Last week, Sharmila Tagore, while endorsing the new Doordarshan serial Mai kuch bhi kar sakti hun directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, said that there is a complete absence of working women from TV. Of course, this concern – that women are still represented in stereotypical roles – is not new.
Representation and role of women in the media has been a hot bed of debate for a good few years now. It was as early as 1985 when Alison Bechdel conceived the Bechdel test. In her regular comic strip ‘Dykes to Watch Out for’, she voiced the idea for assessing films based on whether they had two or more women who talked to each other about something besides a man. I think the Bechdel test would look different if Alison Bechdel had watched modern Indian television at the time.
The Bechdel test is popularly used as a feminist tool to evaluate cinema. A film needs to fulfil the three points criterion in order to pass the Bechdel test – (i) there should be two or more women in the movie, (ii) they should talk to each other, (iii) their subject of conversation should be something other than men. The test is admittedly simplistic but it’s premised on the male dominated, at times misogynistic, story lines in Hollywood movies that either obliterate women altogether or represent them only in relation to men. You’d be surprised at how few films, including a lot of films in the Best Film category for Oscars, pass the test!
What would happen if we applied the Bechdel test to Indian television prime time serials? Silly as this might sound, I think most of them would pass the test – there are lots of women in soaps, in fact, I might go as far to say that they are female dominated. Women definitely talk among themselves – sure, there are depictions of male-female romances but these almost always lead up to family life, made up mostly of women (and children). And finally, they might at times discuss men but they talk a lot more about families. If we were to take the Bechdel test at its face value and if I didn’t know any better, one could conclude that Indian soaps are almost feminist for passing the Bechdel test so easily!
The Bechdel test has been criticised for being almost too simplistic. But the Bechdel test cannot be, and I don’t think it was ever meant to be, applied universally. In the context of Indian serials, I’d suppose the Bechdel test assessment would change to something like this – are the women in the serial primarily depicted in relation to a man (daughter, mother, sister, wife); do the women in the serial step outside the home at least once in each episode; and is the main topic of conversation among women their families and the men in their lives?
So for an Indian television serial to pass, it would need to portray women in roles other than their relationship to men (for example, as an engineer) who step out of the house and to talk about something other than families/men (for example, about how difficult it is to take the next step in your career). I can’t think of a single serial that would pass this test even though it’s still a simplistic test.
It is commonly understood that younger people want to emulate adults they interact with and interaction with the media is increasingly an overwhelming part of young peoples’ lives, which is why the issue of whether women in Indian television serials go to work every day or stay at home and cook and look after the children is important. This is not about valuing one over the other but about overwhelmingly representing women in ‘traditional’ roles. In other words, if women were portrayed both as homemakers and as opting for other careers, this wouldn’t be a problem. But, unfortunately, that’s not the case at the moment.
Even the Sanjivani brand of serials, which started off with portraying women and men as doctors (there’s something to be said about selecting that particular career, but that will have to be another post) and the challenges they face in their profession, went on to become all about female rivalry over men. So, young media consumers are faced with an absence of women role models who make their own choices, choose their careers and define themselves in ways other than in relation to men.
Indeed, that is why Sweden has taken the unprecedented step of awarding Bechdel ratings to all movies in the same way as they would be rated for violence, sex, nudity etc. The initiative is supported by the state-funded Swedish Film Institute and some TV channels have committed to showing only films that pass the test. I can’t imagine Indian television channels going for something like this, and understandably so, because if they did, prime time on Indian television would run blank! Hopefully, Sharmila Tagore calling out on this issue will help to draw some attention and encourage good directors to take up the cause of Indian television.