The ad for a certain shampoo on the television portraying two of the most sensuous and physically attractive star models, (who are also an off-screen pair in real life) is an indicator of how sex roles have changed in Indian advertising. Cinematographed in monochrome with the right shades of darkness and mood lighting, the word 'hot' recurs like a double-edged metaphor in the ad, an adjective that has no direct relationship with the product being advertised. Why?
This, and other contemporary ads raise pertinent questions about perspectives on gender in media representations of men and women. The Bipasha Basu-John Abraham ad mentioned above for instance, underscores how men in Indian ads are being presented in a much more macho-dominant manner than they were before. Another ad for male underwear shows a number of females with pseudo-coy expressions on their faces coming out of a toilet. The camera cuts to a shot inside the toilet where a handsome male model lies prostrate with telltale lipstick marks across his body. Again, the product advertised does not really bear a direct relationship with the message or the script since few Indian males would be caught dead before females catch them in their underwear inside what appears to be a public toilet! These are Western concepts imposed on Indian ad scripts and prove that visuals need not necessarily represent the social norms of a society.
On the other hand, while sports and athletics sported more men than women in the past in India and in the West, today however, real achievers like Sania Mirza have changed all that. Also, you may see a cricketer like Mahendra Dhoni as often as you see Mirza, never mind the product they are posing for. Women in Indian ads are being presented in less dependent roles than they were before. An ad for a leading women's fortnightly recently carried a delightful image of an ageing woman in bridal attire. It later transpires that her daughter is getting her married again! This is an example of positive advertising that subtly carries a social message. Many mother-daughter ads in recent times bear out female bonding, in effect, subtly marginalising the role of men by cutting them out completely from such ads. Yet, women do not appear in ads for 'solid' products such as steel and cement and even if they do, they are sidetracked within the script.
Have male and female roles in Indian ads changed over the past decade? Are men more frequently visible in Indian ads than they were, say, ten years ago? Have the images of men and women in ads softened over time, blurring the stereotypes, or have they hardened? How do these images compare with international trends? Is media literacy, especially for women and girls, a necessity? This area is marked by a paucity of research, but a study authored by Mallika Das published in the November 2000 issue of Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, revealed interesting findings.
Western advertising agencies and multinational corporations long ago entered Asian countries, and are expanding their markets. In addition to food products such as McDonalds, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Western culture is easily found in Asia through fashion, life-style, movies, television, music, etc.
As one of the significant tools that reflects sociocultural values, advertising represents these trends.
In the case of male role portrayals, the following major differences were found:
1. The study quoted an earlier 1997 US study (Kolbe and Albanese) which found that men were often portrayed in athletic roles. By comparison, the study recorded that only 11.4 per cent of Indian ads showed men in such roles. This percentage was less than 9.5 per cent in previous years.
2. Although men in Indian ads appeared more often in traditional ways, the study also recorded that men were not portrayed in very negative ways. This seems contradictory to findings from other nations, where male portrayals have changed to a lesser extent than female role portrayals over the past few decades.
In addition, my own observation is that there is an increased appearance of men in Indian ads. This may be attributable to a number of factors. First, India is one of the fastest growing markets for consumer durables and several "male-oriented" products such as insurance, medical, industrial, and technology-related products. Because men are more often considered to be the primary decision makers for such products, the increase is understandable. Second, the number of ads in business and general interest magazines in India has increased tremendously while the number in women's magazines has not. Both of these factors could have led to an increase in the number of men appearing in Indian ads.
Three, the increased visibility may also be attributed to stars, sportsmen and celebrities from different fields stepping into the modelling world. No one would have dreamt of Amitabh Bachchan modelling for any product when he was at the peak of his career as hero. Today, he is modelling for nearly 70 products across the board. Female stars were popular as models earlier, and this has changed. Today, male stars from Shahrukh Khan to Amir Khan to Akshay and Aftab, and even smaller names like Irfan Khan, Zayed Khan and Emraan Hashmi are into modelling. Those who were already models but are now celebrated stars such as John Abraham, are chased by agencies to function as brand ambassadors.
