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  • Women in the Media, Listen Up!

    By Nithya

    Maybe there will be a shift some day between the power held by blogs versus mainstream media. For now, no matter how you slice it, the media still rules with its ability to reach critical mass, stir up discussion and engage with citizens in dialogue. While blogs like Ultra Violet are doing a bang-up job of articulating what it means to be a feminist in our society, it’s mainstream media that’s still lagging in using its powers to shatter stereotypes. And often, their retrograde attitudes spill over onto new media platforms as well. Today, I read a blog post by ‘journalist’ Sumita Chatterjee on NDTV.com. Sumita tackles a topic that might have been a strong debate for the feminist movement but quickly waters it down with her gutless and facile stance.

    Her post talks about her experience among predominantly male journalist colleagues (who need their brains tested, but let’s come back to that later) at an X-Box conference. Her colleagues blatantly questioned her presence “What do YOU know about technology?” Not only did Sumita have no rebuttal for the question but she further trivializes the issue with her poor writing skills and colloquialisms. Examples follow:

    I said a polite “Hi”

    (Would the obnoxious question have been justified if you she had said an impolite ‘Hi’?)

    I gave him a disgusting glare.

    (She means ‘disgusted’, I hope.)

    And so on.

    Grammar and writing aside, it’s her light tackling of the matter that annoys me the most. She talks about how she was on the verge of “giving him a long lecture” but didn’t because she saw that the room was full of men.

    With my eyes wide open, I gave him a very disgusting glare. My feminist instincts were at its high and I was ready to give the two a long lecture. But then I happened to look around the room and found that majority present there were actually men.

    I decided to shut up!

    Why? Because if more men say it, then it becomes true? Then, as though we are being let in on a giant scoop, she goes on to state,

    I want to share a secret, I am not a major tech savvy person, but I get all my gadget gyaan from a lady geek!

    Are we supposed to take that as a big plus for womankind? She trivializes this statement instantly with her exclamation mark, revealing that she thinks this is an anomaly. So even the most tech-savvy women should twiddle their carpel-tunnel thumbs until their men bestow upon them the ability to use their advanced minds? But what rankles me most is this statement:

    The fact is women take time to understand gadgets, but once they do, they fall in love with it.

    We’re slow on the uptake but indulge us and we’ll get it.

    She ends the post without solidifying in any way her case that many women are tech-savvy but get treated like idiots in gadget stores. Her final words are not those of indignation or empowerment. Instead, she says:

    All you men out there, try gifting a mobile or an ipod to your lady love on her birthday and you will know what I mean!

    So despite her humiliating experience she continues to be ambiguous and unable to stand up for what she thinks. (Of course, the assumption is that she thinks that women shouldn’t be judged by these superficial means and men need to come out of their stereotype-ridden shells.)

    Is this woman really a journalist? Aren’t facts and research the weapons that journalists wield? Why couldn’t she talk about how many women are in the IT workforce despite the odds (lack of education, unsupportive communities and discriminatory employers)? Why couldn’t she point to studies that prove women are much better at translating geekspeak into business practices? Or those which reveal that a woman has ways of channeling multiple skills – and can be both technically and managerially sound?

    At the very least, why couldn’t she stand up for herself and explain to her colleague that he was perpetuating an unnecessary stereotype? I have exhausted myself with questions. The end of this post had me sympathizing with Sumita – she is a victim of her own device. A product of the disease herself.

    The ZEE TVs of the world are regressive enough with their bedecked bahus being servile to glaring in-laws. But does a news organization need to reinforce the stereotype? Women in the media, listen up. You have more power than most of us behind the scenes. Use it well. Yes, Ekta Kapoor, I’m talking to you too.

    Nithya works in digital and emerging media in New York City and is a passionate observer of selectivity in media and stereotypical portrayals of women in popular culture. She also volunteers with Room to Read, an organization dedicated to literacy and education in developing countries.

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    14 Responses

    1. Don’t you think going after a working _woman_’s grammar and writing skills is just petty? it is bad enough that women’s competence in any field other than child rearing and cooking is questioned often. Do you really want to add to that?

      Quite frankly, I am extremely disappointed with this post.

    2. Apurva, I don’t think Nithya was “going after” Sumita’s grammar and writing skills so much as using examples of these to make a larger point, which I definitely agree with. I can understand her irritation and impatience, too – it is very difficult to sympathize with someone who willingly makes a doormat of herself. Also, women in the media do need to take their social role more seriously; and ought to use this for a larger benefit.
      There’s another point I’d like to present to whoever reads this, though:
      I believe that the majority of women hold Sumita’s worldview, rather than Nithya’s. Given this, I don’t think confrontational criticism like this is going to get the Sumitas of the world see Nithya’s point of view. Articles like these, I believe, read very well; but in practical terms, they convince only the convinced. (Apurva’s comment is a case in point)

    3. Pointing out errors in grammar made a larger point about feminism in India?

      A lot of people keep quiet in certain situations, particularly in a work environment and when they are outnumbered, and denigrating them when they do speak out is just counter-intuitive to me. Maybe they are not as well-versed in feminist movement as you are but it is important to note that in that article, she is talking against the sexist nature of the comments. There are definitely issues with her article and I agree that it is too mild but questioning her competence based on grammatical errors is counter-productive, don’t you think?

