Why there’s still a regressive Portrayal of Indian Women on TV Serials in the era of Feminism

Shweta Singh
8 min readMay 14, 2021
Posters of some of the Indian serials on television.

Introduction

From colonial to present time, Representation has been very important primarily due to its formation of stereotype of the downtrodden and marginalized people who occupy the lower layer of the society. Living in a typical patriarchal society, there exists a stern social structure in which the role of a woman is delineated and suppressed, this specific role in the social scheme finds its way into the role of women in Indian TV serials as well. Women are being stereotyped to every aspect, their representation oscillates between what is always ‘in place’, already known and something that must be repeated. So here undoubtedly comes the responsibility and the significance of mass media without which repeatability of notions and projection of women to the masses is certainly not possible. Television is the most powerful mass media in India. It has the most impact on the masses as seeing is believing. Indian Television is the most women-oriented medium where everything revolves around a woman in the serial. Over the years, Indian TV serials have failed to project the reality of today’s women. Even with some attempts to portray the actual reality, Indian serials still haven’t evolved beyond the monochromatic presentation of a faithful wife and a scheming vamp. When Indian women are heading towards being an IPS and IAS officer, all these contemporary daily soaps are still portraying its women in meaningless layers of costume, jewellery and jardousi sarees. One of the major concern of this is the ‘way’ things or events are reported and presented the content of the message to the public makes it quite clear that media moulds the reality in order to construct or demolish certain ideologies. Projection of women in daily soaps has successfully kept them as the ‘domesticated alternative’.

Mirroring Indian Society?

Indian television serials are unstoppably portraying the regressive roles of women. The popular notion ‘sangsar sukher hoi ramanir gune’ (the bliss of the household rests in the hands of the women) is not just a Bengali saying, it is infact the roots of Indian familial culture where the women of the house is granted the central position for her liminality. However, many popular TV serials are upholding and propagating these notions that are unfortunately blocking the path of socio-culture upliftment. Claiming of globalization and modernization where our government system is attempting to emancipate the marginalized women in our society, it seems totally ironical to see the contemporary TV serials projecting women more as models in Indian attires, all decked up in jewelry and responsible for the welfare of their husband and his family.

Creating Stereotypes: the Ideal women & the Bad Women

Each serial portrays how an ‘ideal’ woman should behave when myriad responsibilities are put upon her, be it in maintaining the happiness of her household, taking care of the children or solving problems that arise within the family. The typical portrait of a woman in Indian Television (TV) serials is nothing but of a perfect wife, perfect mother and perfect daughter-in-law who showers love on all her loved ones and is an icon of purity and devotion for the audience. She has to sacrifice and compromise everything for her family, even she doesn’t wants to. A perfect example of this can be stereotypical bahu is our ‘Gopi’ from Saath Nibhaana Saathiya. She is a devoted wife and bahu because she is shy, pious, illiterate, sweet and only wear sarees. For that very reason her mother in law, kokila, finds her a perfect match for her son. And Old Serials like Saas bhi kabhi bahu thi, Kasauti Zindagi ki, Kahani ghar ghar ki etc. became immensely popular for their unrealistic stories. According to our daily soaps, a good docile woman is the one who always love and respect her husband, no matter how he treats her. If the woman is modern, stylish and allowed to work then she is shown as a vamp who is always scheming and plotting the downfall of her protagonist, Like the famous vamp, Komonika, in Kasauti Zindagi ki. Such vamps are seen by audience as ‘aisi aurat bachho ko kya sanskar degi’ because they are modern and educated, they do as they like. But the real question arises that do these serials portray the real India and its women? But why is it always expected from the woman and not the man? Why is the woman always expected to surrender and compromise on her self esteem in order to win her man’s love? Some of the serials, like Madhubala , glorify a man who insults, hurts and torches the woman, with whom he is in ‘so called’ love and it is always his wife who tries to patch up by massaging his male ego so that they can live a happy married life. It sends out the message that being a “bad boy” and treating women badly will make men more attractive to women even in real life as women are supposed to tolerate everything.

Regional TV serials

In regional TV serials, the highly feminine aspects of a woman’s personality are extolled. The Malayalam serial ‘Stree’ has acquired cult status in Kerala, viewed by an audience ranging from 8-year-old girls to 80-year-old grandmothers. When the serial portrayed the protagonist, Indu, as a feminist who was confident, stubborn and independent, it caused an uproar and led to the director of ‘Stree’ having to change the personality of his character to that of a more quiet, submissive and sacrificing woman. Tamil TV serials project half of their women characters as sufferers who often break under pressure, thus depicting the age-old stereotypical view that women are generally weak and need to depend on a man for everything.

