Where is the real working woman in our TV soaps?

By:

Nalanda Tambe & Nidhi Shendurnikar-Tere

The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda

Over the years, female characters in popular soaps on Indian television have been portrayed regressively; as housewives engaged in domestic chores, as scheming experts playing kitchen politics or as sacrificial goddesses wanting to please their husband and family. The absence of dignified, real and ambitious working women in these soap operas successfully creates and reinforces misleading images of Indian women. It also deepens existing gender stereotypes that prevail in Indian society. Even as traditional realities are glamourized, the distortion of the working woman‟s image is apparent. The article examines popular serials and the portrayal of working women professionals in the light of television as a mass medium thriving on "infotainment". 

Keywords: working women, television, gender stereotypes, Indian society, distortion, portrayal  

Television soaps go Traditional  

The advent of globalization and technological advancements raised the bar of television as a mass medium, especially after India liberalized its economy in 1991. The entry of foreign media into the Indian media landscape provided viewers with plethora of choices in terms of media content. However, this was no guarantee of television as an agent for social and political change – a vision for which the state run channel Doordarshan was created after independence. Television became obsessed with the concept of "infotainment" – a combination of information and entertainment as a result of which profits, revenues and ratings were prioritized. Even as the idea of global village propounded by Canadian philosopher and theorist Marshal Mcluhan, was realized, the portrayal of women on television left much to be desired. The projection of hackneyed and unoriginal female roles noticeably distinguished between the reel and the real woman. Headway in technology and modes of production unfortunately could not harmonize with bold and original sketches of Indian women – especially in the context of daily soaps which continued to capture the imaginations of women irrespective of age, caste, language, profession, culture. Though television soaps debate societal issues like marriage, divorce, crime against women, patriarchy, family system, the working Indian woman is conspicuous by her absence. 

Trending with the popularity of Ekta Kapoor's Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kyuki Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (2000-2008), women characters were domesticized, seeped into cultural and family values and had roles and responsibilities within the domain of the private. These portrayals influenced target audiences to such an extent that female leads in soaps were recognized by the characters that they played. The most prominent example being the recognition of Smriti Irani as 'Tulsi' and Sakshi Tanwar as 'Parvati'. However, female portrayals during this period were completely unreal – with leading ladies as 'Sanskari' daughters-in-law whose only job was to hunt for an eligible match, marry, cook, take care of family/children/in-laws, keep the family united and sheltered from of all kinds of evils. The representations were idealistic and idolizing. Female characters were devoid of any natural sense of ambition, desire and self-respect. Audiences were influenced by the way these leading ladies decked up –  patterns and trends in sarees, jewellery, hairstyle and make-up were emulated by young and old alike. However, critics pointed out to evident lacunae in terms of the absence of working women in these serials. 

The domestication of Indian women in popular TV soaps continues to dominate the screen even after a decade of the success of Ekta Kapoor‟s formula. Thus, the claim that the Indian woman no longer occupies only the household and is very much a part of the professional world remains a false one. It is rare to witness stories that depict women successfully in both personal and professional roles. In the following section, we present glimpses from many popular soaps and their understanding of domesticity of women and Indianness. 

Glimpses 

Jaya Chakravarty in her book Women in Journalism observes the inclination of popular soaps to project and encourage women “to become better housewives by keeping their homes pretty, learning to cook the best foods, to win the man through his stomach and take lessons in body and skincare” – thereby turning them into sophisticated slaves of the modern age. As decorative elements, these women rarely are shown as capable professionals. Economically independent, ambitious, career-minded women who assert their individuality and attempt to act rationally are termed as self-centred, ruthless, domineering and the ones who are not bothered about their husbands and families. The economically independent woman is portrayed as a smoking, boozing neurotic who pursues men with single-mindedness, unbecoming of a woman (Chakravarty, 2002). In the popular serial 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' (2009) on Star Plus the protagonist Akshara (Hina Khan) is content to raise a family with Naitik Singhania (Karan Mehra) and be with her in-laws until Naitik injures himself in an accident and is bed ridden for four years. This is when Akshara is expected to take up the responsibilities of the business that the Singhania's run. Until then she remains aloof to the professional activities of her husband. After her husband's condition lends him incapable to work, she goes to office and handles the responsibilities of business along with her father-in- law. This stereotypical and clichéd representation depicts women working only in the case of an economic/family compulsion and not out of her own choice. After Naitik recovers, Akshara is not too keen to go back to work in order to spend time with her son and family. This signifies that her professional avatar (role) was meant to be short-lived and dependent on her husband. Thus, women in these soaps are looked upon as objects of family desire and their roles are restricted to - biological, domestic and decorative, with hardly any storyline that challenges stereotypes (Kaul & Sahni, 2010).  

