Deconstructing The Deplorable Misrepresentation of Women in Indian Media

On the offset, we’d like to acknowledge the elephant in the room – yes, this is another feminist article and if the idea of feminism offends your patriarchal views, feel free to peace out.
It is the limited roles women play within our media that are most keenly responsible for perpetuating old stereotypes, and moulding the idea of what women should be to a few clear standards. Women are incomplete unless they get a man and then keep him satisfied. They are either entirely passive or dominating, which in turn translates to overly sexual. There is no middle ground and, either way, the focus of their lives involves pleasing a man. This is evident in television, print media and particularly, in advertising.
Women are constantly asked – no, told – to adhere to a certain standard of beauty. The largest import from the west into India has been its culture, which has certainly done a lot of good for the country because of it’s progressive nature but subsequently furthered the idea that women are mere objects. Add that to a supremely misogynistic country like India, and you get a painfully potent environment that is not conducive to a feminist revolution/any kind of fight for equal rights – it leaves little to no room for radical ideas.

Before and after post-production / Image Courtesy:

Considering we’re still in far more nascent space in the media department, we’re still in a position to challenge the status quo before it is even more deeply rooted,  so it’s become more vital than ever to raise a war cry right now. What we need is a hard-hitting, eye-opening examination of how women are shown as sexual objects in media, which is consumed 24 hours a day by children, teenagers, and young adults — and how this teaches them that women are valuable not for their achievements and intelligence, but for their looks, youth and beauty. Keeping this in mind, these are some of the brands and campaigns that came to mind when we began to pick apart misogynistic media in the country.

I. Literally any Axe Body Spray advertisement. 

A large chunk of the damage done by advertising is through the hyper-sexualizing of women – today, any and every product can be sold by the power of cleavage and a body-hugging skirt. Let’s use Axe as visual backing for this statement – any ad will do, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll pinpoint one.

The breakdown of this advertisement is that this dorky little man – hence, basically not attractive by conventional standards? – smells so good due to a tiny amounts of residual Axe deodorant sprayed in the lift earlier on in the ad, a gorgeous model-esque woman is taken over by some sort of animalistic instinct and is compelled to take her clothes off and the rest, as they say, is history. Axe is notorious for portraying women in a one-dimensional, hyper-sexualized manner. Their insistence that women are objects and men can build confidence by using their product is relentless. They have also set dizzying expectations for what is considered sexy, for women to aspire to and the kind of women a man can hope to score, if he uses Axe deodorant.
This constant stream of sexist and degrading imagery and the fact that we buy into it undermines both our social and political power, which is why we need positive portrayals by the media of women in positions of power to inspire us to reclaim that control. The problem is more deep-rooted than we realize - stereotypes sell products, so the responsibility falls on us to change those stereotypes and perceptions. Why do people inadvertently subscribe to gender roles? And are we justified in blaming the media? It’s time we started asking ourselves these questions.

II. Boss Film – Airtel

In this Airtel advertisement, a woman is sheepishly dumping extra work on an employee, which visibly irks him. Even after he leaves her room, her guilt at doing so is palpable. She returns home and cooks up an elaborate meal for her husband who turns out to be the very same employee she gave extra work to earlier in the advert. Why do male bosses assert their authority over employees without a glimmer of guilt, and prove to their families that they are a responsible and righteous father or husband figures by doing something as insignificant as remembering to come home on time? The fundamental problem with this ad is that despite being the boss, she ends up in the kitchen, propagating the idea that the kitchen is exclusively a woman’s domain, and that even though she is at the helm of a corporation, her duty as a woman ultimately manifests in the kitchen.  Herein lies the difference – a woman can only be considered “wholesome” if she’s also a good wife and makes her husband the proverbial sandwich at the end of a long day being a boss, but for a man, being a hard worker is more important than being a dedicated husband. We think that Airtel is trying to reassure us that we’re on the path to progress, all the while clinging on to the same archaic patriarchal notions.

III. Weird ‘I-did-you-a-favor-by-not-raping-you’ video. 

Watching this video caused us physical pain. People that conceptualized and made this video – we’re calling you out. We regret to tell you that your use of pop culture tools like hashtags do not mask the fact that the video is downright wrong. Sure, the message being sent is on point but the execution is entirely misdirected. The narrative is not one out of the ordinary – two friends whining about their problems over a couple of drinks, but the girl passes out (as if that isn’t a cliché already). The guy walks towards what appears to be a hidden camera (not creepy at all, buddy) and confidently stares into the lens and says, “Now look what happens”. He walks towards her, but surprise surprise, tucks her into bed! He doesn’t rape her. Why, thank you for not raping a girl who’s passed out cold – you’re doing a great job at restoring our faith in humanity.
Here are a few examples of the kinds of comments this video received. *Slow clap.