The issue here is that: What kind of images do these serials portray to the next generation? Are women the only ones who have the strength to keep a family together? Do men have no role to play at home? Is tolerating nature of a woman is her only acceptable trait? What about the larger reality that we face today, a world in which a woman is given an equal status in society?

Despite several debates and discussions taking place, new serials are coming up every month, generally based on the same topic, as it seems like the viewers enjoy the suspense of a family melodrama based on betrayal, deceit and an ultimate reconciliation. Contemporary popular serials like Yeh hai Mohabbatein, Kumkum bhagya, Kundali Bhagya, etc. are all of the same plot of family drama, conspiracy and protagonist struggling to solve family problems.

Even Directors and Producers are coming up with the serials of same storyline of melodrama and conspiracy with no women empowerment and social message. All the TV serials aim at getting high TRP rating doesn’t matter even if the content is unrealistic or melodramatic

Plots aimed for a ‘Change’

According to Indian serials, a good women is an ideal homemaker. Her world revolves around her family and her home. Her family’s opinion becomes her opinion and she has to suppress her thoughts and point of view in front of them. However, there are few serials that has depicted and highlighted issues and taboo in our society. Balika Vadhu is a good example where its plot touches upon the delicate issue of child marriage and shows women struggling in their daily lives, in their relationship with their mother-in-laws and husbands. Another example is of Naa aana iss desh Lado(2009–12) where its plot was about the serious issue of female feoticide. Jhansi ki Rani(2009–11) became immensely popular on air for its brave and confident character of a female lead. The concept of fair and dark complexion is also a major issue in television industry as well. Only actresses who are fair, good looking can be seen working in the serials. Some serials have even gone to the extent of casting darker women as the villains and fairer women as the fragile victim. However, certain shows were made to remove this stereotype and showcasing it in a positive light. Bidaai (2007–10) was one such serial in which two sisters, Sadhana who is really beautiful and Ragini who is dark complexioned, struggling for getting married as no one likes her because of her dark colour.

Another serial called ‘Kalyani’ was chosen by the Asian Media Information Communication Centre (AMIC), Singapore, as the best Programme on HIV/AIDS. During the „good-old days „ of Doordarshan, there had been several programmes like ‘Udaan’ that dealt with issues concerning a woman’s struggle of becoming an IPS Officer. This was probably the first Indian television show on women empowerment. Inspired by the real-life story of Kavita Choudhary’s (the director of this series) elder sister Kanchan Choudhary who after overcoming several hurdles in her life , went on to become the first female Director General of Police , it inspired its female audience a desire for emancipation of Women. However, with the emergence of cable and satellite television and a major upheaval following it ,things rapidly changed and serials stopped short of projecting those that could prove beneficial for uplifting the society and highlight some issues. Serials afterwards became just women oriented, vamps conspiring against the protagonist and thus the show runs for years and years with unrealistic content and melodramatic stories.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to ‘women’s issues’ than petty family squabbles, conspiring against other women and her family, fighting with mother-in-laws and competing for love. There are several serious issues faced by women, like molestation, domestic violence, power struggle, inequality and discrimination. The real life of a woman is no less than an adventure where she struggles between her family and work, while also looking after herself. These are the important issues our serials need to focus and depict on the television, rather than the saas-bahu relationships and suppressing the real time problems faced by Indian women. Television serials must importance to the transformation of women’s role is daily soaps so that a change towards women attitude can be brought to picture.

Suggestions:

The stories should not follow the imposing temperament rather should been encouraging in nature.

Self dependent women should be portrayed and their way of thinking and working and the attitude towards the life should be depicted.

Keeping aside the profit making thing, media should project various sensitive issues like domestic violence, exploitation of women, remedies with legal protection so awareness can be spread about it.

Stereotype refection in women cast characters should be scrutinized. And picture of today’s women should be highlighted.

Last but not least the consciousness of viewers is necessary. What they will see, what they will not accept, that decision is still in the hand of mass public . They can put forward their disagreement on the telecast stories to the Broadcasting Content Complaint Council.

With great power come great responsibilities. Television has the power to influence and shape the thinking of the viewers. TV serials should be something more relatable, a picture closer to reality and more realistic roles: not a saint or a perfectionist, but a real woman with all her flaws and lessons.

As well said by Marry Wollstonecraft “It is time to affect a revolution of female manners — time to restore to them their lost dignity — make them, as a part of the human species, labor by reforming themselves to reform the world”.

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Shweta Singh

Just a passionate individual celebrating her freedom of speech and expression.