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Published by: Pramod Enthralling Ennui on Jan 15, 2011
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Meena T Pillai Media (ted) Woman

THE MEDIA(TED)WOMAN: GENDER POLITICS vs. CULTURAL DYNAMICS Author:MEENA T. PILLAI ABSTRACT---In today's world of advanced technologies, mass media with its capacity to standardize, homogenize and transform ideologies plays a great role in the formulation of femininity as a set of social expectations created and nurtured in any patriarchal society. As in imaging women, the media has the potential to image/imagine nations too. This paper is an attempt to foreground the suppression, injustice and double standards, which are cleverly masked in the celebration of our national identity. Who is an Indian? What constitutes Indianness? In posing these questions my project in this paper is to foreground the suppression, injustice and double standards, which are cleverly masked in the celebration of our national identity. In today’s world of advanced technologies, mass media with its capacity to standardize, homogenize and transform ideologies plays a great role in the formulation of femininity as a set of social expectations created and nurtured in any patriarchal society. As in imaging women, the media has the potential to image/imagine nations too. Benedict Anderson points out that all nations are imagined and the mass media has a crucial role in this creative imagination (Anderson 20). Media has the ability to make what are “in effect national symbols part of the life of every individual and thus to break down the divisions between the private and local spheres, and the public and national ones” (Hobsbawm 142). The degree of women’s ‘liberation’ is still one of the most controversial debates raging in contemporary Indian society especially in the backdrop of Indian nationalism’s problematic relationship to the women’s question. The abstract notion of nation is concretized through the repeated use of certain icons, motifs and images. But the same images can be used differentially to have variant meanings within a particular nationalism. Somnath Zutshi points out how Indian nationalism has used the image of women in this contradictory manner. From its very earliest nineteenth-century beginnings, the ‘Woman Question’ has haunted nationalist thought. Moreover, the casting of woman in the role of nation resulted in ideological struggles being fought out on the terrain represented by woman. Though ostensibly the debate touched upon every aspects of a woman’s being, the hidden agenda was always that of control. Behind this urge for control lay a fear of the powerful forces that lay buried within woman as well as nation -- sexuality in the one case and the demand for social justice in the other – forces that could easily become overwhelming. Resolving the ‘Woman Question’ in this sense meant that control of the nation (the body

This gender hierarchy organizes. the so-called ‘Bharath Matha’ supercedes by far all other images created by such an ideology. as well as that which stood for the fruits of control/ assimilation. both that. sister or daughter. Thus the experience of being an Indian is categorically male.” (Chatterjee: 1993 page 119). a female deity. It is the over determined gender coding of a patriarchal culture which holds the woman responsible for upholding the values of a nation. so much so that even his day to day needs from food and clean clothes to a cosy home most often rests on the services of his mother. ‘mother’ and ‘daughter in law’. rituals and practices so as to have become a cultural system. Indian nationalism too “in demarcating a political position opposed to colonial rule. Thus history illustrates that the project of sacralizing its women has always been one of the primary agenda of all nationalisms (Thapar 260). thus ensnaring her in the chains of her own glory and martyrdom. the female reality being elided over. Further. as the one who speaks for the nation. institutions. Under changed economic conditions the monetary . Nikhil her husband wants to educate and liberate her soul from the shackles of convention. In casting India as a sacred holy land. modulates and charts all relations between men and women in India and has permeated deeply into all our discourses. took up the women’s question as a problem already constituted for it: namely. the image of the woman as ‘other’ could be drawn from the same reservoir of popular consciousness as the image of ‘woman as nation’. is also highly conscious of the fact that his secure ‘masculine‘ identity is to a large extent dependent on the servility and dependence of his womenfolk. as also double labour as she has to take up the challenges of being the ideal ‘wife’. Romila Thapar speaks of the remarkable popularity of the Mother Goddess cults in various forms during the ‘brahmanical renaissance’ of the Gupta and post-Gupta period. provided they become ‘Mothers’ and sacrifice their sexual identity. one chould discern the ideological preoccupations of the upper and middle class male Hindu. It has thus the immeasurable advantage of being able to stand for both self and other. which has to be controlled/excluded. as a problem of Indian tradition. Her liberation is fraught with guilt. (Zutshi 85). He. From the very beginning of Indian nationalism the image of the ‘woman’.politic) was linked to the control of the woman (the female body). at the same time fulfilling the challenges of her career. In a land where the woman has been brought up believing with great pride that she is the symbol of the nation and its honour. Tagore mocks this nationalist preoccupation in his novel Home and the World where the firebrand nationalist Sandeep idealizes the heroine as ‘Mother’. placed on a pedestal and worshipped. But this casting of woman as ‘Mother’ incorporates only one kind of experience of womanhood and thereby excludes all other women. a Mother Goddess. At the same time women are idolized. women’s education and her capacity to leave the domestic sphere to find work is not the same symbol of liberation as it is for the western woman. Historically speaking. Thus the average Indian male has very little doubt regarding the absolute nature of his superiority. the very image of ‘Mother India’. The muting of their sexual space provides a one-way ticket to glory. Moreover while India itself is ‘Mother India’ all Indians are ‘sons of India’. wife.

