Feminism and the portrayal of women in Indian soap operas – it’s time to have that conversation
BA LLB, Batch: 2020-2025
In an era where the world is seeing various sects of the society finally acknowledging the true potential of women as possessing equal intellect and leadership qualities as men, the Indian daily soaps seemed to have failed to find the necessity to have a progressive storyline with a strong and vigilant female protagonist.
Often it is observed the term feminism is roped into conversations either in a positive or negative aspect, where people are supporting it or against it use information which in some parts is either incomplete or wrong in its entirety. The question here lies, what exactly does “Feminism” entail? What is its importance, and why is there many such supporters as well as opponents of it/ dictionaries define feminism as “The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”; “The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes”; “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”; “The doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.” [i] One way to ensure that people understand what being a feminist or supporting feminism entails is by advocating that, at its very core, feminism is not about being the same as men[ii] as “same” does not entail the meaning of equality. Women were oppressed in ancient times when physical strength doubled with intellect were required to be the leader but it is also to be noted that it is not the physical strength that helps choose a leader in the present times. Still, it’s the creative strength, the intelligence and the innovative power which make a leader, all of those which are not affected by any biological factor. Hence, through feminism, women want to have their share of rights they deserve without taking away the preexisting rights possessed by men. Feminism, as a social movement for the upliftment of women, creates a platform where people from various sects of the society come together to create awareness amongst people around the world and give women every opportunity in every sector to prove themselves worthy of their position as an equal to men. Hence, it is a matter of utmost importance that the portrayal of women in every aspect such as media, fictional characters, etc. should be in a way that it aligns with the core meaning of feminism, especially in countries like India where feminism is majorly treated as a “western fashion”.
The content of the Indian daily soaps is created, keeping the housewives and elderly women as the target audience. Such daily soaps are seen as a way to escape reality to a fantasy world but what is often neglected is the real impact it has on the mindset of the viewers, along with the influence on the social and cultural values of the society[iii]. The root of such problems lies in the misrepresentation of female characters. The protagonist is often portrayed as a woman who wears ethnic clothes, is soft-spoken with a” homely” vibe and listens to her elders without question, even when it means that her individual choice has to be sidelined altogether. Though wearing ethnic clothes is not wrong, it becomes so when clothes are portrayed as a medium to determine character and personality, which Indian society has long struggled with. A character wearing short, western-style dresses with outspoken nature is often thrown into the vamp character whose main role is always to oppose the female protagonist or seduce the male lead. Even though the” vamp” is shown to be modern and outspoken, her entire character is built in a way that revolves around the protagonists[iv]. The message that the makers of daily soaps need to spread through their shows and characters is that being a woman of the “modern world” does not necessarily mean being manipulative, wearing revealing clothing, etc. Still, it simply means being a person who knows their rights and duties and possessing the capability to stand up for themselves while maintaining the traditional righteous values.
Another misrepresentation is seen through the apparent dichotomy followed while portraying female characters: the woman is docile, domestic, honourable, noble, and ideal, or the other extreme – wayward, reckless and irresponsible[v]. Why are women not portrayed as ones who take the middle path? One who takes action, whether good or bad, as per the requirement of the situation faced by them? Women are often depicted as submissive, constantly jumping off the cliff off sacrifice to attain domestic bliss. The man walks freely and enjoys his life while women fight each other over him. In a world where every opportunity is a golden chance for women to uplift and support each other, the repeating plot of pitting women against each other in daily soaps continues. Marriage, an important issue and seen as a necessity in the traditional Indian household, is usually the focal point of most of these shows[vi]. A woman who gets educated and sometimes has earned a well-paid job suddenly finds herself being bargained for in the marriage market. In a society where the thoughts of leadership lead it to a man and women being treated as liabilities, it is the duty of such impactful mediums to influence mindsets through their platform. Though witty and intelligent, female characters are overshadowed by their need to achieve idealism and therefore lack substance. They reflect and influence the viewers to idolize women as physically and intellectually inferior to men. Apart from women, young children also watch these shows daily. With their regressive portrayal of women, these serials propagate the normalization of Indian women being naive and unrealistically selfless. Each episode airing with the sole objective of garnering TRP numbers sells perpetually flawed notions around womanhood to the viewers. This becomes highly problematic when women living in remote and rural regions watch these shows. They further tend to relate with the characters and embrace the patriarchal values that are inherently pre-rooted in their surroundings.[vii]
In conclusion, the makers of the daily soaps need to understand that there is a greater need than ever before to include reality in their world of fiction by portraying women as a person whose life lies beyond the doorstep of her in-laws’ expectations from their daughter-in-law; beyond the room of her husband’s and beyond the duties of being a perfect mother. The daily soaps should be seen as a medium to empower women, a step towards making the Indian women break shackles of societal norms holding them back. Though many daily soaps have taken steps to ensure the portrayal of a strong and vigilant woman, their number and message still sit under the shadow of shows with a docile homely woman as their protagonists. The latter are portrayed as free but not beyond the imagination of society. It is time to bring about a change in this unbreakable chain and portray women as they should be independent and equal.