Saturday, September 1, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Ad-ding to gender inequality

ILLUSTRATION BY GAURAV SOOD One does not need to be inordinately perceptive in dissecting the ‘text’ of women’s (re)presentation in popular TV advertisements. Anu Celly expresses concern about the sexism inherent in these ads which is manifested in countless instances of women’s commodification.

EVERY single day of our lives, the art of selling wares on the television does not fail to attract our attention, to entice our senses, to defeat our logic and to dupe our reason into an inadvertent obeisance to the ‘diktat’ of our needs and desires. More often than not, such advertisements appear like a personification of our dreams and a catalyst for our fanciful illusions, transporting us with startling immediacy to the ‘Utopia’ of wishful indulgence, wherein all our curtailed yearnings seem to reach fruition. Be it the gleaming gold of a luxury car or the shining white of wall paint emulsion, the contours of our imagination are etched with the colourful and spellbinding signposts to prosperity and well-being, comfort and respectability. No longer does a diamond bracelet or a dishwasher appear like a superfluous or improbable possession to us, as our mind becomes attuned to a barrage of ‘mediaspeak’ which is as incredibly inviting as the moon is to a child looking askance at the configuration of his palpable fantasies. But, these reflections do not lead me to a critique of economic liberalisation or to a judgmental censure of the very human vulnerability to fall a pray to the maladies of materialism. Nor do I intend to ponder any further on the merits or demerits of mindless consumerism or the influx of ‘multinationals’ via electronic gadgetry into our living rooms and kitchens. Rather, it is my concern with the representation of gendered identity, specifically that of women as an instrument in the invasion of our psyche, that finds expression here.


One does not need to be inordinately perceptive in dissecting the ‘text’ of women’s (re)presentation in popular TV advertisements. The sexism inherent to the media langue, manifesting itself in countless instances of women’s commodification, is steeped in the aura of "a reductionist aesthetic" (Rita Felski). It is meant to reinforce essentialistic and repressive notions of womanhood, taking us backwards to a realm "where bikers ride" over the curvaceous body of a female, literally and figuratively, the LML motorcycle of invincible virility. The ‘body’ politic of masculinist assumption, then, seeks to reduce Woman to a suppliant receiver, the silent stillness of whose sensuous and supine form deserves to be codified and predominated upon. Indeed, there are ads galore where women have been allegorised as cars, in a position of interchangeable proximity to ‘vehicles’ of desire, meant to be driven at will. The prerogative of creation, possession and protection a la Pygmalion, is always invested with the male, while the woman a la Galatea, is to be imaged as ‘a finished product’ which is malleable enough to mould itself to presumptuous injunction. Whether it is waiting on her husband a la Annapurna with the golden grain of rotis or serving him aboard a futuristic Qualis, choosing the right toothpaste or wearing an alluring body talc, the women has to undergo a putative standardisation of her capability or culpability in household skills, while the man in her life remains stationed, quite literally, in the driver’s seat!

Advertisements that are less subtle and more prolific in confiscating the potential of meaningful tasks from women, at large, tend to focus on women’s involvement in self-edification through the means of artifice. All kinds of cosmetic companies, in turn, purport to fetishise woman as an object d’art meant to assume completion only through the normative gaze of the male. The woman allows herself to be converted from the dusky earthiness of her unattractive persona to the ‘fair and lovely’ visage of a persona non grata whose destiny is to be determined by the condescending approval of a prospective groom. Be it a bathing soap or a moisturiser, a perfume or a nail varnish, the ‘target’ group of women are assumed to be creatures of vanity, frivolous and narcissistic in their zest for looking perennially young and beautiful. Whether it is through the right brand of hairoil or tea leaves, cooking oil or detergent, the woman figure is constantly seeking to be rewarded by the male in the family, as if the sole legitimacy of her reason and logic inhibits in choosing the right ingredients for the gratification of her husband’s mundane needs.

