The Dilemma of Victimisation in Heteronormativity. Thoughts on Studies of Gender and Media in India

Mette Gabler



Changes in Indian society post-liberalisation are signified by economic growth and thriving consumer cultures among financially-abled parts of the population. The onset of satellite TV and the increase of international investments have resulted in a complex expansion of media systems and thereby, an explosion of medialised messages and imageries. Increasingly visible are, for example, the growing number of private TV channels and the expansion of the commercial advertising industry and its campaigns, which despite the foreign presence, has since seen manifold examples of regionalisation in various parts of the media systems, e.g. the press and commercial advertising (Schneider, 2013, p. 2-3).

In these processes of a changing society, the dynamics of transformation contain opposing viewpoints, whose representatives debate the benefits or dangers of change. Promoters of change and opposing voices are intertwined through diverse faceted perspectives. Amongst the elements that feed this tug of war is gender. Particularly, the significance of media systems and content in regards to changing gender patterns, e.g. stereotypes, roles and expectations, are being discussed among academic studies, activists and institutions alike. Questions of representation are therefore central to the debate on perceived transformations of society. The questions of this essay are: in what way is gender representation debated, and what are the patterns of these debates? The following will show, that debates on representation are very one-sided and reproduce power relations that are situated in a binary understanding of gender and embedded in a heteronormative matrix. The present discourses highlight female representation and thereby limit the understanding of gender dynamics all in all.


Debates on Representations in Indian Media

According to sociologist Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2014), the context and historical development in India, i.e. new economic policies, the dynamics of the women’s movement and the prominence and outreach of media-cultures, have resulted in a hyper-visibility of gender in popular culture in particular (Chaudhuri, p. 145). In addition, news media have since the Nirbhaya case[1] increasingly covered sexualised violence and harassment as well as debated women’s safety and men’s involvement, exemplifying how debates on sexism and gender are increasingly present in mainstream media-cultures in the aftermath of this incident. At the same time, development initiatives, state-led as well as non-governmental, promote the incorporation of gender-mainstreaming in projects, focussing heavily on women’s empowerment, as well as addressing gender based violence and other issues concerning sexist practices, e.g. female foeticide or differing expectations according to sex. In many examples, social marketing campaigns are utilised to spread the messages. Thereby, the existing messages and imageries are a complex blend of commercial and social dynamics.

In academia, the representation of gender in media[2], e.g. in film, TV serials[3], print media and commercial advertising[4], has long been a popular field of study, particularly within the social sciences. These studies add to the existing imageries and debates on gender. Especially in connection with commercial advertising, Chaudhuri (2001) states in her study on gender representation in print advertising that “within modern advertising, gender is probably the social resource that is used most” (Chaudhuri, 2001, p. 375), arguing the prominent role gender plays among strategies of communicating with audiences.

The results of discussions of representation in popular culture, news media, academia etc. illustrate the various channels that debate the myriad of existing imageries. These studies and debates highlight the conviction in media’s influence and outline the importance regarding media content in particular as a salient part of socialisation processes.


The Women Centred Focus

A major point brought to light in the extensive material is that concerns around gender are heavily dominated by so-called women’s issues and the representation of women. Anthropologist Maila Stivens states that to activists in Asia in general ‚gender‘ often reads as ‚woman‘ (Stivens, 2006, p. 5). Papers discussing development communication in India support this claim by discussing how there is a need for protecting as well as actions towards empowering women (Vilanilam, 2009, p. 17; Sharma & Sharma, 2007). Although gender equality is the common term used in development initiatives, women are the focal point. Attempts of many initiatives to rectify inequalities focus on the multitude of atrocities committed against women and the discriminatory practises women face due to their sex (Uberoi, 1996, pp. xi–xii). This however results in an unbalanced mode of dealing with gender, victimisation of women, and not considering the complexities of gendered systems. A question to be asked is for example: How can a woman be empowered if her power is not recognised? Although the importance of the women’s movement in India can not be understated and a number of publications discuss this part of India’s history in the connection with particular media strategies use and visual media, i.e. social marketing[5], the focus in these also lies on particular women’s demand for equality and release from un-freedoms. However, in the greater scheme of gender equality the entire gendered system needs to be addressed.

That gender is often equated with women, also holds true for many academic studies, as illustrated by the publication by Dasgupta (2011) entitled “Media, Gender, and Popular Culture in India: Tracking Change and Continuity”. Despite intending to “critique the role of the media and its representation of popular culture and the position of Indian men and women in urban, suburban, and rural India” (Dasgupta, 2011, p. 4), debates on female representation predominate and male representation, apart from short examples of masculine representation, seems to function as a signifier of the gender gap.

Voices critical of the portrayal of gender imageries illustrate this point. The concerns regarding depictions of stereotypical gender roles in media and the discussion on representations that “celebrate the existing social order” (Chaudhuri, 2001, p. 375) i.e. depicting role models of normative behaviour and identities, especially focus on women‘ representation as housewives and/or care-takers. Commercial advertising in particular is noted to reinforce traditional power relations and patriarchal structures (Rao, 2001). Again substituting ‚gender‘ with ‚women‘. Within this context of commercial imageries being harmful to society, the depiction of women’s sexuality, nudity and bodies is common topic, once more turning the focus towards female representation. Feminists argue that this discussion exemplifies the constructions of femininity as a way of enforcing control over women’s lives (Munshi, 2001, p. 7).

