In late December 2012, the large numbers of women and men on the streets of India who have responded to the violent rape of a student in the Indian capital of Delhi have captured the frames of most mainstream Indian media. The topic of rape has occupied the frame in large circulation English language dailies, vernacular media, 24-7 television channels, and special news programs, each offering its unique insight on rape and broader protests.
These media outlets, along with their sting operation journalists, investigative reporters, cult-like investigative anchors and staged political debates have framed the conversation on rape, defining the parameters for debate, engaging with questions such as: What kinds of processes should be set in place to ensure that perpetrators are punished? What should be the right level of punishment for the perpetrator?
The broader discourse in these mainstream media outlets, targeting a burgeoning English-speaking middle class in the metros of India has sought to examine the underlying reasons for rape in India.
The spectacle of protest has ensured a regular flow of ratings for the media channels, ensuring that the media crews and talk shows have fodder to discuss and critically analyze the various problems with Indian society. Questions being raised played out the dichotomy of tradition versus modernity, pointing toward the need for India to update its traditions to be at pace with the modern economy it has been becoming.
In almost all of these so-called penetrating question sessions that were interrogating the soul of the nation state with a critical eye, the media houses conveniently ignored the question: What is the role of the media in perpetuating gender injustice and gender violence?
I was in India when the protests were taking place.
What I was struck by the most was the inherent gap between the language of gender justice on the media and the broader environment of gender injustice perpetrated by the very media. News content decrying the violence was juxtaposed amid television soaps that portrayed women as markers of desire, as plotting mother-in-laws, and scheming sister-in-laws. Ads that carried the economic rationality of the programs depicted women mostly as things to be consumed, as objects glorifying the brand being promoted.
Perhaps the strongest depiction of this hypocrisy was in the front page coverage of the protests juxtaposed amid images of women being sold for New Year’s parties, entertainment shows promising Russian dancers, and glossy images of the desirably portrayed Mumbai jockey Shilpa Reddy touching her bust as if to invite in the male gaze for a spanking rendezvous.
Advertisements sponsored by Kingfishers and Absolut invited to transport viewers/participants of the metropolis to the heat-filled dance floors of Miami.
In another instance, the same version of the newspaper carrying stories about protest with themes such as “I protest” also promised its readers the Playboy fantasy and the festive promise of “Woman’s World,” depicting a model seductively posing in a Sari.
In the last three weeks, I have been inspired by the number of young men and women who have taken to the streets of Delhi and across India and across the globe to protest gender violence. I have learned a great deal from the many blogs and social media posts that have been made by friends and colleagues.
This is a time to raise important questions about the nature of gender injustices in our societies. And as we do so, I very much hope that we can begin a discussion about the role our media play in perpetuating, embodying, and modeling gender injustice.
As media houses raise questions about the roots of gender injustice, I hope that they turn the critical eye on their own complicity in perpetuating the culture of rape and gender injustice. Our conversations collectively need to question the extent to which the culture of the market, built into advertising revenues and program ratings will continue to perpetuate the rape of women as long as large cross-sections of consumers will buy these images as desirable.
Tradition-bound or wired toward the golden calls of modernity, to the extent that our societies continue to see women as objects to be consumed, they will perpetuate the same injustices that we seek to protest. Protest then will remain another source of ratings for media houses that are in the business of selling women, simultaneously selling gender violence and protests against gender violence as both will sell in the free market of images, symbols, and desires.