Print Edition - 2017-02-18  |  Women Power Up

Representation of women

  • The Nepali media sector, in general, suffers from patriarchy
- Sumina Rai Karki

Feb 18, 2017-Media’s imagination of women is limited. While this has confined women’s representation in media to stereotypical roles, it has also shrunk our social imagination of women and their capacities. A quick skim of media is more than enough to assess women’s portrayal in media.

Women are dominantly featured in traditional gendered roles, as an object of sexual desire, a victim of gendered violence, decorative objects to sell products and fill up the white space. By now, we also know that women are not seen as a credible source for political issues and international affairs. 

Several research works published in different timelines by ASMITA publishing house, Sancharika Samuha and regular global media monitoring verify this. 

Reports of global media monitoring, which are usually published every five years, show that women’s visibility in media is lower compared to that of men. This visibility, however, is also problematic.

A lot of us argue that media is a mere reflection of society. Hence, media reports what it sees. This might hold true in reporting certain aspects of our social realities. For instance, women are often victims of different forms of gendered violence; therefore, we see a lot of reports related to the issue. But the danger of “media as a reflection of society” argument is that we tend to undermine media’s role and imagination in reinforcing gender bias.

Over the years, Nepali media has developed a sensational and irresponsible style of reporting different forms of gendered violence, especially the incidents of sexual violence or rape. Headlines often show “drunken” men raping women and murdering their wives. Besides, rape is reported in a cinematic manner in order to capture reader’s imagination. 

For instance: “A woman was gang-raped in a filmy style in Imadol”. 

We, however, are not cognizant of the costs of sensationalising such news. As a result, the gravity of such heinous crimes gets devalued and the incidents get normalised. 

Every day we go through headlines like “Eight-year-old raped”, “Teen rape victim cries for justice” and “Three held for killing a girl after rape” to name a few.

That violence is a result of power relations and that power is a gendered relationship should by now be common sense to our media and journalists. Such analysis, however, isn’t part of the news. Rather the site, where the body of the girl was dumped, takes prominence, thereby trivialising the issue.   

Amid this, we should not forget that media is a creative and progressive force that can challenge our social realities in order to usher in newer images, portrayals and system. Media collectively can make a space to accommodate newer responsibilities that women have been playing in the present context.

Consuming empowerment and the beauty mythThere has been a slight shift in media representation of women and the context of their representation. 

With the changing gendered roles, women are seen as someone who can pursue their interest beyond domestic and private sphere. Also, thanks to consumerism, attempts of co-opting feminism and women’s rights to sell products have been made in Nepal as well. After all market and businesses have to appeal to “modern” women so that they buy certain products.  

Most of us might have watched the commercial of a particular sanitary pad featuring one of the winners of Miss Nepal beauty pageant, where she encourages her screen sister to win a boxing match by gifting a sanitary pad. Elder sister is a doctor and the younger is a student vying for a trophy. Such portrayals are rare in Nepali media, nonetheless it has started. However, such packaging of empowerment is being closely tied with specific product these days.

 Anything that heightens or relates to our sense of vanity is interlinked with confidence and happiness. Such subliminal and explicit messaging is to be found in abundance in beauty related articles and advertisements of products. 

A classic example is existence of Fair and Lovely, a beauty cream, and how it still gets print space. The product and its advertisement not only promote racism but also encourage a pseudo sense of empowerment. 

Once a woman is fair, either she is noticed and appreciated at office or gets the job she so wants. Such products are being sold under the rubric of a “scientific” method, as such products contain advanced multi-vitamins. 

And these beauty products are not only cream but are fairness treatment as if being “brown” and “dark” is a medical condition that we should get rid of.  Furthermore, it induces discomfort with how you look, which leads to self-loathing and destructive obsessive disorders, such as anorexia, neurosis, etc.  Such foreign beauty products’ advertisements are rarely localised by featuring Nepali models. Whatever the reasons might be for this, it creates a standard of beauty as an Indian model or a foreigner is represented.