Two major differences in female role portrayals were noted:
1. Some of the common stereotypical portrayals seem less prevalent in Indian ads. For example, unlike in British magazine ads, women in Indian magazine ads were more likely to be portrayed in "neutral/other" ways and less likely to be portrayed as sex objects. Women modelling for mobile phones, cars and two-wheelers, painkillers, and as protagonists carry neutral portrayals. Women were also less likely to be portrayed in "dependency" roles in Indian ads than in British ads. It is noteworthy that these results are similar to those found in two other Asian countries--Korea and Japan--where, again, females were less likely to be portrayed in very negative stereotypical ways than in western nations. As mentioned earlier, the religious and cultural differences between India and western nations may account for this finding.
2. The polarizing trend found in the West, i.e., a tendency to portray women in dependency and housewife roles and in nontraditional activities, career-oriented, and authority figure roles (in British magazine ads), was not found for India by Das' study. 'Polarizing' means strong opposites where one woman is shown driving all alone in a car with an expression of confidence on her face juxtaposed against the image of a woman sensually posing for a cosmetic product or spouting forth the advantages of a health drink for children. In India, the trend seems to be to portray women less often as housewives or concerned with looks, but not more often in nontraditional, career-oriented, or authority figure roles. Instead, there seems to be an increase in neutral portrayals of women, due, in part, to the dramatic increase in the number of ads for such products.
The Girls, Women + Media Project is a 21st century, non-profit initiative and network working to increase awareness of how pop culture and media represent, affect, employ, and serve girls and women---and to advocate for improvement in those areas.
The project also seeks to educate and empower all consumers and citizens about consumer rights and responsibilities regarding the media, and to promote universal media literacy.
Thus, although portraying women in neutral ways may be acceptable to Indians, portraying them in nontraditional ways may not be. Besides, there is an increasing trend in 'family' and 'couple' representations in ads for consumer durables like washing machines, refrigerators and micro-wave ovens, products earlier dominated by women alone.
Still, with the increasing number of female models shown in advertising today, the media seem to give more equality to female images, but the underlying messages still emphasise sexuality, often presenting women as sex objects. Also, the number of women in "decorative roles" had actually increased over time, according to a 1993 US study by L J Busy and G Leichty.
The importance of media literacy
The danger in all this is that the age of Information and entertainment is still relatively new, and how our constant and growing use of media is affecting us in ways big and small may be easily overlooked. We get used to things very easily, and often the many media images and messages we see and hear enter our brains very quickly, and on a subconscious instead of conscious level. Experts call it passive vs. active processing of information.
This is precisely why it is important to stand back and notice what is going in to our eyes and ears and our brains, how much and how often, how it might affect what we think about, how we think about it, and what we do. This is called Media Literacy or Media Education or Media Awareness. Media Literacy teaches people to analyse messages conveyed by the media, consider the commercial or political purpose of the image or message and who is responsible for it, and other ideas that it implies. It increases our ability to react to and appreciate (or not) media images and messages in a genuine and conscious way. It provides information and statistics on media and culture, and provides a set of tools for critical thinking that can be applied to any media product or setting. It is a movement in education and culture that is growing alongside the growth and expansion of the media, each day throughout the country and the world.
Why is it so important for women and girls to be conscious and knowledgeable about media? While it is true that things have changed in a big way for women in the last thirty years due to lots of women (and some cool men) speaking out and acting for progress and equality for women and girls, there's more that needs to be done. We've got all sorts of new, 21st century kinds of challenges---and old problems that still need lots of our attention and energy. These include: good health; genuine self-esteem; understanding of and comfort with sexuality; relationships based on mutual respect and equality; safety from domestic and sexual violence; goal-setting and career success; sound financial judgment; educated participation in government and democracy; and overall power-sharing in society for women and girls.
Lessons in media literacy, articulated clearly or indirectly through public service advertising, posters and so on, can empower women and girls to handle problems that result from a fixation on physical attractiveness rather than on intellectual growth, on wholesome good health rather than on stringent dieting that could lead to chronic psychological trauma like anorexia nervosa and so on.
In the meantime, gender roles in Indian advertising continue to change. Taking celebrities as an example, Amitabh Bachchan is advertising for a brand of diamonds, that across the world till this day, is known as a woman's best friend. Bachan's role is a kind of revolution, since even today, every other diamond advertisement on the small screen and the print media exclusively uses women as the main model. Need one say more?