Refashioning India: Maitrayee Chaudhuri on shifts in media representation of women, sway of PR, advertising

The period after the year 1990 in India was a significant one; the country witnessed sudden changes in its economy. Two decades since then, the conversation about the media has expanded, and there has been increasing awareness about the linkages between the media, economy, and now, politics. But there is one question that has perhaps not got quite the same focus from scholars and media analysts: What shifts have taken place historically in the media representation of women, that accompany transformations in the political economy?

It is this particular question that Maitrayee Chaudhuri explores in her book Refashioning India: Gender, Media and a Transformed Public Discourse. This book seeks to map the changing ways in which gender has been represented in dominant Indian public discourse over modern history. The storyline is complex. It begins with a close look at the First Plan Document of India (1947) and ends with the 2014 General Elections. In between is the storyline of the 2012 Delhi Gang Rape and the ubiquitous presence of the advertising and public relations industries.

In this conversation with Firstpost, Chaudhuri, professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, talks about the themes that dominate her book, media manipulation of popular opinion, and whether there is greater space for marginalised voices today.

Can you tell us about the two interlinked themes that the book addresses?

One is that gender has been central to modern India’s public discourse; and two, that recent years have seen a shift in both the content and form of gender representation... It is generally thought that the discourse on gender is contemporary in nature. However, what must be noted is that the discourse on gender has been present throughout modern Indian history. When you look at the 19th century social reform movement, besides caste, one constant was gender, whether we talk of upper caste reform or we talk of anti-caste reform movements.

Refashioning India: Maitrayee Chaudhuri on shifts in media representation of women, sway of PR, advertising

Regarding my second point, that is the transformed nature of gender representation, my focus in the book is a post-liberalised India where a market-driven media witnessed phenomenal growth, and within which dramatic changes in the manner in which men and women were represented occurred. The key argument being made is that these changing gender images were signifying a shift in India’s public discourse, corresponding to the shift from a developmental vision that privileged equity and self-reliance to growth, and where the focus shifted from working class women to women as consumers of the good life.

Gender therefore is the vantage point from where one examines the discourse on the nation throughout the book.

In his book Propaganda, while speaking about what Chomsky calls ‘manufactured consent’, Edward Bernays writes: “No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or socially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion." Ironically, in the same book, he suggests that women can use the media for ‘propagating’ their own cause. Your book looks at and explores a similar irony; would you elaborate on this idea?

I would say that manipulation is a very complex and mediated process. For instance, the concept of ‘individual choice’ has been constructed as ‘natural’. Thus when women and men desire and work towards having a body of a certain kind — say the idea of a size-zero for women, and six-pack abs for men – the concerned women and men would be seen as acting of their own free choice. They would not for a moment think that they have been pressurised or ‘manipulated’.

Choice and freedom as concepts can acquire new meanings in new contexts. Constraints which were visible earlier have now become less visible. For example, during the time of the Emergency, the visibility of restrictions on the press was direct and brutal. State censorship could be more easily seen. Market censorship operates very differently — modular kitchens, celebrity lifestyles, weddings of the rich and beautiful, appear to be news ‘naturally’. That stories of the marginalised disappear from front pages may not even be noticed. So yes, manipulation occurs, but more through consent and not coercion.

Can you tell us about the ways in which the media representation of women changed immediately after the implementation of the LPG (liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation) policy in the 90s?

It was actually quite dramatic, we had only Doordarshan and the All India Radio then. Suddenly, after the 90s, newspapers became glossier with extremely attractive advertisements, and television channels multiplied at an amazing speed. The newspaper prices came down, and for the people who were used to prices of all goods going up, this seemed exciting and strange. It was difficult as a consumer and reader at that point to follow the implications of this very simple move. In hindsight, one realises that the newspaper started to get money not from the readers but from the sponsors. The front page of most newspapers now are often full-page adverts — indeed, sometimes the first two pages. In this regard, I refer to the buzz about ‘sunny size journalism’.

I argue that three strands have affected the contemporary representation of women in media. One is of course neoliberalism, the second is the appropriation of strands within feminism by neoliberalism, and the third is the rise of a media-driven discourse and the culture of publicity.

One of the chapters in my book refers to how researchers for advertisers suggest that when you have to target middle-class women, there should be an element of feminism in it.

In your book, you write: “After decades of sedate existence, the Indian media universe has witnessed a ‘big bang’ of sudden and gigantic expansion." Do you think this enormous expansion has made available new avenues for the marginalised to assert themselves?

In my book, I have particularly looked at the print, and I feel that the possibilities for the marginalised to assert themselves have been very limited in the print media. However, social media is perhaps more accessible to multiple groups. Take the example of Dalit and women’s movements. However, it would be wrong to conclude that the presence of multiple voices necessarily lead to more informed discussions, necessary for a democratic society.

I would like to refer here to over-communicative abundance.

There is too much information; too much noise. We have narrow casting; customised news.

For instance, if I am a Bengali middle class person, I get to see only those news items and feeds that a Bengali middle class, middle-aged woman would be interested in. The larger world bypasses me. You are in turn seceded from the larger society. Although the internet assures you that it is global, it actually is very far from being truly global; so instead of broadcasting, it is actually ‘narrowcasting’. I as a ‘citizen’ have in some ways seceded from the wider ‘imagined community’. Instead of being a citizen, I am a consumer who the media and PR industry targets.

The linkages between women's representation and nationalism have interested many contemporary sociologists. You particularly look at the complex ways in which these linkages transform themselves in a neoliberal economy. Could you explain this further?

I am a little uncomfortable with how women’s representation and nationalism have been discussed in contemporary times. The dominant trend has been either to critique nationalist representation of women as ‘upper caste’ Hindu or middle class, which is not wrong, but the story line of women's representation is more complicated, and nationalism is not entirely a cultural project. It is historically specific and with inextricable links to political economy and specific class configurations. In my book, I therefore seek to use gender as a vantage point but from a dynamic perspective, wherein gender as an organising principle works with other processes, such as the changing nature of capitalism on the one hand and the rise of cultural nationalism on the other.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 10:17:50 IST

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