    4. Apurva – you’re right, grammar was hardly the point. In fact, not the point at all from a feminism point of view. But when you are an NDTV journalist, given a voice, an editorial voice, I cannot ignore a writer’s (not a woman’s, but a writer’s) writing skills. It’s not as if she she has a different career from that of writing that it’s completely besides the point.

      Maybe your grouse is that I shouldn’t have mentioned writing skills at all but in my mind, the minute you are colloquial and frivolous about a topic that’s as sensitive and important as feminism, you already dilute your stand. And the fact that NDTV not only let a post so weak go by, but didn’t even bother to edit it for basic writing does bother me. I was critiquing NDTV’s choice of putting people in the forefront.

      You are choosing to pick on one sentence (I’m assuming you are mentioning the disgusting glare which is the only one where I pinpoint her bad choice of words) and dwell on it, while ignoring the rest. For me, that sentence set the stage for what was to come – a weak article, with a weak voice, that’s it.

      I am surprised that you actually think she spoke out or did anything constructive – she did not. Her article is all about how she didn’t say anything and the most constructive advice she gives men is to buy their women ipods. The fact that she gets her tech advice from a female friend comes as a shock even to her. I can forgive her not saying anything to her male counterparts, but not the rest of the article. Even if it had fantastic grammar.

      What if I took out that one sentence, would it change everything for you?

    5. @Apruva – “it is bad enough that women’s competence in any field other than child rearing and cooking is questioned often. “….what are you talking about! Who is relating her gammar to feminism?

      Maybe grammar is not the point of this but it plays a huge role in your ability to communicate and for a journalist who is trying to opine on feminism, if she can’t get her point across in a solid and convincing manner, yes, it’s a problem. And grammar makes it worse!

      Her post told me nothing but one of the comments to her blog (grammar not corrected, for your sake) is very telling of the complete lack of point Sumita makes.

      “Why should i buy a fancy imate or ipod or something a women never understands? For example, a classic question many women ask is Why a imate or a fancy Nokia N Series is required when a 1100 will do the same job (attending a call and making a call). To these type of people (almost women), why we should buy a fancy gadget? for them to learn?

      Let me share m practical experience.

      I bought a Imate and gave it to my wife. She was not much happy (becos its costly.. thats 1) and she dont know how to use it.. ”

      Case in point that Sumita just lost an opportunity to make any sort of statement on gender stereotypes. In fact, this man is questioning why he should buy women something they never understand. If anything the post made women look wekaer instead of stronger.

    6. Editorial? I thought this was a blog post by her. In fact, you can publish a post there (by clicking the ‘create new blog’). I am not sure if NDTV actually moderates these posts but I doubt they edit them.
      Now there are blogs which are jounalistic in nature, ‘Baghdad Burning’ comes to mind but most blogs are not jounalistic in nature and usually are not researched pieces.
      Questioning her competence as a journalist based on a blog post is uncalled for and feels malicious. Questioning why she did not do what you think she should have done is unreasonable (you were not there and you are not working for a male-dominated and sexist industry). Comparing her to representations of women as doormats on TV is a bit of a stretch. Your interpretation on her sentence about the ‘lady geek’ was not how I read that line. When I read the post by her, I saw a few positives. She calls herself a feminist (though she probably does not get the full import of the word as evidenced by her ‘gift your lady love’ comment) and she is voicing her opinion against sexism. Of course, her iPod comment was stupid but I really do not think her post was as bad as you make it to be.

      There are far more egregious instances of sexism on display in the media, both overt and subtle, and it just seems misdirected and over the top to go after a blog post by a woman journalist.

      Fight the patriarchy and not a woman working under it.

    7. Agreed that there are probably bigger issues to write about. But the fact that you (Apurva) are so quick to defend the writer’s writing but not see why it could upset some (or many women) is hard to stomach for me, a lifelong feminist in India. Of course fighting patriarchy is the answer. It has been for centuries. But it also has become the glib and easy answer. In Indian society especially, women contribute hugely to keep the patriarchal system in place. And small instances like this docile post (and I agree with you that this blog has not irked me as much) are extremely indicative of the trickle-down effect of patriarchy and women conditioned by it.

      So no, let’s not tear apart this blog, but let’s not also ignore that every woman who has a voice and a platform has a feministic responsibility – especially when she chose the subject herself. Yes, she might not be aware of it. And she might not care. But the journalist to lay woman ratio is way too small. And us laywomen need those with voices to appear stronger. In the post, she calls herself a feminist but does little or nothing to substantiate it. For me that’s a graver danger to feminism than not being aware of it.

      It’s something so many men (and women) grapple with – as to why feminists appear so “malicious.” It’s because every step backward hurts. You might not consider this post so important in the scheme of things. But we are hard-pressed to find strong feminist voices in mainstream media (Barkha Dutt has openly questioned the “need” for feminism on her show We the People). For a feminist, the choice is often a bitter one – between poor representation and none at all.