it at the same time reconstructs it as surveillance. content and circulation. middle-class Indian men vented their spleen against modernity for its ability to create the educated independent woman.security afforded by her job coerces her to cling to her employment. Foucault describes the panopticon as a “laboratory of power” (Foucault 202). An intensely private space. thus often making one wonder whether this indeed is freedom or oppression. for power vested on the male has reached a stage where it passes itself off as ‘normal’ instead of ‘power’ itself. Often we fail to recognize this. As Schneider points out “The decision about what we protect as private is a political decision that always has important public ramifications” (Schneider 978). unless in extreme cases. If one closely observes our media one can see the efforts. . home is another place. This gender hierarchy automatically controls not only the production of knowledge but also its form. capable of overturning traditions without any qualms whatsoever” (Zutshi 137). Is this the reason why even educated women disavow being feminists today? They know that they are under surveillance and power of a wide range of collective institutions. It is maintained by many sociologists that there are more rapes committed inside our homes than outside. which has been zealously guarded by the man. An example which comes immediately to mind is the cover story in a popular magazine in Kerala of the four adolescent girls who indulged in a little bit of wild fun by taking semi nude pictures of each other in their hostel rooms. “Though themselves the creators of modern society. What is brutally utilized here is the woman’s economic and emotional dependence on her home and family. One is subjected to surveillance and one can feel the omnipresent. But modernity was acceptable to the Indian man only as long as it confined itself to science. technology. management or administration. television. The story in the magazine was replete with pictures and tales of the wanton ways of our girls. the eyes of the camera became the center of the panopticon. Just as the nation. even while seemingly celebrating women’s liberation. and thus are products of a disciplinary power. It is high time we ask ourselves why the same surveillance cameras become blind stone gargoyles in the boys’ hostels in India. This blatant exercise in social control is something constantly felt by our women today. Even as society lewdly and lip-smackingly enjoys this spectacle. to uphold institutionalized male supremacy. or cinema. it is also a place of complete patriarchal autonomy where the rights and liberty of women can rarely be ensured from outside. Thus it is that our newspapers. omnipotent panopticon gaze. economics. which intruded into their private space and converted it to a spectacle. The report brought to my mind the concept of the ‘panopticon’ where one is watched by power structures without being able to see the one who watches. he develops a paranoid aversion for it. which obviously leads to control and punishment. The supposedly philanthropic anxieties for the amelioration of the woman’s condition started in the 19 th century with the rise of nationalism and received great popularity through the mass media. are careful to delimit it through the criterion of ‘normal’ female sexuality as defined by them. The moment it engages in cultural criticism or gender issues. In the case of the four young girls. which make docile not only their bodies but also their minds. both covert and overt.

what it indeed shares is the other construct of ‘gender’. In fact as Kumkum Sangari points out.If we examine the language of our media. Let us take the example of the Indian Express of Friday. Our media perpetuates our sexist language and our sexist stereotypes. It has become a shared reality among the imagined community of Indians and the onerous task of our cultural boundary setting continues to pivot on our idealized womanhood. in the process. . 10 August 2000. The reporter then goes on to record the protest of an actress who says that she is “on the look out for substance in her roles”. Our Cinema and our television reinforce the power relations that exist in our homes. they effectively naturalise these domestic ideologies and nurture them in the new high-tech age. gender becomes a mark of proto-nationality. Even as the construct of India as nation is too vast and heterogenous to claim one language as ‘national’ or one ethnicity as common. for the innuendo just cannot be missed. Through the title and the photo the newspaper communicates that a woman of substance is different from a man of substance. This is one way of how an apparently innocent discourse can constitute a woman. buy her an ‘X’ brand pressure cooker”. Though one speaks of a non-sexist approach to issues obviously for public relations and political correctness. sexual semantics continues to haunt our media. They are complicit in enhancing the exploitation that is tacitly woven into our domestic relationships. its values and ideological determinants. On the threshold of the 21 st century. In a society. On page 7 is a 4-column article titled “Actress of Substance”. this gendered approach to ethnicity continues to bind us as a social organization. and especially actresses at that. Language is not neutral. lip-sync to a few saccharine dripping songs and gyrate with the heroes?” It is obvious that the question is a rhetorical one. But the title “Actress of Substance” with the photo of the scantily clad actress in a highly provocative posture has already spoken the message out loud and clear. it in fact very condescendingly offers a colonial. The reporter here can only collude with an ideology that denigrates and trivializes women. very covertly reiterates an apparently obsolete domestic ideology of marriage as the site of a convenient congruence of male provision and female labour. mainly professional women. we can decode our culture’s preoccupations. “ ‘the non-market sphere’ of domestic labour was. For example ads like “If you love your wife. which has always striven to make mothers of its women. are themselves reshaped”. By highlighting and idealizing the sexual division of labour. Thus when our advertisement industry focuses on ‘woman’ as the primary consumer. capitalist rationale for all forms of unpaid labour. and persists as one of the spaces or meeting grounds where some of the adjustments between pre capitalist and capitalist ideologies and practices – with their underlying essentialism and characteristic pressure against women’s individualation – come to acquire a new domain of effectivity and. at the same time illustrating what a woman’s substance is really all about. they also realize that the institution of the home is crucial to this role and its status quo should be maintained in order for capitalism to survive. In their attempt to legitimize women’s role as unpaid domestic labourers. Thus what we see today is the consensual arrangement of patriarchal cultural indigenism with capitalism to effectively check any subversive play of gender politics. The article reads thus “What else do our heroines do in films except look pretty. (Sangari 286).

