Not Your Victim: Why Media’s Portrayal Of Sexual Violence Needs A Major Overhaul

Posted by Shambhavi Saxena in Cake, Media, News, Sexism And Patriarchy
April 20, 2017

The shadow of a man stretched over a cowering woman, torn clothing and face  buried in her hands – these are the images that usually accompany news reports of sexual violence. For years, these images have conveyed the seriousness and trauma of gender-based crimes, which affects one in three women, globally. But what do we as readers take away from the images? That women are helpless victims? That only women endure sexual violence? That their lives are pretty much over now?

I think a lot of us have individually expressed discomfort over the kind of illustrations and pictures used in these stories,” says journalist Neha Dixit. “But we have never come together as a collective to do anything about.”

An example of images commonly used in Indian media to depict sexual violence. Image courtesy of the author.

And so, to change that, human rights organisation Breakthrough India hosted a day-long event on Sunday called #RedrawMisogyny. With photographers, designers, illustrators, and journalists in attendance, the idea was to really unpack the way survivors of sexual violence are portrayed in the media.

Himel Sarkar, Coordinator for Digital Engagement at Breakthrough, tells The Cake about why they chose to do this event: “When stories are written for mass consumption and people see these images, it reinforces these old notions of what it means to be a ‘victim’, and for the survivor it reinforces the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence.”

And attitudes formed through this process, he said, had an impact on judgements and politics as well. For Pankaj and Praveen, two Breakthrough members from Sonepat (Haryana), the impact of these images became clear to them after they attending workshops on sensitive reporting. Nowadays, some media organisations try to avoid using the passive voice for stories on sexual violence – for example, saying “a woman was raped” takes the focus away from her assailant.

A sample image created by Breakthrough India, which puts perpetrators in focus. Photo courtesy of Breakthrough.

Images are no different, and changing them is certainly one of the outcomes Dixit is hoping for. She said, “the culprit should be put in the dock instead of the person who has braved that violence. If it stays visually in people’s memory, it will make a lot of difference.”

And to make that difference, the creative team now associated with Breakthrough aims to create a set of brand new visuals at the end of two weeks. These visuals, Sarkar explained, will then be shared with media organisations, in an attempt to gradually replace the disempowering, stereotypical images of sexual violence we are so used to seeing.

It’s a tall order, for sure. And these are baby steps, according to Neha Vaswani, a Delhi-based UX/UI designer. That being said, the conversation about misrepresentation has been long overdue. “You start reading, you meet people in feminist groups, and you start to understand the gravity of the situation. Once I understood it, I just felt there had to be some sort of change. I didn’t know how, which was very frustrating for me. But I wanted to use my skillset.”

Months ago, Vaswani began having conversations with the team at Breakthrough, and it was actually last year that #RedrawMisogyny was conceptualised. The only thing that remained was getting people on board. And that’s where Instagram comes in.

Some sketches made during #RedrawMisogyny. Image courtesy of the author.

Says Tara Bedi, Community Partnerships and Programs for Instagram, “A lot of the participants and artists involved in the Breakthrough event were discovered through Instagram. We were excited to work with Breakthrough and the artists involved, including Ita Mehrotra, Lokesh Dang, Ruhani Kaur, Sandhya Visvanathan and Jaivardhan Singh Channey amongst others, to bring awareness for a new visual vocabulary of imagery depicting gender based violence.”

And though the event has set itself a two-week deadline, the art community on Instagram has been invited to keep contributing to #RedrawMisogyny all year long.

While a single image may not change society’s view immediately, we hope that over time, this repository of empowering images will help break stereotypes and shift perceptions,” says Bedi.

And on that note, we hope to see this creative team gradually causing a shift in the way we depict this sensitive subject matter.