Out of step
WHEN Kalpana Sharma and I drafted the Preface to our book, Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues (1991) this is what we wrote: ‘In the past ten years... women’s issues have increasingly, though sporadically, begun to make news and be considered worthy of comment. This is largely due to the growth of the contemporary women’s movement in India, with women’s groups becoming steadily more active and vocal. The print and visual media, in turn, have responded to this greater volubility by giving women’s issues more prominence...’
Today, as I look back on the decade that led into the new millennium, I do not see such a clear, direct, symbiotic connection between the media and the women’s movement. The change has been slow and steady, probably inevitable, possibly regrettable but certainly thought provoking.
The study on which Whose News? was based examined the coverage given by a cross-section of newspapers and magazines to five issues of special concern to women that had attracted media attention over a ten year period (1979-88). It was no coincidence that at least four of these – dowry deaths, rape, female foeticide, and sati – were issues which women’s groups had highlighted and campaigned against during that period. Media coverage of public campaigns was predictable.
It was also not surprising that four of the five issues dovetailed with the news media’s predilection for events, especially dramatic ones that involve or threaten violence or conflict. The issues which received the most media attention were those that fitted into traditional, dominant perceptions of what constitutes news: violent atrocities such as rape and the burning of brides and widows, and political hot potatoes with religious and legal overtones such as the controversies over Muslim women’s right to maintenance after divorce and some Hindu communities’ claim to ‘traditional’, ‘customary’ practices such as sati.
As we pointed out in the Introduction to the book, the ‘event as opposed to process orientation (of the media) necessarily results in the neglect of issues concerning women because many of them are linked to processes rather than events. A number of serious women’s issues are not overtly violent or dramatic and, although they often involve large numbers, the affected persons are not necessarily part of a readily identifiable group or concentrated in a particular geographical area. Further, many aspects of women’s oppression are so commonplace and widely accepted that they are not considered sufficiently extraordinary to merit coverage.’
Our study did, of course, throw up notable exceptions to this general rule. And we did find that there was a marked increase in coverage and analysis – not only of the five issues surveyed but also of a variety of other women’s concerns – towards the latter half of the 1980s. We also detected a noticeable decline in overtly sexist writing, at least in the English press.
We noted at the time that the historical legacy of the press in India – a broadly liberal and social reform-minded approach – had on the whole benefited the coverage of women’s issues in the print media. In addition, the rise of the contemporary women’s movement, the consequent increase in public consciousness about women’s oppression and quest for emancipation, and the resulting espousal of women’s concerns by the nation’s major political parties (at least in the form of lip-service) had given women’s issues a legitimacy which made them seem worthy of media attention.
Nevertheless, we found time and again that the presence within the press of socially conscious and concerned journalists of both sexes was often critical for serious, quality coverage of women’s issues. Among these were men and women in decision-making positions, including a few senior (male) editors. Coverage was also positively influenced by the entry into the press of a significant number of women from the mid-70s onwards, many of them sympathetic to, if not associated with, the women’s movement as well as other movements to promote human rights, social and economic justice, and sustainable development.
By 1993, when we wrote our pre-publication Postscript, a number of significant changes had already taken place – both in the media and in the women’s movement – which could not but have had a bearing on media coverage of women’s issues in the post-study period.
The growth and proliferation of the electronic media, especially television, and the first official steps towards the ‘liberalisation’ of the economy had already begun to affect the worldview of many decision-makers in the press. As the entertainment quotient of the media grew in tandem with the newfangled consumerism of the expanding urban elite, the concerns of the deprived majority who were not part of ‘the market’ were progressively marginalised. Journalists with social ‘commitments’ were increasingly viewed as less than ‘professional’. Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that, as we then noted, ‘The liberal consensus that underlay the investigative stories and other types of press coverage in the post-Emergency period up to the late 1980s had largely vanished by the early 1990s.’
These developments naturally affected the self-perceptions, attitudes and decisions of many journalists, including women. As we pointed out at the time, ‘The high visibility and intensely competitive nature of the media profession today, the new opportunities now open to women in the press, combined with the persistent assumption that coverage of national politics (as defined by the major political parties and personalities) comprises the acme of journalistic practice have led many women journalists, earlier noted for their writing on women’s and other social issues, to move over to the fast track of political reporting...’ As a result, coverage of women’s issues from within the media became increasingly dependent on the individual commitment of the few journalists still willing to risk professional ghettoisation in order to call public attention to issues of special concern to women, which they considered important for society as a whole to be aware of.