IV. Vaginal Bleach Cream advertisement


Now that every body part of a woman has been exhausted in terms of how to improve it, the next target is the most intimate of parts. As if the hierarchy of skin tone wasn’t a big enough problem in India already, the newest fairness product on the block points out yet another thing that can be wrong with a woman. The commercial, which to us, seems like the sequel to every Fair-and-Lovely ad, begins with an astonishingly light-skinned Indian couple sitting over morning coffee. Perhaps it is up to the viewers to read the subtext, which is that, her less than ideal private parts is why they can barely look at each other the morning after, interspersed with (very dramatic) frames of the woman overcome by this dilemma. Cut to the woman cozying up to a product in the shower, a scene Indian viewers are all too familiar with. Said product turns out to be bleach for lady privates, called Clean & Dry Intimate Wash. One uncomfortable shower later, the fire has been reignited and the couple is back to their usual behaviour, oddly reminiscent of 5-year-olds playing tag.
Here’s an epic explanation from a MALE ad-executive who is pro-said vaginal bleaching product:
”It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer - so what’s the problem? I don’t think any Youngistanis today thinks the British Raj/White man is superior to us Brown folk. That’s all 1947 thinking!
The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light. I found this amazing difference when I directed Kabir Bedi, who is very fair and had to wear dark makeup for Othello, the Black hero of the play. I found I had to have a special spotlight following Kabir around the stage because otherwise the audience could not see his expressions.”

Remember ladies – vajazzling will be more effective if your vagina reflects light.

V. Fair & Lovely’s Career Trivializing Extravaganza 

Here’s one from the archives. There are so many things wrong with this commercial, we really don’t even know where to start. The ad follows the story of a young girl who aspires to be a cricket commentator - and from our rudimentary knowledge of Cricket, we think she’s pretty darn good at it too. However, her sister isn’t as convinced of her talent and decides she needs to save the day. Enter India’s unsung hero, a tube of Fair & Lovely. A few days later, she is a different person entirely. I’m going to digress a little and ask a burgeoning question that has bothered me for far too long. How does applying Fair & Lovely to your face change the skin tone of the rest of your body? Moving on - she sends in an audition tape of disturbingly close shots of her new and fairer face with zero mention of her talent and she lands the job. Her life suddenly takes a turn for the better and she becomes an instant celebrity. The match is forgotten, and her face is all over the screen.
Calling out skin whitening creams and brands (like we did here) feels like a losing battle, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to advocate against it. These ideas add racism to misogyny – a potent combination, especially for women of colour.

VI. ‘My Husband Made Me a Prostitute’

Here’s another example of straight up tripe parading the interwebs dressed as a public service announcement. Let’s not ignore the liberal sprinkling of sexism in the execution of this short - a woman can only support herself sufficiently by becoming a high class prostitute – regardless of her education and the career options that stem from it. Of course, this film has its heart in the right place with the message ‘don’t drink and drive’ being clear as day, but all this video seems to us is a subliminal endorsement of prostitution. Going by what’s described in this film, it definitely looks like a more fun, glamorous and lucrative option than the jobs most of us end up having to do. Moreover, using a woman martyring herself for her comatose husband as vehicle completely defeats the purpose of the video and focuses the attention on sex work, an issue that is already at the centre of far too many debates and stereotypes. In short, this video is worthless.

Here’s an example that sums up misogyny in a single narrow-minded comment. Also, kudos to you for bringing up slut-shaming in this context so effortlessly.

VII. Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Sketches campaign

[This campaign was a worldwide viral phenomenon; it wasn’t targeted exclusively at Indian consumers.]

Dove conducted what they call a “social experiment”. They focused on several “featured participants” and they each briefly talked about their appearance, and how they wished they looked different. Then, they were called into a space where a professional forensic artist was waiting with his back to them, and separated by a curtain. Each woman described herself to the artist, while he drew exactly what was being described to him. Then, the stranger they had spent time with earlier came in and described the participants from their perspective, and the forensic artist drew a second sketch. Almost all the women agreed they looked more beautiful when described by strangers, and that they are more beautiful than they think. They talk about how important it is for us to realize that our self-perceptions are harsh, and that we should spend more time appreciating the things we do like. Dove then flashes the words, “You are more beautiful than you think.” across the screen, concluding the video.
The primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. The “flaws” addressed in the video are not too far out of the realm of what we’re taught is attractive. The participants come across as highly insecure about their flaws that are limited to thin lips and crows feet. In no way are we undermining their insecurities, but the video doesn’t tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been conditioned to think it is, and it doesn’t tell us that fitting inside that narrow definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the description as you might think that you are. At the end of the day, Dove is still peddling the same old rigid beauty standards but employing newer ways to do it.

Another thing that irked us is the poor representation of women of colour in this campaign. Most of the participants are Caucasian – while there are a few African-American and oriental participants, their reel time is embarrassingly limited.

The pressure on women to look and act in certain ways is deeply inherent in our culture and it is easy to overlook the impact this may have on us in the long term. Watching TV, reading magazines and newspapers, or spending as much time on the internet as we do, all we’re exposed to is “perfect” bodies of severely airbrushed models. We have recognized that media frequently puts forth images of women that are unrealistic and, at worst, harmful. But often they are balanced by depictions that provide positive role models. These women may not be considered beautiful or glamorous by a standard that society bombards us - thin, blonde, long-legged, smooth-skinned, tanned and generously endowed, but they reflect who we are and how we want to be regarded - not as objects but as equals. While India’s strong traditional heritage has always been significantly characterised by the traditional roles of women as homemakers and mothers, some positive portrayals of women in media have challenged this ideal, and therefore cultivated a new perception of womanhood for the woman.

The UN’s Women’s Google Autocomplete Campaign will certainly go down in digital history as one of the most effective campaigns towards achieving gender equality. Always #LikeAGirl and Potty-Mouth Princesses are other such campaigns that are hard-hitting and really drive the point home. We can only hope that Indian media imbibe such examples and lead the general mindset into a more progressive and responsible space.

Words: Rhea Baweja