Who is this stranger?

BY Nirmala Aravind| IN Media Practice | 16/05/2005
So could we have some sensible, self-reliant women in our serials and advertisements, for a change?

The Quest Features & Footage

Nirmala Aravind

You may not have realised it, but Dear Girls are back in fashion. They are sweet, doe-eyed young things whose knowledge of life in general, and modern technology in particular, is hazy, but they are so delightful in their simplicity, that really, it would be ill-natured to criticise this ignorance. They have a propensity for getting lost in crowds and prefer to sit and wait for someone to take them out and buy them what they need and get their chores done.

For what would the darlings do without their men? Eternally smiling, ever resourceful, masterful young gentlemen who are ever present to rescue their girlfriends and wives from frightening crowds, like ICICI Prudential Life Insurance ever to the rescue, who produce cash from ATMs and bank drafts from ICICI Bank branches that work into the late hours, to the wide-eyed wonderment of the females, drive them to the destination of their choice at any time of the day in Chevrolet Operas, and pop Asmi diamond rings every now and then on dainty fingers quivering with anticipation.

Contrast this cosy little world bathed in gentle colours, a soft-focus package on offer on television screens and print from our premier advertising agencies, with the urban Indian reality. A woman in her twenties or thirties, city bred and a college graduate, would in nine cases out of ten be fairly tech savvy and well able to look after herself in the rough and tumble of the urban jungle. She is likely to be employed part or full time, either outside, in an office, or from her home, is likely to possess a driving license and an ATM card as well as credit card of her own, does contribute to her family`s income and also indulge her taste for clothes and accessories with the money she earns. And while she would be charmed by the occasional act of chivalry or courtesy on the part of her male friend or partner, you bet she knows how to look out for herself.

Then what does one make of the insidious message being propagated by those keen analysts of shifting trends, the ad wallahs, the message that claims that the role model of today`s young woman is this precious idiot who needs to be constantly looked after and pampered? Even the Lalithaji of the Surf ads of the 1980s had a mind of her own, and didn`t need a smiling husband on hand to carry her basket and gently help her choose the right detergent. Or are they perhaps solicitously trying to provide the viewer a relief from the raucous, barely dressed item girls writhing all over the music channels?

So why do we have our premier ad agencies, telefilm makers and the Saffron Brotherhood hawking the same ideal Sthree? One can understand the compulsions of the RSS and their ilk to strive to prevent the breath of emancipation lest it stir up a breeze that could rock the creaking boat of the Great Indian Family, where the male lays down the law and everyone else either lumps it or takes a perilous jump in the lake. But the fact that the offices of advertising firms and television production companies are bustling with bright young women on the go makes this mawkish ideal very curious. Why have they decided that what`s good for them is not good for the Indian public? That they can entrust the management of their creative departments and production units to feisty women but chose to, or are compelled to, thrust the Dear Girl in her various avatars, beaming and bleeding sindoor in the parting of her hair, on the viewer?

And what of the corporate clients for whom these cute campaigns are run? The picture gets even more curious. Whether they are banks, insurance companies or white goods manufacturers, their women executives are high achievers who have slogged shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues to reach their top slots, but none of this is evident in the images that are projected of what their organisations stand for. Passive, easily pleased, pretty and docile is the woman, a decorative foil for the man in the picture to reveal himself in his dual role of caring and daring partner.

It would be easy to dismiss these images as negligible in their impact, or laugh them off. But freedom for the Indian woman is at such a nascent stage and society in such a state of flux in these times of liberalisation that an insidious campaign to relegate her once again to a state of passive submission, albeit in gem-encrusted designer wear, has to be checked before it gathers force. The power of repetition is one of the most potent weapons in the media`s arsenal, as Susan Faludi elucidated years back in her landmark treatise ` The Backlash in Popular Culture `: ? Said enough times, anything can be made to seem true.?

Whether we see recurring themes and images in advertisements as a reflection of popular culture, or the other way round, it has to be admitted that stereotypes are almost impossibly difficult to dislodge. There is safety in familiarity; when the everyday world is invaded by technology that renders vast numbers of people and things ranging from telegrams to office peons to hair pins, once considered essential, redundant, it makes people feel good to have some aspects still in the old mould, like women in their `rightful` role.

And herein lies the danger of harping on women`s complex chromosomes and female intuition; when differences are emphasized, the common ground vanishes, and no amount of special treatment for charming frailties can compensate for the loss of the basic right to be treated as rational human beings. What an immense pity then, that in a country where the development indicators for women are still abysmally low, those meagre gains made by the last few generations of educated and enterprising women are sought to be negated by the new conservatism.

Life was never simple, was never meant to be. And let women beware of those who want to make life simple for them by offering them the peace of the kitchen sink, with a promise to send in Prince Charming when they are done with their penance.

The bald fact is that in spite of the cataclysmic changes in society, there has been very little change in human nature itself. If women thought that when Nora Torvald slammed a door in Norway a hundred and twenty-five years ago, they could leave those Doll`s Houses behind them, they were too optimistic. The romantic ideal of womanhood which is founded on her powerlessness, is alive and kicking, because it suits a very large section of society.

Ideals of course can be switched on and off and twisted this way and that depending on the needs of that very large section of society. When one considers the fact that the votaries of the Hundred percent Housewife ideal don`t seem to include the agricultural labourer, the domestic servant, the fish seller, flower vendor and numerous other traditional female vocations in their ambit, one realises that it boils down to a question of the convenience and comfort of the middle or upper class Indian family.

The human race really isn`t divided into one rational half and one irrational, and it would be in the best interests of society if we begin to see people as basically sensible, level headed individuals with a right to be treated as such and neither ignored nor patronised, whether they happen to wear trousers or skirts, dhotis or saris.

To start with, could we please put a stop to those monotonous headlines that appear as surely and regularly as cholera epidemics in summer and floods in the monsoon, when examination results are announced? ` Girls Corner Ranks `, ` Boys Outshine Girls `, ` First Three ranks go to Girls ` and so on, as if it`s just yesterday that schools and colleges threw their doors open to the female of the species. Is this news any longer, and why should it be? The public would welcome a more intelligent analysis of academic performance based on other factors, instead of this boy-girl head count.

So could we have some sensible, self-reliant women in our serials and advertisements for a change? They could be hip and happening too, and much more interesting than those soulful Dear Girls. They needn`t be caricatures, just real, flesh and blood people like the ones you bump into on trains and buses and in offices and hurrying down the road, going about the day`s work without fuss and without posturing. Taking two steps backward can be dangerous if it sets off a whole reverse slide; there are millions of women for whom freedom is nothing more than a concept, and the least we can do is to sound the alarm when we`re told that really, the ladies need to relax and let the menfolk get on with the tough task of running the world.

We didn`t come all this way simply to turn back, did we?

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