Again, there were noteworthy deviations from this general trend, but the overall media environment had definitely altered in the brief period between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, the women’s movement had also shifted focus and changed pace. With many women and women’s groups moving beyond the campaign mode into more sustained, lower-profile grassroots activism and/or research, integrating concerns about gender into other related areas such as health and education, shelter and livelihoods, sustainable development and the environment, religious fundamentalism and communalism, they were no longer ‘making news’ in the way they were in the late 1970s and ’80s.
Speaking about media coverage of women’s issues from the perspective of women’s groups at a 1992 workshop in Delhi, a feminist activist said, ‘What perhaps has not been conveyed to the press is that the women’s movement is not at the peak of the early 1980s. Women’s own perceptions are changing. Many groups in the autonomous women’s movement have widened their field, getting involved in anti-communalism and environmental issues. Women are talking of human rights and state repression. Women are beginning to intervene in mainstream politics, to get a foothold in decision-making bodies. Women are getting organised, taking the initiative and assuming leadership roles at the community level. The women’s movement has come of age and shows a wider perspective.’
As we then pointed out, ‘Since the media continue to emphasise events rather than processes, the shift in the women’s movement from high decibel, single issue, public campaigns centred around atrocities against women to more consistent but low-key work that acknowledges the complex nature of women’s oppression, has meant some diminution in the media’s coverage of women’s issues.’
It was clear even in the early 1990s that the future was going to be even more problematic vis-a-vis women and the media. We did not need to be particularly clairvoyant to come to the following conclusion: ‘The growing power of the media – both electronic and print – and their increasingly commercial nature, which obviates all pretence at a higher purpose, suggests that the commodification of women... is likely to become far more virulent in India in the near future. Media watchers and others concerned about the status of women need to be ever more vigilant in the days to come.’
By the end of the decade, when I was working on my book, Women in Journalism: Making News, there was little dispute among thinking media professionals that the press in the 1990s was a very different animal from its 1980s avatar, having moved from seriousness towards superficiality and from societal concerns to socialite affairs.
This was perhaps inevitable. Economic liberalisation and globalisation had brought in their wake a resurgent wave of consumerism – aided and abetted by the media which, in turn, profited from it. The emergence of television as the new opiate of the middle classes, if not the masses, thanks chiefly to the ‘invasion from the skies’ in the form of satellite television brought home by cable networks, had put pressure on the print media and made ‘infotainment’ the new buzz-word even in the press. The orchestrated excitement generated by sections of the media over the international beauty crowns won by two young Indian women in 1994 – and a succession of beauty queens thereafter – had given a major fillip to the fashion and beauty business, creating new media darlings turned public icons overnight. The blurring of the lines dividing management and editorial functions within media organisations, and the growing influence of business compulsions on decisions about editorial content, had brought about a dilution of journalistic priorities, norms and even ethics. Celebrity and lifestyle journalism had joined corporate journalism as the new growth areas within the media.
Under the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the spaces for writing on serious issues, including many relating to gender, had shrunk, even if they had not disappeared altogether. As a journalist once noted for her work on human rights and women’s issues acknowledged in the late 1990s, ‘Over the last four to five years, the trend in the press has definitely been to move away from issues. There is much more focus on subjects of interest to yuppies. It is assumed that the readership is mainly made up of middle class people aspiring to get rich quickly. They are not interested in issues and don’t want to be reminded of them in case they begin to feel guilty...’
According to another, ‘The Indian media have become increasingly obsessed with politics, the corporate world, fashion, personalities, "pop" culture, and the world of entertainment. Scant attention is paid to the problems of living which confront people at the turn of the century.’ As yet another woman pointed out, ‘Even when a subject is serious it has to be treated lightly now. If you write on women’s issues you are not supposed to make any political comments.’
If news had to be ‘light enough to rise like froth’, as a newspaper publisher is reported to have said to a young journalist, obviously only certain kinds of events and issues concerning women would fit the bill. And if media organisations had ‘no room for bleeding hearts’, as the corporate manager of a newspaper company told a group of journalism students, clearly media professionals wishing to progress and prosper would be wise to keep their social conscience well hidden from view.
