Media content

Gender-sensitive portrayal of women in mass media content is essential

The first week of June 2022 witnessed the gang rape of a teenage girl in Hyderabad. So far, six young men have been named as defendants, five of whom are believed to be minors. This, once again, highlights the fact that women and girls continue to feel unsafe, especially in public spaces. According to the National Health Family Survey (NHFS) – 5 report, nearly a third of women in India experience physical or sexual violence. Ironically, around the same time, a misogynistic ad from a deodorant brand gained multiple endorsements and went live on traditional and social media channels. Although the two incidents are unrelated, we cannot ignore the crucial role mass media plays in influencing behaviors and shaping perceptions.

Why do we need gender sensitive representation of women in mass media content?

The gender insensitive portrayal of women in these advertisements provoked great public anger and subsequent action by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The two advertisements, the first in a room, the second in a supermarket, feature a group of men and a woman, suggestively using the expression “taking a picture”; a pun that isn’t so subtle in a certain sexual context. Several online users have found these ads not only annoying but very problematic. It can be said with trepidation that those who wrote these announcements are very aware of the language used. Also, the expressions aren’t subtle and the camera angles know exactly what needs to be captured. In short, the portrayal has strong sexual overtones, normalizing harassment and violence against women. Such irresponsible portrayal of women in mass media content can and will have serious consequences for our society where violence against women and girls is on the rise.

After several protests and an online uproar, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned the videos from being broadcast on TV or any other platform. The Department cited breach of Rule 3(1)(b)(ii) of the Information Technology Rules, 2021, which states that users may not “host, display, upload, modify, publish, transmit, store, update or share any insulting or harassing information on the basis of gender.” Many who watched these ads were left furious. This type of portrayal and objectification of women often leads to a culture of rape .

What is a rape culture?

Rape culture is an environment where sexual violence against women is normalized: through comments, content that trivializes violence against women (such as the advertising in question) among others. Often supported by the media, film and pop culture, rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language and the objectification of women – something that society adapts or consumes in complete disregard for human rights and women’s safety.

According to a study by the World Economic Forum, India ranks a disappointing 87th in the global gender gap rankings that track data from 135 countries. Specifically in India, women’s participation in the paid labor force is declining, especially in the formal sector, despite the increase in women’s skills to contribute.

One of the main contributing factors is the lack of safer spaces and support for working women in the family, workplaces, commuting and community to which they belong. They face gender-based discrimination as well as violence in all spheres of life, which constitute barriers to joining or continuing to work. This has serious socio-economic implications, as unsafe public and work spaces can limit and reduce women’s participation in the labor market. As India seeks to harness its demographic dividend, the participation of

women is very critical in unlocking India’s economic and social potential, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on all.

What about systemic surveillance?

It is also important to take note of the consumption of such content on many levels and the cascading effect this can have on society. In this case, the ads were shown during a cricket match broadcast on June 3. They were also simulcast on YouTube, Twitter and other social media platforms. One can imagine the number of people, in different age groups, who would have watched the video or consumed the post every second until it was banned.

Many social media users have tagged India’s Ministry of Information and the Broadcasting and Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), asking them to remove the adverts. It was following this public outcry that the advertisements were suspended.

It takes very little evidence to say that having more women in public and working spaces will create a safer environment for them. Therefore, along with the need for policies that will encourage women’s participation in all fields, even government bodies are expected to perform their duties to ensure the safety of women. Content that often objectifies women also fosters an environment that stigmatizes women, discouraging them from pursuing their aspirations without feeling threatened.



The opinions expressed above are those of the author.


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