    8. @anon:
      “But the fact that you (Apurva) are so quick to defend the writer’s writing”
      “let’s not tear apart this blog”

      I am doing neither and I am not interested in such with-me/against-me rhetoric.

      Nithya’s post is highly interpretative and unfair, particularly this statement of hers – “Why? Because if more men say it, then it becomes true?” Equating silence to acquiescence, when the quoted text says otherwise, is quite frankly patriarchal and irked me more than the original post.

      If Nithya had criticized the gift-your-girlfriend and the slow-to-grasp-tech comments and asked her to be more assertive and generally lamented about the pathetic nature of discussion on women’s issue in our media, she would have been right on target.

      But questioning the competence of a reporter over a blog post which is not editorial is excessive and just plain wrong. She asks her to use facts and links to studies when she herself provides neither (I am not saying it is not true but the purpose of this post would have better served with them).

      I believe that feminist discourse can be carried out without getting down to personal attacks. That is what disappointed me most.

      “In the post, she calls herself a feminist but does little or nothing to substantiate it. For me that’s a graver danger to feminism than not being aware of it.”

      For me, the greater danger is people being anti-feminist, like the example of Barkha Dutt you mention. In my opinion, people who consider themselves feminists would be more open to what proclaimed feminists have to say.

      “It’s something so many men (and women) grapple with – as to why feminists appear so “malicious.””

      Please do not twist my words. My comment was in the context of this post and not a general comment on feminists. I do not think feminists are malicious, in fact, they are far from it. Also, I would not consider myself a feminist if I was so or thought feminists to be so.

      “But we are hard-pressed to find strong feminist voices in mainstream media”

      You are right. There are a few, perhaps too few – Roy, Urvashi Butalia, Shabana Azmi, Deepa Mehta, etc come to mind…

    9. A high strung rant, at best. But, I don’t see any other way to direct it, unless through a biting satire. Though, why do we need to waste time, says the post, lets call a spade a spade.

    10. @Apurva
      My view is that Ms Chatterjee’s post is in a public space and therefore can be commented on. Commentary or reaction to media or new media (as is the case here) is well within the purview of this blog. I don’t see that the point is whether or not there are bigger issues to fight — that is a relative concept and there will always be something or the other that is a ‘bigger’ issue, a more important battle. Each of us can only react to what elicits reaction in us; manufacturing responses on the basis of the weight of the issue would be a very fake thing to do.

      Personally, I thought Ms Chatterjee’s post was stupid and irresponsible. Would it be okay if someone was purportedly speaking out against racism but unwittingly promoted racist attitudes? In some ways, it’s even more dangerous than someone who says they’re racist. Because at least people won’t be misled!

      @anon
      I agree with this, unfortunately — “In Indian society especially, women contribute hugely to keep the patriarchal system in place. And small instances like this docile post (and I agree with you that this blog has not irked me as much) are extremely indicative of the trickle-down effect of patriarchy and women conditioned by it.”

      The number of time I’ve had to defend my being a feminist to women has left me quite disturbed about this!

      @ar
      The blogosphere as a platform thrives on ‘high-strung rants’. Just as a by-the-way, UV aims to give feminists a space to voice their views on the world around them. These views may be academic, polemical, thoughtful, personal, high-strung, measured, vitriolic, calm, happy or mournful. After all, feminists are as diverse as women are — this can only be a good thing, I hope. 😉

    11. @Anindita: There is nothing wrong with criticism but I have problems with the way it has been done here and I have given enough reasons as to why. You are responding to just one statement I have made but I have a said a lot more.

      Everything I said boils down to one sentence – “I believe that feminist discourse can be carried out without getting down to personal attacks. That is what disappointed me most.”

    12. Hi Apurva – I agree – there is no question of with-me/against-me here. It’s not about you or me.

      Reading back on the post (mine), I agree that setting the tone for a post based on her grammar seems pointless and distracting from the discussion. I take responsibility for that.

      I am sorry that you see it as a personal attack on her. That was not my intention. But not sorry for my reaction (which was not knee-jerk as I still feel that way).I tried to stick to what she said, quoting her as much as possible. Yes the post is interpretive, but it’s how I interpreted it and other women I have shown it to. No, it doesn’t make it accurate or the only way to see it. And you are entitled to your interpretation, just as I am to mine.

      Lastly, to comment that I am not in a male dominated or sexist industry is an unfounded and unfair assumption. Some of the umbrage I took was having been in similar situations, having capabilities questioned and my silence being taken for acquiescence (by the men around me) which has taught me that every opportunity to speak out that’s lost hurts no one but the women concerned.

      Thanks for your comments.

    13. yes, true. The beauty of a rant is in the simplicity of spreading a message, but it goes through, among others, with the connotation of someone holding a higher moral or ethical ground. Does not mean the ranter is wrong on the views held.

      Eagerly awaiting a rant on the SCUM Manifesto. 🙂

    14. @Nithya:
      “Lastly, to comment that I am not in a male dominated or sexist industry is an unfounded and unfair assumption”

      I am sorry. I take that back. That was a stupid statement to make..

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