How Patriarchy Is On Full Display In Our Films, Ads, And Popular Culture

It is often said that India is passionate about two things – cricket and movies. But movies are not just a source of entertainment; we imbibe different nuances as we watch a film. It affects our consciousness; it shapes our personality; it has the capability to make us aware of issues far better than the voluminous encyclopedia, and it shapes our psychology. Recently, we saw, in the movie “Fan“, how people take movie and movie characters so seriously, often along the lines of passion and sometimes breaching the thin boundary between passion and sanity. But cinema is a powerful tool, and it affects us in more than one way. Recently, I heard Javed Akhtar saying that “movies stem from the society and yet are detached from them”. So sometimes I get confused whether cinema is influencing society, or vice-versa, and the answer that comes to my mind is “both”.

Recently, I was watching the movie “Dharavi” starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi. The movie can be read as a text on how our psychology gets affected by cinema, both positively and negatively, without our awareness. In one of the scenes, small children were imitating movie scenes, and most shockingly, we see them imitating a scene of molestation with a small girl acting as the person being molested! By the time the children will realize what they have imbibed, the traits will already have become be parts of their subconscious minds. It is similar to how we learn to use swear words from hearing our parents do it, as and when they do.

Another important aspect is that the kind of movies these people of “Dharavi” seem to enjoy are typical ’80s movies- full of violence, cheesy dialogues and vulgarity. Here we can see the reciprocity between films and the society. The cult of violence develops out of the uneasy and troubling times, and, at the same time, violence seems to strike them as a potent solution to their problems. This even makes children a bit ignorant and insensitive towards violence. In another horrifying scene, some goons disguised as hockey players murder a man. A child witnesses this murder, but instead of the murder, he is more interested in the hockey ball and we see that in the very next scene, while the relatives of the murdered man are wailing and weeping, this boy slowly creeping into the crowd, picking up the ball and leaving! “Gangs of Wasseypur” very effectively points out this aspect of cinema in its dialogue on cinema- “jabtak is desh me cinema hai…” (“as long as there is cinema in this country…”). The rest is known.

What E.H. Carr said about history also applies to movies- “movies are affected by society and vice-versa”. The ethos reflected in movies are, in Freudian terms, the “unfulfilled desires” of the society. The escapism that we see in our movies reflect what we wish but can’t obviously achieve in our lives. But deep inside, even these ideas, these aspirations are deeply structured in our social upbringing. Our heroism comes from an understanding of norms of masculinity which serves the patriarchal order; our songs create imagery, and our imagery reflects our psychology as well as sociology. The depth of our emotions can be as pedestrian as “teri shirt ka main button soniyo” (“I am the button on your shirt”) to as poetic as “mera kuch saaman” (“some of my belongings”) or “ek ladki ko dekha to aisa laga” (“how I felt when I saw her”) to very deeply philosophical ones as “is mod se jaate hai” (“from this point on”) or “yaara seeli seeli”. But beneath all this, lies a psyche, imagery, a signifier that produces the signified which, in the words of Foucault, is always in excess to the signifier, because according to rule, language is never neutral.

Patriarchy exists all around us in different forms. We often define patriarchy as a structure of oppression, mostly targeted at women, whereas actually, patriarchy is a structure under which all of us, irrespective of our gender identity (which is a social construct, anyway), are oppressed. In this structure, we are the oppressor as well as the oppressed. But patriarchy is not a tangible entity whose presence can always be seen or felt. Many a time, patriarchy exists in so many different forms that we don’t even realize the inherent patriarchy in it. And that situation is even more dangerous because it makes us a participant in our own oppression. Our everyday actions, our ideas, perceptions, festivals and rituals, etc. all reflect this structure. Here mythologies, folk tales, anecdotes, allegories play a very important role. These stories, through metaphors and symbolic meaning, convey not only stories but also moral statements. They are carriers of moral values and social norms in such a way that they make their ways into our culture, into our subconscious mind and become part of our existence.

A very potent and visible expression of this is found in popular art and modes of entertainment – be it painting, photos, TV, films, and many others. These forms of popular culture sometimes break, and many a time also reinforce these patriarchal norms. Our movies don’t just sell images and visuals – they also sell the ideas and the socio-cultural contexts of those images. We don’t just see those images – we consume them, and we inherit them. Popular culture is influenced by the society it stems from and conversely, it also influences the society in its own subtle way. Not just movies or TV shows, even ads smartly sell their products using gendered stereotypes. And unfortunately, even children are receptors of these generalizations not only through popular media but also through our pedagogical system which subconsciously inserts in a child’s mind, the gender differences which they retain for life.