Foucault. Feminisms in India can become meaningful endeavors if and only when they rip the mask off this spiritual humbug. Though inferior. Thus “signs of illegitimacy become the sanction for behavior not permitted for those who are ‘normal’” (Chatterjee 1993 page 132). REFERENCES Anderson. It is precisely the deviant status of the ‘other’. New Delhi: Kali. . The ‘new’ woman defined in this way becomes subjected to a ‘new patriarchy’ (Chatterjee 1989 page 244). Chatterjee. Thus both ‘tradition’ and ‘liberation’.Suresh Vaid. a promiscuity that is too tantalizing to be resisted by the commercial media. Thus through this otherisation nationalism implies that the threat from cultures outside India is more critical to the woman as the representative of the nation’s traditions and its spiritual essence. 1993. as is to a large extent exhibited in our cinema. so that they can eventually become the glorified mothers of our culture. The westernized woman is a sex object and therefore illegitimate according to the norm.The ‘other’ to the trope of ‘mother’ as nation is the ‘modern’ woman where ‘modern’ denotes ‘Western’. she has a freedom. paradoxically with capitalism. should make one see how our media is effectively tapping all these terrains and is in turn used by these ideologies to gain control over the woman both as ‘Mother’ and ‘Other’. Critics like Partha Chatterjee argue that such a paradigm is in fact not a dismissal of modernity but an attempt to make modernity consistent with the nationalist project (Chatterjee 1989 page 240). New York: Verso. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Chatterjee. A desire for this ‘other’ can be seen in our fascination with western models of the feminine. a wantonness. packaged and sold in the market today. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Thus it seems to be the ‘otherness’ of Indian womanhood that is commodified. her marginalized and ambiguous identity that is celebrated by our media. Kumkum Sangari. it is the alternative subject position of this ‘other’ that privileges or even legitimizes the continued presence of the ‘mother’ as the ideal of Indian womanhood. used as binaries. 1979. Partha “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question” in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History eds. Michel Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prisons. advertisements and soap operas. are wielded by our media as required of the situation to mediate a compromising resolution to the women’s question. As long as the chastity of the woman remains one of the primary constituents of our national honour we will be a society eternally striving to gain legitimacy for our women citizens even at the high cost of buying them wifedoms. Deconstructing the gendered inception of Indian nationalism and its collusion with Orientalism and of late. Benedict Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1990. Partha The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial History. As the ‘other’ to all that is normal according to the nationalist ideology. 1989.

Hobsbawm. Montreal. Thapar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Myth. Contributor MEENA T. Calcutta: Seagull. Nation and The Outsider in Hindi Cinema” in Interrogating Modernity: Culture and Colonialism in India eds. M. Recipient of two international awards – the Fulbright Fellowship to Ohio State University and Sastri IndoCanadian Faculty Research Fellowship to Concordia University. E. Kumkum Politics of the Possible: Essays on Gender. Romila Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. P. Teaches in the Department of English. Reality. 1993. Kalady. E. Somnath “Women. 1999. Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit. 1978. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme. Sangari. 1994. Zutshi. J. Tejaswini Niranjana. Schneider. “The Violence of Privacy” in The Public Nature of Private Violence Ed. New York: Routledge. Narratives. History.Colonial English. New Delhi:Orient Longman. 1990. Interested in Women’s Studies and Media Studies. Fineman. New Delhi: Tulika. . Sudhir. PILLAI.

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