Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee

(The writer is Professor, Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) Sanchar Marg, Dhenkanal 759 001, Orissa. This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of the Journalism Online newsletter)

My cousin has an interesting way to guess who among the several women characters in an average Hindi ‘family’ serial is the heroine (good natured one) and who is the vamp (bad natured one). He says the woman wearing a traditional bindi (like a dot) is the heroine, and the woman wearing a dash or any other shaped bindi is the vamp. Nine out of ten times, my cousin is right. That is what you call height of ‘stereotyping’: dot - good, dash - bad.

It is widely alleged that mainstream media have been reinforcing the traditional stereotyped image of women. Before we proceed any further a quick look at the word ‘stereotype’ is warranted to know what it actually means.


A stereotype is defined as creating an oversimplified, false, or generalized portrayal of a group of people. They are often inaccurate and derogatory. Stereotypes prejudge a person’s ability, skills, and personality based on unfair assumptions about racial, physical, or cultural traits.

Media often perpetuates a stereotype by creating a feedback loop of the images projected as desirable. Before analyzing why media does that and what is the fallout, a quick look at the media and its dynamics is called for.


Media is all pervasive now. The roles of media have stretched far beyond the supply of information because of the outreach and technological sophistication. Media influences the process of socialization and shapes ideology and thinking. Although the influence is not all pervasive or total as Magic Bullet Theory of communication[2] liked to believe, but it is there. There are several media theories that explain the phenomenon. Agenda Setting Theory of Communication explains how media can set agenda for people. Then there is framing and priming by media. The concept of framing is related to the agenda setting tradition. However, priming focuses more on the essence of the issues at hand rather than on a particular topic. A frame refers to the way the mass media organise and present events and issues, and the way audiences interpret what they are provided with. Frames are abstract notions that serve to structure social meanings. Frames influence the perception of the event by the public. It not only tells them what to think about, but also how to think about it.

Media can and does play a ‘Status conferral’ role. It means that media can confer status on certain persons and issues through constant mention, no matter whether they really deserve the importance or not. People assume that if something really matters it will be featured in the mass media; so, if it is featured in the mass media, it must really matter. Therefore, they see only those persons and issues as important that are frequently mentioned in the media, even though they may be trifling in nature. Relatively unknown persons acquire some public esteem because the media mention them. Likewise, the issues and groups whom the mass media do not mention remain unknown, even though their achievement may be quite worthwhile.

State of Women in India

The status of women in India has been subject to many great changes over the past few millennia. From a largely unknown status (glorified in certain texts though) in ancient times through the low points of the medieval period, to the promotion of equal rights by many reformers, the history of women in India has been eventful.

Presently, the Constitution of India guarantees to all Indian women equality (Article 14), no discrimination by the State (Article 15(1)), equality of opportunity (Article 16), equal pay for equal work (Article 39(d)). In addition, it allows special provisions to be made by the State in favour of women and children (Article 15(3)), renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women (Article 51(A) (e)), and also allows for provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief. (Article 42).[

 Although women in India enjoy equality and protection in legal terms, they lack their place of pride in the social ladder.  In almost all indicators of development women in India lag behind their counterparts in developed countries, and in many, behind the developing country level.[3] Percentage of female population in India was 48.4, world’s 49.7% and developing countries’ 49.5%. Indian female life expectancy at birth was 64.2% much lower than world’s 68.8%, and developing countries’ 66.4. Female enrollment in primary school in India was 75.7% which is much lower than world’s 85.2% and developing countries’ 83.7%. Female labour force in India was 32.5% (world: 40.8 and developing countries: 40.3 per cent).

If we look at the health scenario, 60 per cent of the women in India are anemic. More women than men die before the age of 35. Maternal deaths in India account for almost 25 percent of the world's child birth-related deaths. In fact maternal mortality rate (MMR) in India is 100 times more than in the developed world. Malnutrition poses a continuing constraint to India's development. Despite improvements in health and well-being, malnutrition remains a silent emergency in India. The World Bank estimates that malnutrition costs India at least US$10 billion annually in terms of lost productivity, illness, and death and is seriously retarding improvements in human development. Despite some improvement, India's women remain significantly more malnourished than men. Bias against women and girls is reflected in the demographic ratio of 933 females for every 1,000 males. The country's maternal mortality rates are very high, particularly in rural areas, ranging from 440 to 580 deaths per 100,000 live births.

Ironically, although malnourished, Women constitute 90 per cent of the total marginal workers of the country. Rural women engaged in agriculture form 78 per cent of all women in regular work. They are a third of all workers on the land. The traditional gender division of labour ensures that these women get on average 30 per cent lower wages than men. The total employment of women in organized sector is only 4 per cent.

In a predominantly male dominated society women in India face gender bias and discrimination and deprivation at every step of her life. Violence against women is a burning issue. So are issues like child marriage, dowry, etc, although there are specific laws prohibiting these customs.

The situation looks bad. But things are improving in health, education and social sector, thanks to Government and Civil society initiative, although there is huge regional and intra-state variation, as seen in NHFS (National Family Health Survey) data. The process of women’s empowerment is on. Despite gender-related socio economic biases, India women are just beginning to discover their power and potential. They are just beginning to assert their identity. 

