Where the media hurts! Media manifestations of gender based violence

My article published in the newsletter of the Women's Studies Research Centre - October, 2013. 

Media – A reflection of society?
The heinous and brutal Delhi gang rape incident (December 16, 2012) which shook the nation’s conscience also brought to limelight the media’s role in covering and reporting events of national and social significance. Media’s reportage of the event brought scores of people on the streets of Delhi to protest against the crime. 24 X 7 TV news channels, newspapers, magazines and other mass mediums were filled with outrage and sympathy at the same time. The media covered every event related to protests by citizens, condition of the rape victim and the endless discussions that ensued on the need to change laws and policies related to women’s safety in the country. There is no doubt that the media’s role with regard to gender based violence is prominent in a country like ours – where gender discrimination and instances of rape, abuse, mental and physical agony, honor killings, female foeticide are increasingly being reported. The press, television and cinema have always been considered to be a reflection of the happenings in society. To what extent is this true? While the media does pick up trends and patterns from the society, it also influences social attitudes and behaviours with its portrayal, content, images, orientation and stance towards certain issues. In the context of the Delhi gang rape, intelligentsia and academic circles in the country began debates about the impact of media content on young minds and the media’s ability to perpetuate, encourage and even legitimize gender based violence. This is however not concurrent since the way media looks at gender issues has been a matter of concern for a long time now.
Popular culture as dominated by the mass media was never gender sensitive. It is only when certain events (like the Delhi gang rape, Bijal rape case in Ahmedabad, and instances of honor killings in different parts of the country) spark off, that the media turns its attention to cases of gender based violence and discrimination. Media dynamics have completely changed the way we look at gender based violence. So while earlier issues of gender based violence were considered to be a part of the ‘private’ domain, they are now in the media glare and out for consumption in the public space. A kind of voyeurism has overtaken media sensibilities in reporting cases of gender based violence. The objective therefore is not to heighten awareness of social malpractices but to use images, graphics and content for feeding audiences with ‘something that is popular and saleable’.
The media’s orientation to issues of gender is extremely event-oriented, limited to sensationalizing issues and images to grab eyeballs, increase TRP ratings and enhance circulation. The problem also lies with the media’s understanding of gender based violence and its ramifications on society as a whole. So while instances of physical violence are highlighted, cases of mental abuse, child abuse, women’s rights, marginalization of sexual minorities are abysmally neglected. This kind of limited world view does not aid the cause of fighting and rooting out gender based violence from our society.

Manifold Roles
The media plays diverse roles – it not only conveys or portrays instances of gender based violence, it also perpetrates such violence and legitimizes the same by using its power to influence the masses. So while, portraying women in meek, submissive and homely roles in popular daily soaps may not be explicitly violent, it does convey a thing or two about how the media wants society to view women and their roles. Item numbers in Bollywood movies, glamorous leading ladies with no brains of their own to boast off can be simply termed as ‘entertainment’ and the ‘demand of audiences’, however, it subtly reinforces a stereotypical image of the Indian woman, distorting it to no extent. Consider popular music videos, youth based shows, reality shows that reinforce sexist attitudes towards women by commodifying them (Basu, 2013). Such flawed portrayals demean women as also contribute to the increasing possibilities of violence against them. Consumers of such media content – both men and women tend to take these portrayals seriously eventually impacting the way they treat their wives, sisters and other females in their lives. The claim that such portrayals do not actually impact attitudes towards women is based on a false premise. The impact may not be visible immediately but it certainly creates sustainable images, distortions and stereotypes.
Media producers and other stake-holders in the media industry often shirk their responsibilities when they claim that it is on audience demands that they dish out such content. This amounts to negating the socially significant role of the media as a change agent in building and shaping popular perceptions. It is the profit economy on which the media thrives that compels it to the ‘herd mentality’ of producing and presenting content that guarantees success. It is the media’s inability to take risks and offer meaningful content that is at the root of the problem. It is not just about women’s portrayal though! The way sexual minorities are depicted in so called blockbuster movies is an offence to the sensibilities of the viewer. They are either mocked at or are characters of self-pity. The media also never bother to address that gender based violence is not something that happens only with women, it can happen with men too. The entire problem of gender based violence is thus homogenized and regimented by media discourse since according to the media, gender based violence is a women-centric problem. The frames and the agendas that the media employs while reporting on such issues tend to be too restrictive and mainstreamish. The media are then successful in creating a pseudo-culture that encourages, legitimizes and sees gender based violence as completely natural.

The Onus

It is true that as an agency with lot of power, the media cannot shy away from its responsibility to communicate issues of gender based violence in the country. However, such an onus is intricately interwoven with issues of media content, media ethics, media regulation and self-censorship. What is alongside important is the need to impart gender-sensitive training to media professionals. So while a news campaign like ‘Save the Girl Child’ does help, it should not be seen as an end in itself. The media would do well to initially accept its responsibility as an entity that can affect the manner in which issues of gender based violence are looked at. A determined focus on strengthening media at the community level would be a great take off from the view-point of enhancing progressive media coverage towards issues of gender and violence. A holistic outlook would help the media in taking concrete steps to justify its role as a power to reckon with – especially in curtailing gender based violence and shaping a healthier debate about issues such as gender divisions, gender roles, gender inequalities and gender discrimination – all of which manifest violence in varying proportions.  

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