When it comes to the reflection of sexual appetite as a corollary to the usage of after-shave lotion or the craving for cigarette, gutka or liquor, she conveniently undergoes a metamorphosis from the sari-clad demeanor of a demure housewife to the semi-clad promiscuity of a seductress who is still to be denied the agency of consumption regarding such needs and desires, howsoever harmful, which are supposed be instinctually masculine. Rarely do the ad filmmakers betray a need for an egalitarian harmony as the essence of power relationships between the two sexes and the need for striking a balance in the respective allotment of their roles and duties. It is always the newly-wedded bahu who is trying out the effectiveness of the bartan bar, sounding sanctimoniously the sublime bliss of standardised domesticity.

Why is it that only the women characters, presumably handpicked from the mainstream of our middle-class society are shown as taking pride in having washed the dirty ‘linen’ of their in laws with a ‘tidal’ and ‘surf-like’ whiteness, so that the men folk in their family, quite ironically, may walk around with a clear conscience! The ‘wheel’ or the ‘whirlpool’ of fate does not spare them from the grinding threat of reprisal to be inflicted by the husband and by implication from the entire society, if they fail in the stricture of lending unalloyed brightness to clothes soiled with worldly tasks including a construction project or a job interview assigned to men. Invariably, the male figure is depicted to be in charge, right from the bedroom to the battleground as the women’s identity and contribution to society is fashioned around the demonstration of her bodily features and domestic labour. Women’s creative faculties are to be exercised only for ingratiating the parochial and prescriptive instincts of mankind, whereby, a pair of ‘Wrangler’ jeans, presumably an insignia of her modernity, is to be peeled off for dowsing the flames of male desire. Women’s sexuality and even the agonizing drudgery of their fruitless labor is to be controlled and regulated according to the strictures of an acquisitive patriarchal mode of economy. Even in the ‘nestle’ of her ‘kamasutra’ relationship with man, the woman has to be branded as a passive receiver, acted upon by the phallocentric assertions of unmistakable male authority.

For long has patriarchy disguised itself as a capitalist in the relations of our production and productivity, as women continue to be source of surplus though superfluous value in our homes and in our economy. So much so that an ad which is supposed to denounce the reprehensible act of female foeticide, demonstrates unwittingly, different ways of doing away with the unwanted embryo of a girl child whose functional ‘utility’ may be deemed redundant in comparison to a male child. The "political unconscious" (Frederic Jameson) inherent to the presentation of populist advertisements leads one to interrogate how the cultural ethos of a nation may be perverted for the financial aggrandisement of a few multinationals. The aesthetics of representation is sublimated at the altar of celluloid glamorisation, fuelling a volley of questions regarding the relationship between the use of popular art and mass media for the propagation and imposition of socio-political ideology.

As the advertisements continue to flaunt the image of Woman as a monolithic apotheosis of ‘femininity’, an icon of romanticised or denigrated ideals, perforce one ponders on the extent to which these correspond with real features of women’s character and conduct. Media representations of women, whether in documentary, advertisement, parallel, popular or the so-called art cinema, have become a central concern in the present phase of feminism, in order to explore the process which converts women into "signifiers in an ideology" (Griselda Pollock). Cinematic images which conceptualise women as an archetype or an artifact, need to be decoded rather than to be lapped up, with a level of "consciousness-raising" in our perspective. We need to define our responses to the most potent and wide-reaching impact of the media-generated sub-text that has increasingly become an apparatus for hegemonic interventions on the nature of identity and agency. For women to register a meaningful presence in the cross-current of our public and private life, popular media has to work towards a transformative vision, even through the immensely effective means of advertising, for positive social change and for constructive socio-economic space leading to the expansion of human interest at large. Unless we are weary of the ways in which the popular media is used for reinscribing patriarchal supremacist values and the modes of male domination accruing from it, we will continue to perpetuate the normative structures of representation as tools for the utilisation of women as the exotic ‘others’ in the discourse on life. Until we take cognisance of the manner in which the culture of consumerism is packaged at the expense of commercialising womanhood in popular media, we may well nigh fall into the trap set up by the engineers of sexual and cultural politics.