Women as reflected in Mainstream Media: Devi or Danavi syndrome

Over the past decade, successive studies have attempted map and analyze the ways in which women are portrayed in the media. Her story is not especially positive, showing as it does a pattern of marginal presence on the one hand and stereotyping on the other. For example in 1995 the Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP) organized a simultaneous monitoring of news media on one day across 71 countries in order to explore patterns of gender representation in news. In that study it was discovered that, globally 19 percent of individual featured in news stories were women and that the most popular rolls that they occupied were as victims, mothers and wives. Five year later a second monitoring exercise, undertaken with more or less the same number of countries and over 50,000 separate news items found that the focus of women oriented stories was almost identical to the previous study.

In fact, mainstream media has failed to portray the true image of women despite the fact women have made entries into areas which were once treated as male dominated bastion.  Mainstream media have been reinforcing the traditional stereotype image of submissive, sacrificing women, perpetuating the status-quo. Women are mostly shown as housewives, or even if they are working, as secretaries, stenographers, air hostess, school teachers, receptionists, etc. This, despite the fact that in 2009 as many as five women got Nobel Prize.

On the other hand an aggressive, passionate, ‘all body-no soul’ image of women also finds space, especially in pop culture and advertisement. There is rampant commoditization of women’s bodies, where they are actually being reduced to less than the sum of their body parts. A number of studies show that this description, which appear in a proliferation of advertising that dominates the space of magazines and news papers in much of the world, is quite literally apt: many of today’s adverts display women’s bodies is parts, ‘as buttocks, thighs, legs, breasts, facial skin’. As seen in pop culture, depictions of females are chock full of the predominately white, desperately thin, and scantily clad. And the most terrible part is women are shown enjoying their status as ‘show pieces’.                  

Thus, in mainstream media around the world, including India, there are depictions of two contrasting type of women. In the Indian context, it may be called that women are portrayed either as Devi (goddess) or Danavi (she-demon); either an eternally suffering, sacrificing ‘Mother India’ or a scheming, wily ‘Chudail’; either an asexual being or hyper sexual monster. Increasingly the second avatar is finding more space in mainstream media, especially in popular entertainment media.  

Thin is in. Fair is better.

Articles and advertisements in women’s magazines often paint a picture that if a woman is thinner and more youthful, she’ll have an all-around, more successful life. The picture is so alluring that American women currently invest between $40 to $100 billion dollars annually in the diet industry and are likely to spend on the higher end of the scale if they are insecure.[4] Research shows that exposure to women like the air-brushed and made-up ones depicted in print media is linked to depression, loss of self-esteem, and the development of unhealthy eating habits in women and girls.[5] Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. reported that one out of every four college-aged women use unhealthy methods of weight control, including, fasting, skipping meals, over-exercising, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting. The Canadian Women’s Health Network were shocked and concerned to find that such measures were being taken by children as young as five and six, proving that the pressure to be thin crosses all age demographics. A 2006 study entitled “Appearance in Culture in Nine-Twelve Year Old Girls: Peer and Media Influences on Body Dissatisfaction” showed that almost half of all pre-adolescent girls want to be thinner and have engaged in and are aware of dieting concepts. In 2003, Teen Magazine reported that thirty-five percent of girls ages 6-12 have been on at least one diet.  The study also showed that five to seven out of ten normal weight girls believe they are fat. The number of girls who seek Barbie Doll-esque proportions is a fast growing epidemic. In 2006, it was estimated that over 450,000 Canadian women were affected by an eating disorder. Modern models weigh twenty-three percent less than the average woman, compared to twenty years ago when they were only eight- percent lighter. This is also happening in India- in popular television serials, films and advertisements. The mass media barrages women with the idea that the female form is something to perfected. Real bodies have become almost invisible in mass publications. Many women choose to internalize these stereotypes and begin to solely judge themselves by the media’s standards. The over-depiction of thin women in the mass media has eventually caused women to equate physical and sexual attractiveness with the physique.

The Sexualization

The media puts shockingly profound pressure on women to be both sexually active and attractive, daily, through ads, television, and  cinema. Consider this: thirty-eight percent of female video game characters are dressed in a risqué manner, with 23 percent baring breasts and cleavage, 31 percent exposing thighs and mid-drifts, respectively, and the remaining 15 percent baring their backs.[6] Women’s bodies are used to sell almost anything that can be advertised. It is often argued that these ads are only presented to grab consumers’ attention. The fact that sole body parts are often focused on, further reinforces the objectifying.

Sexual Violence

The media is often accused of infantilizing women, making them appear weak and helpless. Being vulnerable is often equated with being a potential victim of such violence. Some advertisements are criticized of implying that they don’t really mean “no” when objecting to sexual advances and are only teasing, the most famous example of this being a fragrance called Fetish. This infamously read, "Apply generously to your neck so he can smell the scent as you shake your head “no”.

