictions of women.
Written by Tanya Jain and Pallavi Dutta for MTTN
Featured image by Ishika Somany and Samara Chandavarkar for MTTN