Cinema and other visual media are among the strongest modes of expressions – giving such variety of content and ideas, which was, hitherto, not possible through other sources with such efficacy. Here, we must mention that there have been attempts to challenge the patriarchal notions and we see different perspectives being circulated through them but still, most of them, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously, cater to the patriarchal setup. Not only women, men and the LGBTQ community are also objectified and stereotyped. In most of these typical Indian “masala” movies, women are seen as “objects”, literally. Flirting and stalking are seen as “fun”; misogyny is garbed under “being cool”. But as we said, while women are stereotyped as “sex objects” with absolutely no agency of their own, men are similarly stereotyped as “masculine”, “warrior” and so on in Bollywood movies. This is apparently, also the best way to impress a girl – rescue her from goons! Men are revered for their martial skill. We live in a society where women are defined by their sexuality (ironically, we are both threatened and awed by the sexuality of women) and men through their physical prowess. Thus, a woman is dependent on her lover/husband for her security. There are some pathetic Hindi movies where a female police officer (that too of high rank) is overpowered by male goons only to be rescued by a street-smart man. The message it conveys is very dangerous – women, even if strong, are not strong enough to face the world without the assistance of men. And ‘maleness’ is defined through martial quality.

If you can’t save a girl from other men, you are not masculine enough. In the movie “Saajan“, Sanjay Dutt goes through the same crisis, where he backs off from the girl’s life after failing to save the girl due to his physical disability. We need to question why we give so much importance to the cult of violence. And this trend does get reflected in our society as well. Any act of bravery or valour is taken as a symbol of maleness. True that – our movies are inspired by our society, and conversely, our movies inspire a whole lot of people. So if our movies take a cue from the long warrior tradition in India where men fight and die for their territory and honour by the sword, women show their valour by committing “jauhar” (self-immolation) in order to save her honour. So while the honour of a man lies in his physical strength, the honour of a woman lies in her sexuality. But at the same time, there are attempts by the patriarchal society to control the sexuality of women in order to maintain the purity of their lineage – this becomes even more important than the lives of those who are preserving it.

Coming back to cinema, this warrior tradition gets reflected in cinema and further absorbed by the society. The craze for bulging muscles and six or eight pack abs nowadays, trying to ape actors with well-toned bodies, especially among men, is a concrete example of this. The question arises – why do we need muscles and abs? The simple answer is – the bulging muscles and abs are the physical proof of so-called “masculinity”. It is a very visible form of maleness that doesn’t need martial skills. But that doesn’t mean that the cult of violence has, by any means, receded. It very much exists and is showcased both in real and reel life, as and when required.

On a very extreme level, all forms of violence – men against men, men against women, against the LGBT community, whether it is physical, mental or sexual, works on the same concept of aggression – of the perceived superior physical strength of the aggressors (irrespective of its gender) and perceived inferiority of the oppressed to resist. It’s not that women don’t show aggression or they are not violent – but we are linguistically handicapped to express aggression, martial skills and warrior traditions in gender neutral terms.

In India, female warriors are often called “mardani” which is actually the feminized form of the masculine term, “mard”. Our visual media, even while showing a strong woman uses the patriarchal linguistic expression which actually makes the gender differences even more apparent. For example, a famous car’s advertisement goes like this – a boy after losing a cricket match to his sister is complaining to his father, when his sister stops him saying- “ladkiyon ki tarah kyun ro raha hai?” (“Why are you crying like a girl?”). Now this advertisement tells us why, despite trying to show a strong female character, they end up depicting patriarchy wherein crying or complaining is a feminine trait, and, being a ‘boy’ he should not cry. Secondly, it also implies that women are generally weak, and if a strong woman crops up, it is an exceptional case and not the norm – when a woman is strong, she elevates herself from the position of other women. Another advertisement of a mobile phone that used to air some time ago showed a woman as the boss of a male employee who also happens to be her husband! So while she dictates to him a lot of work during her office time, as soon as she reaches home she takes the role of a faithful wife who cooks delicious food for her husband who is working overtime to finish the work she gave him. This advertisement can also be seen as an expression of the dichotomy that exists between the public and private spheres.

But this is not to say that only women are stereotyped. One advertisement shows a man cooking delicious food with the help of the product and the tagline is – “now even men can cook!”. Yet another advertisement, this time a beauty product for males, has this tagline– “men hate pimples too”. The very use of the word “even” makes the hidden statement that we all can read between the lines, obvious.

Another common imagery projected through the visual media is the perceived threat from ‘modernity’ to the ideal of ‘family and traditional women’. Thus, western-looking ‘modern’ women are hardly shown in good light, in our popular movies. They are shown as having either “loose character” or are “sexually promiscuous” or “manipulative and ambitious”- qualities that are against the ‘typical’ woman’s qualities of “simplicity and submissiveness”. In our TV shows, ‘modern women’ are almost always portrayed as ‘vamps’ who try to put obstacles in the life of our ‘goddess-like typical Indian daughter in law’. The institution of marriage is considered so sacred that even if you are married to a person whom you don’t like, or to whom you are married forcefully or under unavoidable circumstances, a woman is expected to carry forward the marriage because no matter how much you hate your husband and vice-versa, the institution of marriage is too sacred to be disturbed. According to Nivedita Menon, this represents the anxiety around maintaining and protecting the institution of marriage, that is, of ‘actually existing’ marriage- the patriarchal, heterosexual kind. A whole lot of movies and serials are made on the topic of how mismatched couples ‘adapt’ themselves, and by the end of the show or film, they manage to fall in love and carry forward their relation. Indian TV shows hardly ever depict a working woman, and even when such a rare miracle occurs, the story is woven around how she has to pursue her dreams while fulfilling her traditional family duties, and many shows actually sacrifice the agency of a woman to give way to ‘kitchen politics’.

