Bhamini Lakshminarayan (M2015MC013)
Dr. Sunitha Chitrapu
13th August, 2015
Mainstream Media and the Essentialised Feminist Discourse
Sainath (1999) writes about the shrinking of the public discourse in news and media coverage, an argument that is founded in the theoretical space formalised by Herman and Chomsky (1988 | 2002) and expounded upon in the Indian eco-political context by Guha Thakurtha (2002). Together, they argue that the discourse is one that is centred around vested economic and political interests that propogate a particular “propaganda,” or dominant discourse. In this context, I wish to biefly look at the mainstream discourse surrounding feminism and women’s rights in India, particularly post the December 16th gang-rape in Delhi, 2012.
The entire discourse around rape in India is covered extensively by the international press. New Delhi is often referred to as the “rape capital of the world.” Maria Wirth, a German in India, has written about how German television extensively covered a rape in India, while a rape in her own locality received no proportional coverage. The recent rape in an Uber Cab in Delhi was covered by the New York Times, while the estimated 700 rapes that occur every day in the United States were not appropriated any space in their newspaper. Before “India’s Daughter” was “Veil of Tears,” which, again, looked upon India with Said’s orientalist gaze. I situate these films and this extensive coverage within Spivak’s argument that “white men save brown women from brown men,” while ignoring the very same instances which occur in their own countries. This very same structure, I argue, is replicated by the mainstream media in Indiain a form of media imperialism, (Fejes, 1981) in which there is the replication of the form of the media, as well as the structures and the gaze in looking at the “entitlements” of the elite, while ignoring the experiences of the Other.
In 2012, one remembers the protests across the country after the infamous “Nirbhaya” rape case. “The rape happened in South Delhi where most of the political and financial elites live, the victim represented ‘us’, she was a medical student and an aspiring member of the middle class,” says Prasun Sonwalka, a veteran journalist. “Every family in India felt, oh my god, this could happen to my daughter,” said Hari Kumar, the New York Times reporter for India covered the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case. However, I argue that “us” that is situated in this context has a particular identity, that is both constructed and appeased by the mainstream media, whose vested interests divert attention away from non-consumerist narratives and more inclusive feminist discourses.
Priyadarshini Matoo, Jessica Lall, and the recent survivor of a rape in an Uber cab in Delhi resonate in our collective consciousness. One remembers the horrific rapes of pre-primary and primary school children that came to light last year in Bangalore. However, our collective consciousness does not seem to include the rape that occured mere hours after the cremation of “Nirbhaya,” where a fifteen year old Dalit girl was held captive for fifteen days and repeatedly raped in a village in Uttar Pradesh. According to one BBC report, in 2007, the majority of all rape victims in India were Dalit girls and women. The daily, state-sponsored crimes inflicted in Naxal areas and areas under AFSPA are under-reported and usually ignored by the mainstream media. The coverage around domestic and sexual abuse does not generally include the married woman, the Muslim woman, the lower class, or the lower caste – or the man. While custodial rape is occasionally covered, rapes of women by middle and upper-class businessmen rarely receive the same treatment. The “us” that Sonwalka has indicated is clearly middle-class, upper caste, educated, and aspirational – the group of citizens that reflect the identities of those in the mainstream media houses, and are the greatest consumers of the mainstream media, culture, and commodity goods (Fernandes, 2000). This is in line with McChesney and Schiller’s (2003) argument that the free press is, in fact, a myth. In this space, the mainstream media Others not the “communist,” as per Chomsky’s fifth filter, but the lower-caste, lower class, non-Hindu, non-metropolitan identity. In line with Fejes, the inequalities that exist within our developing country are reinforced by a replication of the external media imperialist powers.
In furthering this argument, I argue that the industry-backed media that has surrounded the discourse on rape, even on the internet, has persisted in Othering the non-mainstream identity. One needs to merely look at the nature of the recent #VogueEmpower series that was widely circulated on social media platforms. One video, “Going Home,” directed by Vikas Bahl, starring Bollywood star Alia Bhatt, is a classic example of Sainath’s criticism of Bollywood stars taking advantage of the commercial vantage points that participation in particular discourses presents. The thrust of the ad is that the men who pick her up when her car breaks down do not eventually take advantage of her, and we are asked to “give her the world she imagines.” However, this begs the question of who “she” is – evidently middle class; from her cellphone, her private car, her clothing, and the home she is dropped off in front of. Based on the aesthetic choices in the film, the men in the car that picks her up are from a lower economic background – as viewers, the film expects us to be inherently expecting them to have sinister intentions, and to be relieved when they do not. This entire structure, I argue, replicates the dominant discourse of situating the safety of the middle-class woman from sexual violence in the Othering of the lower class/caste man, and situating this at the centre of the feminist discourse. (This, along with Deepika Padukone’s consequent film, on “My Choices,” replicates a certain form of identification of the woman who needs emancipation).
For, undeniably, in the entire space following the 2012 “Nirbhaya” rape in Delhi, the mainstream media has had an increased coverage of instances of rape. However, this has again been criticised by feminists as a shift in the feminist discourse from one of empowerment and equality to one centred around “safety” – a discourse that fulfills and justifies the dominant patriarchal discourse of regulating a woman’s movement and enjoyment of public spaces. Feminist issues such as the occupancy of public space, bodily and sexual autonomy, and economic freedom are trivialised in the mainstream approaches to the right to safety – as recently evidenced by the attack by the Mumbai police on consenting couples in hotel rooms, and the recent recommendation from the High Court that Mumbai local trains have CCTVs installed in them for “women’s safety.” The many struggles of intersectional identities, of Dalit women in particular, are ignored by the idea of “women’s safety” in metropolitan spaces.
The inherent type of news and media coverage that shape both the coverage and the perception is situated within the power structures of the dominant socio-economic powers, as argued by Chomsky, and in this context, is one that I argue demands the “rights” of the middle-class woman – “rights” situated within the inherent inequalities in access to public spaces that exist in Indian society. This is not a case of mass society theory, as argued by Adorno (1975), but a question of what the identity of the active audience really comprises – here, it appears to be the middle-class patriarchally constructed self, that, as Sainath argues controls and restricts the discourse in the media. The ideas reflected by the mainstream media are “manufactured consent” as argued by Chomsky. Consent, a rallying point for feminist activisim, has certainly been manufactured, in constructing an essentialised feminist argument that fights for only safety, and the safety of only the middle-class, educated, “good” woman; reasserting patronising control over her in an attempt to “protect” her; and accusing the Other of attempting to undo it all.
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