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Guest Column: The changing face of Indian women in media: Abdul Khan

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Guest Column: The changing face of Indian women in media: Abdul Khan

International Women’s Day has this year become a hotly debated subject, with a lot of Twitterati questioning as to what there is to celebrate, given the near daily headlines highlighting rapes, violence against women and of course the BBC documentary, with strongly opposing viewpoints whether it needs to be telecast or not. Ironically in a social media era both sides have ended up seeing it, highlighting the fact that we are in a networked, real time, on -the edge world!  IWD is not  only just about chatter regarding the change we need to make to give a better life to half the world’s population, but also actually going about and making the change.

With over 800 channels, over 900 million mobile users ,over 277 million TV viewers and over a 1000 new films released annually, media portrayal of women assumes an extremely large degree of importance in a social context. It is not to say that women-oriented news and depictions are only negative - we have and will continue to celebrate the successes of  Arundhati Bhattacharya, Chairperson, State Bank of India , Sania Mirza in Tennis, Nandini Harinath, Deputy Director of the successful Indian MARS mission, Harshini Kanhekar  India s first lady Fire engineer working  at ONGC , Kangana Ranaut, the celebrated actor and many others 

There has been a sea change not just in the portrayal of Indian women, but also Indian women as they are over the past decade or so.  Near double digit growth rates, an increasingly affluent middle class, the clamor for women’s empowerment, larger number of women joining the work force and powerful positions have led to this change, this has caused a few broad trends which are reflected around us as well as in media images of women.

Hybrid value models - There is a rise towards individuality, "feel good" consumption ,modernity  blended with  archetype Indian values and consequent depiction   through either characters (e.g. Kangana Ranaut in the movie Queen) or female  advertising protagonists (e.g. the mother in  the Bournvita - Abhi race khatam nahin hui) . This is a marked departure from the dominant themes of long suffering Indian heroines and not to mention women who were dedicated to make their husbands shirts white so they succeed in interviews!

Realism at last - It is extremely encouraging to see the slowly increasing trend towards depiction of characters who are not stereotypes. It would be near impossible to imagine a plus size lead actor paired opposite a character who is a loser as depicted in the coming of age new Yashraj release Dum lagake Haisha. For that matter, the charming and warm advertisement for Tanishq jewellery which features a young woman’s second marriage is a welcome step which transcends selling a product and goes all the way in cueing social change.

The ME generation - Clearly  derived from social trends all around ,there’s a distinct change in terms of bringing to the forefront a strong ,determined ,aspiring for success individual who happens to be a woman. Her archetypal portrayals are subsumed by her assertion of her place in society as a professional -whether she’s an air force wing commander or a CEO -she wants to be known for her achievements, not her gender preceding her position. Advertising has paid at best lip service to this trend, merely ending up depicting this half way. The Airtel advertisement Boss starts off in this direction, but sadly lapses into a rather predictable format.  Priyanka Chopra in Mary Kom, regardless of the box office showing does convey a balanced depiction of the celebrated boxer and even if one girl emulates this or for that matter the real Mary Kom story, we would have achieved a lot! As India s first and only lady jockey, who is a Masters graduate and has won over 600 races put "I am a jockey, I race horses, I happen to be a woman"!

We are caught up in an era which we haven’t seen before. Media as we know it is slowly being destroyed. The world of the mobile internet is rapidly converting each of us into personal media prosumers. This is a country, which keeps talking being on the threshold of change as a better, safer, happier life for women. The issue isn’t really about the way women are projected in media -though that is of course extremely important. Gender stereotypes exist, condescending advertising exists, biased portrayal in films exists -yet the most critical thing is that respect for women, recognition of their worth, pride in having a girl child and celebration of womanhood is simply restricted to a few! As for advertising in the words of Jean Killbourne, communication theorist, “Ads sell more than products and services. They sell ideas of who you want to be, of love, work, play.” Therefore there has to be a genuine responsibility on communication creators, which includes even people who tweet of what we are communicating regarding women and what impact it could have. We will not have anyone come here and do things different for us, there is no magic wand which is going to solve this and for sure whatever may be the laws, sadly people will try to find ways out. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi -All of us -men and women have to "Be the change!"

Abdul Khan heads marketing   for a US- based mobile internet enhancement company -Alef Mobitech.

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