This then was the somewhat bleak scenario in much of the media at the turn of the century and the millennium with respect to the coverage of women’s and other social issues in the press.
At the same time, the women’s movement appeared to have become so diffuse that its very existence was being widely questioned (although it never was – and never sought to be – a single, tangible, coordinated entity even in the early, exciting years). The apparent disappearance of the movement was not necessarily due to the dawn of ‘post-feminism’, as some in the media and elsewhere would have it, but because the trend away from public, propaganda-based struggles towards more broad-based activism, research and documentation, sensitisation and training, mainstreaming and institutionalisation had continued apace. The resulting, relative absence of a public face merely simplified the task of those who wished to pronounce on the irrelevance of feminism and announce the demise of the movement.
During the 1990s, few women’s groups were involved in publicly visible and voluble struggles focusing exclusively on the kinds of problems narrowly defined as ‘women’s issues’. In fact, one of the few public manifestations of the movement – such as it is now – over the past decade was the relatively high-profile campaign to press for the enactment of legislation to ensure increased representation for women in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies.
The campaign included public demonstrations and processions reminiscent of the late 1970s and early ’80s but they were, by and large, localised within the capital city and associated with particular organisations and spokespersons. The vilification of women demanding reservation by some political leaders, the introduction of the caste factor, and the apparent differences of opinion among women themselves over the legislation helped to obscure and trivialise the core issues. The failure of the movement and the media to illuminate the public debate by, for instance, tracing the history of Indian women’s approach to the question of reservations in politics, encouraged the spread of uninformed, largely negative opinions on the subject. And, despite the rainbow coalition of women parliamentarians lending support to the campaign, the 84th Amendment to the Constitution remained a dead letter.
Similarly, feminist protests against the international beauty pageant held in Bangalore in 1996 were more or less drowned out by the more sensational, attention-grabbing tactics used by other opponents of beauty contests, especially those representing conservative forces seeking to defend ‘Indian’ culture and womanhood. The problem was exacerbated by the media’s seeming inability to distinguish between the different perspectives and arguments of the various groups involved in the three or four separate streams of protest. The movement, for its part, seemed ill-equipped to catch the media’s attention, clarify its position, and differentiate itself from the motley crew of anti-pageant demonstrators.
The lack of an obvious and coherent public presence had obviously affected media and public perceptions of the movement and its work through the 1990s. Many major developments and important initiatives by and for women, which were clearly catalysed by the movement in one or other of its avatars, were generally covered as if they had appeared out of thin air. For instance, the stories credited with having sparked off the celebrated anti-arrack movement launched by poor, rural women in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1990s did not get into those literacy primers by chance; nor indeed was the focus on girls and women in literacy campaigns, education programmes and other policies and projects – in the governmental as well as non-governmental sectors – mere happenstance. But this reality was rarely reflected in media coverage of these subjects.
To be fair, the fault did not lie with the media alone; many new-age gender specialists, researchers and activists focusing on women and girls, and others articulating women’s problems and concerns in various fora also revealed a reluctance to recognise the contribution of the movement to the generation of information and the evolution of ideas on which much of their work is based.
Meanwhile, the apparent retreat of the movement had yielded space for other players – from right-wing conservatives to corporate bodies – to redefine women’s identities and recast them in the images most suitable for their purposes. It also enabled people within the media to dismiss feminism as an outdated idea, and to valorise individual women ‘achievers’ and ‘survivors’ whose success stories glossed over the structural, systemic roots of gender-based discrimination and oppression, as well as the sustained, systematic work done over the years to combat this major societal problem. Having been instrumental in making women and women’s issues visible and audible in the media, the movement seemed unable or unwilling to resist the takeover and distortion of women’s concerns in the public arena by forces with vested interests in wooing and disarming women.
If ‘symbolic annihilation’ resulting in the absence of women from the news pages was the problem a couple of decades ago, today the media are replete with images of and references to women. It is another matter that the majority of the women thus featured in much of the media, especially in English, are film stars, beauty queens, models, video jockeys, fashion designers and others connected with the glamour world. Advertiser-sponsored supplements celebrating the ‘World of Women’ publish profiles of ‘the progressive woman’ and ‘the wonder woman’ along with tips on beauty, fitness, health and travel that appear beside corresponding ads. Even International Women’s Day has been adopted, shorn of meaning and placed alongside Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day and so on, as an occasion for celebratory consumption.
