Bhamini Lakshminarayan | M2015MC013
Dr. Sunitha Chitrapu
11th September, 2015
Consuming Resistance: The Political Economy of the Media and Women
In 1991, India’s Balance of Payments crisis ushered in the era of the IMF/World Bank-mandated conditionalities of economic reform that were focussed on macroeconomic stabilisation, liberalisation, privatisation, and deregulation. This resulted in various consequences that are still being debated, among these being a change in the media that we now consume and create. The liberalised media has shaped the discourses that we consume and create today, shaping them into different forms than those that were prevalent in the pre-liberalised era. Drawing from the ideas I found most relevant in the readings prescribed for this course, I use Adorno (1975), Fejes (1981), McChesney and Schiller (2003), Fernandes (2000), Straubhaar (2003), Chomsky (1988), and Habermas (1989) in an attempt to place the discourse surrounding the women’s movement in India within the nexus of the liberalising political economy and the media.
The wave of feminism in the 1970’s and 1980’s in India focused on the exclusion of women in representational and public spaces, and their consequent lack of political power rendering their existence and arguments nearly invisible; this movement focussed on collective needs. In contrast, the newly liberalised movement is one that focusses more upon the needs of individual sexuality and agency – a change which I locate within the newly consumer-oriented economic space, within which, I argue, the market claims that the needs of today’s woman can met by specific consumption patterns described and reflected by the media.
At first, one must note Fernandes’ (2000) argument of the pivotal location of the rising middle class in generating the media that is consumed. The class which has had the education and the means to be employed in the booming (at least, until the 2008 recession) service sector has come to also be a part of this middle class. A consequence of this change in economic position is arguably a change in the family structures, with a pioritisation of nuclear, smaller families and dual-income households. Within the competitive neo-liberal space, the demand for collective rights no longer bears the same promise. Furthermore, the consumption power that these women now possess has caused a sudden mushrooming of products whose primary demographic is the “modern” working woman (or those who aspire to be one).
Fejes’ (1981) media imperialism notes the idea that the dominant discourse of the neo-imperialist powers is replicated and restructured within the developing country, reinforcing existing structures of inequality. This has occured at several points in the neo-liberal women’s movement, as I have argued about the essentialisation of the “women’s safety” question in a previous response, Consent, Manufactured: Mainstream Media and the Essentialised Feminist Discourse. Narratives that do not occupy the same socio-cultural status, whose narrators do not have the same consumption power, are not given their due accordance by the mainstream media.
McChesney and Schiller (2003) locate this within the idea of the “myth of the free press,” arguing that the press is owned and controlled by a handful of oligopolistic entitites. These entitites have now extended their reach into the developing world through the processes of liberalisation. The television shows, the media channels, the music, the magazines, the literature that the middle class consumes are heavily influenced by the American and British mainstream, if they are not directly supplied by the American and British mainstream media houses. Within these, one can see the work of “glocalisation” as described by Straubhaar (2003). For instance, a comparison between the British and the Indian covers of the September issue of Vogue magazine reflects the glocalisation of the construction of the middle class woman. While the earth-toned UK edition of the magazine features Beyonce, the Indian edition features a similar colour palette featuring Katrina Kaif. Interestingly, both headline stories feature the phrase “Fall Edition,” despite the fact that most of India does not receive the sort of weather that is referred to in temperate climates as “fall.”
Chomsky’s (1988) propaganda model actively works at the construction of the middle class woman’s identity, often referred to as “traditional with a modern outlook.” Through the various media sources, certain types of “modern” behaviour are valourised (academic and professional ambition, dressing in Western clothes, speaking in English) while certain “traditional” behaviour is still emphasised (filial respect, matrimonial and motherly aspirations). This is evidenced by the style in which advertisements portray women today – while constructing the identity of the middle class woman, it is also indicated that she can only occupy and maintain this position through active consumption. A case in point is the “Boss Film” Airtel ad that was released last year. This advertisement features the relationship between a man and his boss, a short haired woman in a smart business suit, who enforces a strict deadline which causes him to remain at work well after she has left. Later on in the ad, we discover that this relationship goes beyond the office and into the home – the boss is, in fact, his wife, who cooks dinner for him and sends him a photograph via her smartphone. Ultimately, she asks him to tell his boss that his wife wants him home. I, along with many feminists, argue that this particular portrayal of the relationship between the couple is problematic, not least because of its stereotyping of the dualistic role that modern women are expected to play, but also because of the particular position the traditional woman is supposed to prioritise. Returning to my argument that consumption drives the construction of this identity, the entire ad revolves around the usefulness of the Airtel-powered smartphone, without which we are led to assume the wife would not have been able to communicate this other facet of her identity to her husband – thus, it almost argues that for a woman to be truly idependent and successful, she also requires the consumption of these commodities in order to maintain the essence of her personal life.
Adorno’s (1975) culture industry is at work through this all, in the synthesis of the political ideologies, the fusing of high and low art forms, and the adoption and propogation of the virtues of the neo-liberal market system. However, an extension of Habermas (1989) comes in as a critique of this culture industry, in which women make use of the public space of the internet to voice narratives and assert identities that are not a part of the mainstream political discourse, as I have noted in my response The “Public”: Its Composition and Negotiation by Women. Again, it must be noted that to have access to the internet and its public space, one must also have access to the capital required in order to purchase a computer and an internet connection, or at least a data-enabled phone and an internet package.
All of these factors can be examined together and in far greater detail than I have gone into in this response. What the action of the political economy of the media in a liberalised India results in, I argue, is the construction of a middle-class womanhood that dominates our idea of the relevant and meaningful. As Sainath (1997) argues about the shrinking space for discourse, there is a shrinking space for the claiming of women’s rights that are not located within the individualistic patterns of neo-liberal society. This response does not claim or attempt to criticise this, as the writer, too, is a product of this paradigm and fully believes in the value of these facets of independent womanhood. The right to drink, to smoke, to take risks, to loiter, to dress in any manner of choosing, to have multiple sexual partners, to choice, are intrinsically valuable, and also chip away at the pillars of the patriarchal hegemony we live in. However, one must note the impact of the economy on the media we consume, and the consequent restructuring of our approach to our rights in India today, which privileges the individual consumer of commodities and rights over the collective, active resistor of dominant sociological structures.
Adorno, T. W., & Rabinbach, A. G. “Culture Industry Reconsidered”. New German Critique, 6 (Autumn). 1975.
Fejes, Fred. “Media Imperialism: An Assessment”. Media, Culture, & Society, 3. 1981. Sage Publications. Print.
Fernandes, L. “Nationalizing `the global’: media images, cultural politics and the middle class in India.”
Media, Culture & Society 22, 5. 2000. Sage Publications. Print.
Habermas, J. Introduction: Preliminary demarcation of a type of bourgeois public sphere. The
Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (pp. 1-26). 1962 (1989). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Print.
Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass
Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988 (2002). Print.
McChesney, Robert W. and Schiller, Dan. The Political Economy of International Communcations. 2003.
United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. Print.
Sainath, P. “Shrinking Spaces, New Places.” Seminar 481 (1999): n. pag. Print.
Straubhaar, J. “Choosing National TV: Cultural Capital, Language, and Cultural Proximity in Brazil. World
Television: From Gloval to Local. 2003. Print.