Women’s preoccupation with beauty and vanity is reinforced in different ways. 

Brands and business houses use different forms of media to start this process early by targeting young girls. Girls are taught to derive their confidence from long, dark and black hair, which can be gained by using a specific hair product. Magazines catered to “women” are also determined to reinforce the beauty myth along with “feminine mystique of domesticity”.

Don’t get me wrong. Such magazines have some useful articles as well but gendered stereotypes dominate the pages. Women are given one hundred and one ways of becoming a good housewife, being a beautiful bride and taking care of our skin, and a heavy dose of new fashion trends. While there are attempts being made in several parts of the world from breaking away from the heavy association with household and domestic life, both domesticity and beauty have come to weigh upon Nepali women.

We are bombarded with a plethora of mass-mediated images that constantly remind us that to achieve success in our life, we need to have fairer skin, long, straight and shiny hair, white teeth and a slim body, to say the least. 

Imagine growing up in an environment where mass-mediated images constantly focus on physical appearance and external beauty and their impact on our psyche. It limits our potential and constrains us to vanity. 

Sexually liberated or sexualisation? 

The argument that women being presented as objects for male’s consumption and pleasure in the media might sound dated but still holds truth. However, such images are for consumption of all including women these days. Men gaze at the photos, consciously or subliminally, and tend to rate the female model’s beauty and body. We, on the other hand, become hyper conscious and start monitoring and comparing our bodies with others’. Research shows this leads to lower self-esteem. 

Let’s try to imagine some of the popular “item” songs of recent Nepali movies—female actors dancing to songs are full of sexism and sexual innuendos. Female actors might have chosen to perform such songs and might see it as a form of art and part of their work. However, if you have noticed, female actors are reduced to their body parts or appearance during such songs and representation. We can see camera zooming in and out of different parts of their body like face and belly, to name a few. Actors do their best “to be sexy” and give the impression that “being sexy” is empowering. But is this an act of sexually liberated women or does that act become a site of women’s objectification? This takes me to my next point. 

It is argued that media is beginning to move away from depictions of women as straightforward passive objects of male gaze.New emphasis on women’s sexual agency and women being in-charge of their body is being geared towards the younger generation. Rosalind Gill, however, points out: this shift is from “an external male judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze”. Women constantly judge and monitor themselves and obsess over their body and face. They see their body as a source of identity and power. 

Seasonal affair 

Some dailies have started to give space to strong voices, pointing out the flaws in the system that is discriminatory and defamatory to women; but this is minimum in largely male-dominated op-ed pages where, even as this is being written, three regressive pieces on issues related to women have been published. One has a factual legal provision twisted to fit the argument made about Nepali laws being silent on the polygamous relationship of a woman.

Likewise, a common tendency is seen in the media. Women get media space if they are the first ones to break gendered stereotypes or if they have made it to the supposedly “male’s domain”. 

For instance: it took the local media quite some time to cover Mira Rai’s achievement. International media started covering her achievements and life journey when she started winning several international races. Local media waited till she was nominated for and won National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year. 

Highlighting or delimiting? 

News items that deal with women and politics consistently talk about women’s (under) representation in the Constitution Assembly (CA), limiting women to a certain topic of discussion within politics. Raising the certain issue of 33 percent representation of women in the CA and in politics is important to highlight the peripheral presence of women in Nepali politics. This showcasing of gender equality, however, is challenged by the absence of women in the texts. 

In only a few instances are women leaders quoted with regard to national level politics or their party politics.As media personnel take pride in the fact that the President, the head of the judiciary and the House Speaker are women, we should remember that it took them a year to write a constructive piece on the present president, and that they had to wait for a Hindu day of reverence for goddesses to write about the rest. 

- Sumina Rai Karki, a founding member of CHAUKATH, works at The Asia Foundation; views expressed here are personal

Published: 18-02-2017 09:47

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