The sea-change in women’s magazines over the past 25 years is a source of particular regret for me, having started my career in a women’s weekly in the late 1970s and having worked hard, along with my colleagues on the staff, to infuse it with the new consciousness and concerns then being articulated by the nascent women’s movement to the extent possible. Many women from the movement wrote for the magazine in those days.
Today, women’s magazines seem to be conduits for the consumer goods industry, especially the beauty, fashion and food businesses, rather than for emancipatory ideas. Even when they do highlight issues, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment or abuse, they tend to emphasise individual triumph over adversity in the true confession or self-help manual mode without attempting to analyse the problems and evaluate approaches to tackling them within a larger social context. There seems to be an unbridgeable chasm between the world presented by these ‘look-good, feel-good’ magazines for ‘the woman of substance’ and the lives of the majority of women in the country. There seems to be little connection or communication between these magazines targeting female audiences and those who are engaged in serious work on gender related issues.
Meanwhile, possibly in keeping with the times, some sections of the women’s movement have also become more glamorous and media-savvy. As a result, a few individuals located mainly in the media capitals have emerged as spokespersons of the movement on all manner of issues, irrespective of their actual areas of expertise and regardless of the history of their involvement. With the media’s current penchant for controversies and sound bites, a few others who can be depended upon for contradictory views are also in demand to serve on studio panels and provide quotable quotes.
If movement-media relations in the 1970s and ’80s depended to a large extent on personal contacts and relationships built on a foundation of shared concerns, today some organisations hire the services of public/ media relations outfits (some for-profit, others non-profit) to ensure media coverage of events and issues that they are involved with. There seems to be an unfortunate, if pragmatic, assumption that the media must be wooed and wheedled to do their job.
If such developments have led to a certain amount of cynicism and disenchantment on the part of old media hands, at another level old movement hands are sceptical of the attitudes of some of the current crop of media persons and disillusioned with many emerging patterns of media practice. If they are tired of being asked on the telephone for quotes to be reproduced (often inaccurately) in the ‘reaction stories’ that predictably follow news events with a gender angle, they are also weary of being accused of being urban, middle class activists or researchers who have no idea about the problems faced by poor, rural women – by youngsters who know little about the subjects they seek to report on and hesitate to venture into city suburbs, let alone slums and villages.
Nevertheless, despite all of the above, I would venture to suggest that the ongoing relationship between the women’s movement and the media, uneasy as it may have been and may continue to be, has without doubt contributed to the spread of information and ideas about the status of women in society and the need to improve it. It has helped to generate fairly widespread public awareness of at least the most obvious of the problems facing women, such as violence of various kinds. It has also led to public recognition of at least some strategies to help women overcome these problems, especially the less complicated and contentious ones such as education, healthcare, income-generation, savings and credit and, to some extent, legal action.
As I see it, the very fact that the contemporary women’s movement has been around and active for nearly a quarter of a century – in different forms, at different levels, on different issues, in different parts of the country – and that the media have been responding to its activities, as well as to the information and insights it has made available – in one way or another, to a greater or lesser extent, positively or negatively, for better or for worse – has meant that these issues have been ‘in the air’ for at least a couple of decades. As a result, over the past two decades, they have imperceptibly, inevitably and irrevocably seeped into public consciousness and found fresh life in different, often unexpected, shapes and forms which, in turn, have served to spread awareness farther and wider. This kind of slow, steady, silent process of osmosis does not ‘make news’ but that does not make it any less real. A few, stray examples may help illustrate the point.
For instance, at a 1999 workshop for Telugu women (creative) writers, it was revealed that the debates and discussions that took place across the country and the world during the International Women’s Decade (1975-85) created an environment in which women felt more free to think, talk and ultimately write about their lives, their role and position in the family, their experiences of marriage and motherhood, their sexuality, and so on.
According to a report on the workshop, ‘For the first time women realised that it was possible to think freely and explore these issues independently... This realisation resulted in a tempestuous wave of women’s writing entering the hitherto calm waters of Telugu literature, bringing in its wake a turbulence and tension never experienced before... The feminist movement (in Telugu literature) penetrated areas earlier considered unfit subject matter for literary practice. Labour rooms, birthing, menstruation, abortion, kitchens, cooking pots, spices, brooms and dusters marched proudly into the realms of literature, challenging the patriarchal assumptions of mainstream literature. This was a cultural revolution drawing its meaning and ideological strength from the feminist movement.’