While movies sometimes give selective agency to women, there are hardly any TV shows which don’t play out and actually reinforce the ‘orthodox Indian family’ and its values. Men, similarly, hardly play any role in the “private sphere” of the household where much of the action of our TV shows plays out. Men are, in this sense, marginalized in Indian TV shows, but that hardly contributes, by any means, to give active agency to women- rather it actually strengthens patriarchy by putting words into the mouth of women that are not willfully their own. Even in most of the movies, when there is a question of choice between ‘traditional Indian women’ and ‘modern women’, the obvious preference is for the ‘traditional women’ over the ‘western women’ (see the movie “Cocktail“, for example). At other times, a girl transforms herself from a modern independent woman to suit the demands of the family of the guy. It’s ironical – a guy transforms himself by ‘working outside’ and ‘earn’ so that he can marry the girl, whereas a girl transforms her by limiting herself to the sphere of domestic walls! As Menon points out, ‘Motherhood is a biological fact, fatherhood is a sociological fiction.’ It is this knowledge that creates permanent anxiety for patriarchy- an anxiety that requires women’s sexuality to be strictly policed.

A very good example of this struggle between ‘modernity’ and ‘traditionalism’ is seen in the movie “Woh Saat Din” where Naseeruddin Shah represents the husband whose wife loved someone else before marriage (played by Anil Kapoor) but is forcefully married off. Being a progressive, rational, mature person, Naseeruddin Shah decides to unite his wife with her lover. The final scene of the movie depicts a debate between Naseeruddin Shah and Anil Kapoor over whether a woman should leave her husband and unite with her lover, or, stay with her husband. The scene maintains a logical and rational stand until they reach the point of final confrontation where Anil Kapoor wins the debate (though we still root with Naseerudin Shah) and points out that a woman should live with her husband and marriage is a divine institution. He points out the sanctity of the mangalsutra. Interestingly, the woman herself is never asked for her opinion and the men debate among themselves about the prospects of the woman. Historically, even the 19th-century reform movements represent such a point where women’s body became the site for debates and discussions, and even though women were the subject of the debates, they themselves never took part in them.

We should not miss the songs that keep on circulating and are heard and shared many more times than movies. These songs, whether they be folk songs, movie songs or devotional songs, through the choice of words, the metaphors and the themes, articulate particular meanings which can themselves be read as texts. Some examples of direct articulation of patriarchal values are songs like- “tumhi mere mandir tumhi meri pooja tumhi devta ho” (referring to her husband, “you are my shrine, you are my worship you are my deity”), “ganga maiya me jab tak ki paani rahe mere sajna teri zindagani rahe” (“my husband live as long as there is water in the Ganges river”) – or even the ridiculously misogynist “bhala hai bura hai jaisa bhi hai mera pati mera devta hai” (“he may be good, he may be bad, my husband is still my deity”). These songs exalt the figure of the ‘husband’ to an exalted, unquestionable status that a woman needs to revere irrespective of how he is, or what he does. Apart from these direct references, there are numerous songs on the theme of “boys vs. girls”- sometimes boys win at the end, and sometimes girls- but these songs generalize certain characteristics as “essentially male” or “essentially female”. Thus, girls are more caring, emotional, and conversely, very demanding, and physically weak. Boys are physically strong, but careless and flirty by nature. But mainly what it does is define males and females through some set of characteristics (which are ambiguous in nature and differ from person to person), and also provide them separate spheres. Thus we hear lines like “ye ladki kyun, na jane kyun, ladko si nahi hoti” (“why are these girls not like boys”).

Needless to say, the patriarchal structure exists, but simultaneously, at a more modest level, though, the protest against this dominant structure also exists. But it also suggests that patriarchy is indeed a formidable structure that alternative structures have to deal with. And the biggest problem in resisting patriarchy remains the same- we don’t even realize that it is a problem. We are living in the very structure that we are trying to resist. So our tools, methods and ideas to resist patriarchy have some bearing on the structure of patriarchy. This is what we call “the invisible hand of patriarchy”. And cinema is the most visible manifestation of patriarchy. Not only does cinema reinforce patriarchal values in the most effective way possible, it subconsciously normalizes these patriarchal notions and the injustice associated with these norms. And that’s what makes cinema a very potent as well as dangerous medium if not taken with a pinch of salt.