The century-long movement of women’s rights and empowerment has achieved another level after the rise of new media in the eve of globalization. The portrayal of women in media has changed over time and has had both positive and negative impact on the image and position of women. Some mediums such as documentaries, radio, political and social content on TV, print news, digital platforms, etc. have played an essential role in ensuring a healthy public discourse on gender, dissemination of information, positive stories of women empowerment, reporting on achievements and progress of women in society.
They inform and educate society on the issues of gender and gender sensitization. Ad content and portrayal of women in cinema are also changing by giving women lead roles, positive depiction of women, and breaking gender stereotypes. Positive stereotypes help women to become assertive, independent, and tackle gender abuse and discrimination. More brands and production houses utilize successful, career-oriented women roles, and they are mostly shown as strong and independent persons, instead of being vilified.
However, they have a long way to go. Negative stereotypes of women in media such as submissive, timid, and ultra-modern women portrayals influence how women are perceived by society. It prevents women’s abilities by limiting their choices and opportunities, which directly and indirectly causes an increase in gender and sexual violence.
Nowadays, issues related to women are not discussed in media widely. Only sensational news about women is given extensive coverage, while essential discourses and discussions on women related issues never occur. According to a survey by ‘Media Cloud,’ rape receives maximum media coverage. Other social issues related to women are largely ignored. The media does not offer any serious analysis of economic conditions and inter-relationships of social issues.
Rape, dowry deaths, and other serious violence against women are framed as criminal occurrences rather than the outcomes of genital mutilation and inequality. Also, rape, child marriages, domestic violence are covered by the media if they are high-profile and involve statements from politicians or elite class personalities. Feature movies and television soap operas, still portray women in stereotypical roles as inferior, subordinate, and submissive gender. It is justified by the producers as the demand of the masses.
Nevertheless, these depictions influence how women are perceived and treated in society. Women are also given continuously decorative roles or as domestic caregivers of family, reinforcing the gender dynamics in the family system. These electronic media, including news channels, can play a crucial role in the reconstruction of women’s image, shaping gender norms, socio-cultural values, and perceptions. However, mostly sensational news such as rape and violence against women is given the spotlight, While more severe women issues are not taken up.
Sexual objectification and commodification of women are prevalent in movies and advertisements.
Advertisements depict their version of women’s perfection – slim, fair complexioned, glamorous, which sets a bad precedent among adolescents and young women. Advertisements, especially for home, kitchen, jewellery, sanitation, and hygiene products, mirror the gendered view of society. Those ads depict women mostly as home-makers, concerned only with maintaining their houses, beauty, and taking care of their families.
Frontliners of women’s movements in India have been instrumental in highlighting the sexist attitude in advertisements. Though there have been some changes in the way corporates and product companies depict women, the tendency has always been towards reinforcing traditional regressive gender roles. The fashion and cosmetics industry also plays a negative role in the gender discrimination of women.
It is only women who are expected to maintain impossible standards of physical perfection and body shape. Objectification of women’s bodies is subtly promoted by beauty pageants and the fashion industry that curtails women’s equality. Women are treated as trophies, celebrated for how they look, instead of intelligence, skill, character, and their contribution. There have been women’s rights movements in the US and around the world against beauty pageants and the stereotypes they reinforce.
The advent of the internet and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. has broadened the social space for women to raise their issues, reach out, network and collaborate for their common causes. Women blogging, NGO websites, and women platforms have advanced the empowerment of women through technology. There is also a gender digital divide creating unequal spaces in digital media. Some of the reasons for this gender gap are lack of textual literacy, the wage gap, lack of context in local languages, gender division of labour causing time constraints for women, etc.
According to Women’s Rights Online Network, women are 50% less likely to access the internet than men. At the same time, the same platforms reinforce gendered online behaviours and sex-role stereotypes. Women who voice strong opinions on women’s issues are exposed to verbal abuses and threats of violence. Social media also tends to create negative body image and low self-esteem by emphasizing obsessive celebrity culture, physical perfection, and beauty.
According to the UN’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development, 73% of women have already experienced cyber violence. Women receive rape, death threats, and gendered abuses for expressing their opinions online. As per a survey by UN Women, in India, 28% of women who faced online abuse reduced their online presence and stopped posting on specific issues. These gendered online abuses effectively silence women’s voices and discourses around women’s issues. Cyber-crime against women is also on the rise. Stalking women online, sending unsolicited and persistent messages through WhatsApp and e-mails, developing pornographic content, and morphed photos to target women are some of how women are harassed on social media.
What is more, women do not know where to report such issues and how to deal with them. Women subjected to such cyber crimes and problems are vulnerable to mental health issues such as emotional stress, depression, and hypertension, further affecting their lives. Trolling on social media of women who defy sexism and gender bias is another dangerous trend that has to be taken note of. Trolls are abusers who push defamatory, personally abusive content targeting individuals.
Women, especially those who voice non-mainstream and anti-modernization views, are trolled exceptionally on social platforms. The e-mail spoofing would be cause substantial monetary loss. Regular phishing, the attempt to gain sensitive information such as a username and password and intent to obtain personal information, becomes a major threat for women in the digital world.
Then what is the solution, how can we create a secure, inclusive, and gender unbiased media!
This is not just covering ‘women’s issues.’ It is about to ensure content is balanced across gender lines and respects the diversity that represents nearly 50% of the world’s population. We have to make sure more women occupy managerial roles in the newsroom and higher positions in the field of print journalism, television, web channels, and publications. There should be an equal pay scale for female media workers and development programs to increase their skills and leadership abilities.
Despite laws and regulations, practical actions against perpetrators are not taken. As per NCRB data, around 27,000 cybercrime incidents registered in 2018; however, the investigation is pending for the same amount of crimes that were reported in the previous year. So, the state should ensure the enforcement of laws to prevent stalkings, cybercrimes, and other online abuses in priority. At last, it is not impossible for men to effectively cover gender issues; on the other hand, he must be aware and prone to women’s needs and perspectives.
Omm Priyadarshi is a Development Studies Scholar from NIT Rourkela. He typically writes on Socio-cultural, Policy & Gender-related issues. He tweets on @iommpriyadarshi.