THE STEREOTYPES: homemaker, femme fatale, bold and beautiful, supermom, sex bomb. The creators: television, cinema, advertisements, magazines. All depict women who can be beautiful only if they are white-skinned, reed-thin and look like Barbie dolls. Take mainstream Indian cinema. What is common across most of it is the depiction of women, who can never look disheveled, untidy or even a wee bit like their real life counterparts. When there is the portrayal of a woman, who cannot pass off as stereotypically beautiful by media standards, her transformation into the ‘normative beautiful’ becomes necessary. This transformation usually also showcases her beliefs in what is true (she’s virginal and innocent), right (‘a good girl’) and driven by values (religious and traditional).
Beauty has moved out of the realm of mere aesthetic and now defines how ‘important’ a woman is — or isn’t. Until recently, there was a program called Indian Idol, a musical reality show that ostensibly graded participants only on the basis of singing and stage performance. In one of the episodes, a female participant was practically forced to to go through a makeover because the judges felt she had no “appeal”. An entire episode was dedicated to this makeover (which she hadn’t wanted in the first place) with eager cameras following every step of hair styling, facial and wardrobe change! Towards the end, the judges were allowed to comment on how she was “now” a fitting candidate for the show.
This is well in line with what the Fair & Lovely advertisements try to tell us — that a woman can be important or successful only if she subscribes to public standards of beauty, of which fairness is one of the primary conditions. Naturally, we have a soaring market for fairness and slimming products. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with somebody wanting to be fair or thin, but it is hugely problematic when these become the only yardsticks for beauty. Fairness cream advertisements repeatedly drum in the message that only someone who is fair can find a boyfriend, get married or be successful at work and woe betide the parents of a girl who is dark skinned. It is surprising that this socio-cultural obsession with an ancient stereotype continues to prevail in forms both extreme and subtle.
Most mainstream cinema lays greater stress on how women look than on what they say. Successful or smart women are tagged aggressive or shown as women who have used their sexuality to climb the ladder. The message is clear. It is not enough to be smart or successful; you must also be good-looking. There is such pressure on successful women to also look young and beautiful that face lifts and surgical alterations are becoming increasingly common.
When women’s looks are not the focus, it’s our personal habits and ‘moral’ attitudes. Canadian journalist Jenn Goddu conducted a study of newspaper and magazine coverage of three women’s lobby groups over a 15-year period. From the report on Media Awareness Network:
She discovered that journalists tend to focus on the domestic aspects of the politically active woman’s life (such as “details about the high heels stashed in her bag, her habit of napping in the early evening, and her lack of concern about whether or not she is considered ladylike”) rather than her position on the issues.
I would like to believe that there is some change happening. In recent times, Chak De India actually had women actors who were different from the quintessential ‘heroines’. ‘Citizen journalism‘, which has been introduced by some TV channels, actually allows homemakers and ordinary-looking women without make-up to get on television, give their story and be heard.
Media can be both limiting and empowering for women but it still remains a powerful way of asserting stereotypes. Unless we examine our understanding of ‘beauty’, we will continue to consume these images of objectified and stereotypical women for the vested economic interests of some. After all, what still sells is Fair & Lovely!