Earlier, Hindi soaps such as 'Tara', 'Hasratein', 'Saans', 'Shanti', 'Aurat' projected women in different roles of a wife, mother and homemaker. They also dealt with issues of working women, divorce, extra-marital relation-ships, sexual harassment, rape, abortion - and women fighting for their rights. Well-known shows on Doordarshan (DD) like Hum Log, Buniyaad, Circus, Fauji, Kachhi Dhoop, Nukkad, Rajni, Udaan - to name a few; were extremely popular and are still memorable. While these shows did talk about traditional Indian values, culture and depicted women as housewives, there was still a positive side to the portrayal. Unlike present day soaps, housewives were not scheming, jealous individuals out to destroy the family. Portrayals were dignified and real; devoid of any kind of glamour yet attempting to address pertinent issues in the most poignant manner. Some like Circus, Rajni and Shaanti presented women in working roles. What has changed today thanks to the current crop of serials is a shift towards glamour, sensation and appearance more than content. Entertainment has overtaken substance and ratings have outdone content. All that seemed natural in yesteryears shows is today artificial and unconvincing. Highlighting this contrast, Dr. Niti Chopra, Dean – Faculty of Journalism and Communication, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara, Gujarat says, “Most of the commercial serials and soaps on television in India today portray women in unrealistic, garish, and unworthy roles, with majority of them characterised within unimaginative storylines projecting stereotypical, Indian family settings. In contrast, even though the women shown in similar kind of format shows on television in the late eighties and nineties, (on Doordarshan, and a few years later on other channels), did have their share of suffering and pain owing to cultural subservience and gender discrimination;(but) there was definitely an intrinsic dignity and naturalness in that struggle.” 

In Sony TV‟s show 'Love Marriage ya Arranged Marriage', two friends Mansi (Samaira Rao) and Shivani (Rishika Mihani) are married into the same family, the only difference being that while Mansi‟s marriage is an arranged one, Shivani's is a love marriage. The show tried to establish the supremacy of an arranged match over a love marriage as is usually believed in Indian traditions and the superiority of a housewife (Mansi) over a working wife (Shivani, who is a wedding planner and is working to support her parents). Even as an independent working woman, Shivani readily agrees to give up her job when Sahil's (her husband's) mother places a strange condition of leaving her job if she has to get married into the family. She desperately tries to convinces her mother-in-law to let her work in order to support her parents. The serial depicts working women in a bad light - as morally inferior and incapable. Though subtly, the serial tries to deride Shivani and mould her into domesticity like Mansi.  

The story lines of TV serials portray an endless competition among housewives and working women. Eventually, a housewife is superior and capable and a working woman is a home- breaker who neglects her family for her professional ambitions. Says Prof. Shagufa Kapadia, Director - Women‟s Studies Research Centre, M.S.University, “The portrayals are an insult to women who are homemakers as their significant contribution to the household is completely disregarded or rather, regarded only with reference to their inclination to gain the favour of their in-laws. I strongly wish there would be more television shows that depict “Normal Contemporary Indian Women”, who are foregoing ahead to meet the challenges involved in breaking traditional cultural barriers and asserting their independent identity.” This is evident in Zee TV's Aaj Ki Housewife Hai…Sab Janti Hai wherein a journalist Sona (Suhasi Goradia Dhami) stops working to prove to her in-laws that being a housewife is indeed a challenging task. The dichotomy between being a housewife and working woman is reinforced to show that a woman is incapable of handling responsibilities at both fronts.  


To sum up …  

Our society is influenced by various aspects of television programmes which affect the behaviour and attitudes of people. The negative depictions of working women in these serials may lead to social disharmony. Serials portraying daughters-in-law in search for identity and participating in so-called Agni parikshas; for example Star Plus's show 'Sanskaar - Dharohar Apno ki' (2013) are demeaning. Here, the traditional joint family's head Ansuba (Aruna Irani) does not accept the new bride Bhoomi (Shamin Mannan) who marries Jaikishan Vaishnav (Jay Soni) in a foreign land. Bhoomi goes through various tests to prove and gain a status in the family.  

What do these flawed portrayals mean for the Indian society currently faced with increasing crimes against its women? In the light of the gruesome Delhi gang rape incident (December 2012), a debate has sparked off over media portraying women in a poor light; especially raunchy item numbers in Bollywood flicks. A part of the debate has also brought to light the regressive portrayal of Indian women in serials having serious implications for the status of women in Indian society. It would be disastrous for TV as a mass medium to ignore its social responsibility and demean Indian women. This does not mean that TV has to stop entertaining and start sermonizing, but it certainly has to acknowledge its role of nurturing a society that feels responsible towards its female populace. What prevents stake-holders in Indian television from offering a more progressive treatment of women characters, innovative and fresh concepts and substantive content is probably a fear to hurt the sensibilities of audiences as well as commercial motives. Says Najuk Trivedi, Senior PR Consultant, “As a woman of today I have many important things to focus on like my work, my family and many positive aspects of life contrary to what is shown in the daily soaps where women are the reason for all the misdeeds and wrong things. These soaps also negatively influence and increase impractical expectations from women. TV is a very influential medium and so the makers of these daily soaps should understand their responsibility and should channelize their energies on making more productive and responsible programs that focus on the positive aspects of womanhood.” 

There is no doubt that these TV soaps are passing the wrong message about working women by categorizing them in black and white – either as scheming and bullying or as ideal 'bahus'. Concepts, storylines and characters would require undergoing a complete revamp if some of the major concerns faced by real
Indian working women are to be addressed in mainstream television. Till then we wonder what keeps women glued to the daily doses of sheer distortion, spin and typecasting! 

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