These investigations surely are an important part of discourses on gender, and shed light on the ways stereotypes of women can be harmful as well as exemplifying patriarchal structures that subjugate the female part of a population. However, gendered dynamics are over-simplified by only focussing on this side of gender representation. Medialised messages can also be argued to challenge existing norms (Chaudhuri, 2001; Gabler, 2010). An investigation of female “avatars of homemaker” in commercial advertising in Indian print and television media by Shoma Munshi (1998) illustrates that “women’s spaces of resistance can be and are created by producers of media messages, even if that may not be their first intended aim” (Munshi, 1998, p. 574). This illustrates the complexity of debates circling women’s representation and is exemplified by various campaigns, be they with a social objective, a commercial goal, or potential overlaps. Campaigns might sell products, promote ideas of women’s empowerment or address public health considerations, but a single campaign can also be seen to sell a product through social causes or in connection with social messages, as for example the myriad campaigns utilising the international women’s day as a sales pitch for women centred products. Some commercial ads even seem to challenge existing social structures i.e. utilise society’s transformation for the purpose of product sales (Hero Honda’s slogan “why should boys have all the fun” plays on differing expectations of mobility according to sex). Similarly, social campaigns might utilise style and strategies of commercial marketing in order to promote social causes, e.g. “the ring the bell” campaign initiated by ‘breakthrough’ promoting individual intervention when suspecting domestic violence. Hence, media and gender are interlinked in various ways and open up perspectives of re-producing existing gender roles through images of the housewife and caretaker, who inherently is a woman, as well as offering potential to encourage gender equality.

Investigations on masculinities and male representation exist,[6] but are limited and their role in terms of participating in the quest for gender equality seems marginal. Instead of questioning masculinities in regard to sexualised violence, men’s role is often limited to that of a protector of women, in the end reproducing ideas of women as victims and in need of protection from evil-doers. This is exemplified by the Gillette razor campaign “Soldiers wanted […] to support the most important battle of the nation. To stand up for women. Because when you respect women… You respect your nation. Support the movement. Gillette salutes the soldier in you”. Apart from victimising the female population, this rhetoric also fastens the binary understanding of gender and its heteronormativity. Attempts to breach this trend are debates and studies in India that deal with Queer realities and representation in media.[7] According to Uberoi, focusing on masculinities “in the context of the Western ‚gay‘ movement’s challenge to conventional masculine role expectations” (Uberoi, 1996, p. xiii) has been the exception rather than the rule.


Beyond the Binary Heteronormativity

As shown, the logic of most studies follows ideas based upon the binary-system of gender, that follows heteronormative patterns of understanding. Within this system trans-realities and individuals born intersexual are overlooked and their realities treated as abnormalities. However, with as many as “up to one in every five hundred babies […] born ‚intersex‘ with chromosomes at odds with their anatomy” (Philips, 2001, p. 31 cited in Jolly, 2002, p. 10), the prevalence of people belonging and identifying with these communities can in no way be downplayed.

Additionally, the women centred focus limits the discourse, effectively ignoring gender dynamics, power relations and the practises that lead to discriminatory patterns. If sections of society are oppressed, subjugated, marginalised and discriminated against, then what makes this possible and in what ways are these patterns put into action and by whom? The oppression of the female sex does not exist on its own, it is a part of a gendered system, and is based on an understanding of how the world works through these gendered patterns and constructions. Discourses on gender cannot be limited to debates on femininity and women’s position in society as they are inextricably linked to notions of masculinity, the construction of binary sex-categories, and power relations within the gendered systems.

Gender is a complex category, but routinely simplified, especially in connection with advertising and other media representations. Debates concerning these representations reproduce the simplified present notions. I therefore argue for a more inclusive and fluid use and understanding of gender.



[1]     The Nirbhaya case describes the incidence of the gang rape of a 23 year old woman in Delhi in December 2012 that sparked demonstrations across India.

[2]     Anthologies and other studies investigating the connections between gender and media include Bhavani & Vijayasree (2010), Chaudhuri (2014), Dasgupta (2011), Patowary (2014), Sardana (1984), and Yakkaldevi (2014).

[3]  Studies on gender representation in TV-shows and film in India include Bachmann (2001), Cullity & Younger (2004), Fazal (2008), Ghosh (2001 + 2010), Khan (2011), Mankekar (1993), Munshi (2009), Muraleedharan (2001), Patel (2001), and Vasudevan (2000).

[4]     Gender representations in commercial advertising in India are discussed by Chaudhuri (2001), Dutta (2013), Haynes (2012), Munshi (1998), Nigam & Jha (2007), Rajagopal (1999), Schaffter (2006), Sengupta (2014), Vanita (2001), and Wandrekar (2010).

[5]     Examples include Kumar (1997), Murthy & Dasgupta (2011) and another Publication by Zubaan (2006).

[6]     Haynes (2012) for example in his investigation of advertisements for sex tonics in western India from 1900–1945 discusses masculinity in regards to ideas of modernity at the time (Haynes, 2012).

[7]     Some studies engage with lesbian relations e.g. Bachmann (2001) and Patel (2001), while others focus on male homosexual relations (Muraleedharan, 2001).



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23. Januar 2015 | Veröffentlicht von Alexa Altmann
Veröffentlicht unter Allgemein

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