One workshop participant revealed that she had learnt about feminism through articles in the newspaper, Andhra Jyothi; she, in turn, wrote poems and short stories about women’s lives and sufferings. Others seemed to have come to focus on such subjects in their writing through personal experiences or observations. Either way, the media appear to have played a critical role (unwittingly and passively perhaps) in both generating awareness and providing a platform for expression of these new thoughts and feelings. Since much of the literature in Indian languages first appears in periodicals, it is likely that many Telugu readers got their first exposure to such ideas through poems, short stories and serialised novels by women published in the media.
In another context, while interviewing journalists in different parts of the country for Making News, I was struck by the number of women, especially outside the metropolitan cities, who were not only aware of women’s issues but believed that women in the profession had made, could and should make a difference to the coverage of social issues, including those related to gender. For examples, a number of journalists in Rajasthan suggested that the government had become more aware of women’s issues mainly because female journalists had given them the prominence they deserved. A journalist from Bihar said women in the media had ensured not only more coverage but also more serious and less sensational treatment of such issues.
Recent workshops involving women journalists from different parts of the country have confirmed that awareness and concern about gender related issues are very much alive and kicking among a cross-section of media women today. Even in the savvy and sophisticated metros, many women journalists are now getting together in informal groups and forging loose networks motivated mainly by a desire to build a sense of community and bring some meaning back into their professional lives through interactions with each other as well as others interested in gender and other social issues.
In yet another context, teaching a course on ‘covering gender’ at a college of journalism, I discovered that a number of students were aware of and interested in the subject, whether or not they opted for the elective. Some of them had been exposed to gender issues during the course of their undergraduate degree programmes in subject areas as diverse as literature, history, economics and political science, often thanks to the individual efforts of certain teachers but sometimes because of the integration of feminist scholarship into curricula.
During discussions with students who wished to work on articles, programmes and/or research projects on gender related themes it became clear that several of them were far more conscious of the impact of gender on many different aspects of life and society than many of us were at their age 20-30 years ago. Whether they will be able to put this consciousness to optimal use within the profession is a moot point given the prevailing media environment, but the very fact that the awareness exists is, if nothing else, further proof of the osmosis theory.
Several other developments within the media can also be traced to the influence of the women’s movement, albeit indirect and largely unacknowledged by all concerned. This includes the ever increasing numbers of women media persons and their ever easier entry into what were once considered male preserves, such as political, business and sports journalism. The fact that an elective on gender is now on offer as part of journalism education in at least one institution is another example of the growing acceptance of such issues – in some quarters – as legitimate subjects for media coverage.
The mainstreaming of at least certain kinds of gender related issues in the media became evident recently when revelations about the declining sex ratio, especially among the child population, released by the Census Commissioner in advance of much other data from the Census 2001, prompted a number of lead articles on the subject, many of them written by men with no discernible history of being interested in such issues. Likewise, the fact that many articles on the controversy over the shooting of the film, Water, a couple of years ago referred to feminist research on the situation of widows in the past as well as in the present demonstrated the growing awareness and acceptance within and outside the media of the knowledge base created by the movement over the past quarter of a century.
Looking back over the past decade, I see that the women’s movement tends to make less news now than it did during the previous decade, when it was more obviously active in the public arena. However, it continues to have an impact on the media because it has catalysed events and processes that do make news, it has generated knowledge and understanding that help shape editorial views, and it has willy-nilly entered the consciousness and influenced the perceptions of at least two generations of media persons, especially but not only women.
Similarly, it is obvious that the media today are on the whole more preoccupied with the lives of the bold and the beautiful, the rich and the famous, the pampered and the powerful, and less receptive to the interests and concerns of those who do not belong to this charmed circle. However, they continue to reflect at least some of the issues highlighted by the movement. This is partly because the issues have been adopted and legitimised by the government, international organisations and other policy-making, programme implementing bodies, and partly because they are considered important by some individuals within the media. But one hopes that it is also partly because the media have not completely abandoned their role as watchdogs of society.