Coverage of Women’s Issues

Women's issues in the Indian media are still, by and large, seen as narrow, niche issues and covered as such as dramatic or lurid cases of violence or discrimination and continue to receive more coverage than other equally important issues. Superficiality, sensationalism and insensitivity frequently mark such coverage while serious coverage of significant gender-related events is often lost in the carpet coverage accorded to trivial pursuits.

Though the number of female professionals have increased dramatically in the last two decades, there are still some discrepancies when it comes to news coverage. The press often relies on men to report on business, politics, and economics. Women are more often than not are covered issues such as accidents, natural disasters, and domestic violence, as opposed to stories of personal achievement. Women in politics are often given less media coverage than their male counterparts. If they do indeed get coverage, the stories often involve the domestic aspects of the woman’s life as opposed to her actual political positions and other important campaign information.[7]

Inadequate women’s coverage seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. In 2000 the Association of Women Journalists (Association des femmes journalistes – AFJ) studied news coverage of women and women’s issues in 70 countries. It reported that only 18 per cent of stories quote women, and that the number of women-related stories came to barely 10 per cent of total news coverage. In the realm of talk shows, studies done on “Meet the Press” and “Face the Nation” showed than only 9% of the total guests were female. The women were also seen to be given 10% of the speaking while on the show.[8] 

Women involved in politics are often stereotyped by and put down by the press as being “witchy”. The best example being Hilary Clinton has been referred to as such more than fifty times in her political career.[9] A look at the grossly disproportionate number of women MPs in our Parliament will speak volumes on the real political power that women enjoy in our country.

Impact of Distorted Portrayals

The idea of women as autonomous and equal citizens is sanctioned in our public sphere through the media, even as the media also endorses the idea that women are around to be gazed at through advertisements, films, contests, and the like. Women are paying a price for this contradiction. As Shoma Chatterjee writes in her article ‘Behind the lessening of true potential’, “Patriarchy therefore established and perpetuated the myth that men make knowledge and women keep and maintain traditions.”[10]

There are other fall outs of the distorted portrayals, like:

¡        Social disorder: The distorted portrayal is giving rise to man-woman disconnect, which might lead to social disorder.

¡        Perpetuating the stereotype: Media by portraying a particular picture of women and making it desirable is constructing a feedback loop, to reinforce the desirability of the image.

¡        Creating a distorted self-image: Media does not only influence the social image of women but also their self-image. Most women are themselves uncritical consumers of anti-women media. Media affects their socialization process, it influences their choices regarding what they consume and wear, how they behave, what they learn, and to what they ultimately become. By doing so media has clearly discouraged the emergence of a new woman, a new man and a new relationship between them. . Such a treatment of women by the media instead of reducing their isolation, increases it further. Instead of empowering women, it weakens them. Women remain unheard, unrepresented and more 'uncommunicable' than before.

¡        Reinforcing biases in development plans, and thus slowing down the developmental process: Media reinforces the conservative view of women and ignores their economic participation and contribution, especially that of rural women, over 50% of whom are directly involved in economic activities, in addition to housework and childcare. All this means that media, instead of challenging the view that women are inferior, subservient, unimportant, reinforces it and it establishes man as the active force, the doer, the one who matters. The needs and concerns, the problems they face are not articulated publicly, no public thinking and debates are initiated on their real concerns. Because their concerns and interests remain unarticulated in the print, women also remain neglected. There is a 'symbolic annihilation' the consequence of a combination of condemnation, trivialization and absence as far as communication support to women's developments in India is concerned.

¡        Affects women empowerment: By creating a particular image of women, media hinders women empowerment.

Is there a way out?

Yes. There is. And, on second thought, no. Probably there is no way out. Unless… Before I lay out the conditionality, let us see are there any legal and/or other provisions to prevent the stereotyping.


As Rani Prem Kumar writes in her article ‘Law, Women and Advertisements’[11] there is no dearth of laws in India to protect women. In fact it is often alleged that law in India is tilted in favour of women.  Here are some specific acts to safeguard indecent portrayal of women.

§         Indecent representation of women (Prohibition) act 1986: The law relating to obscenity is codified in the IPC.

§         The Information Technology Act, 2000: Section 67 of the IT Act is the most serious legislative measure against pornography.

§         Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995: It prohibits the transmission of advertisements on the cable network which are not in conformity with the Advertisement Code. The Advertisement Code is set out under Rule 7 of the Cable Television Network Rules. 

In spite of these provisions (and there are more), the indecent representation of women continues. The problem is with implementation of the laws.

Statutory Bodies

In India there are at least two statutory bodies, which can go into these issues.

¡        Human Rights Commission: The National Human Rights Commission and the State Human Rights Commission can look into violations of dignity of women, even in advertisements. S. 2 (d) of the Protection Of Human Rights Act, 1993, defines human rights as the rights relating to life, liberty, equality, and dignity of an individual guaranteed in the Constitution or embodied in the international Covenants and enforceable by Courts in India. The NHRC has taken cognizance of certain infringements of dignity of women in advertisements.

¡        The Press Council of India: The Press Council Of India is a statutory body established by the Press Council Of India Act, 1978, for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the Press and of maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India. S. 14 of the Act gives the power to censure.

Civil Society Organisations

Other organizations and bodies including National and State Women commissions, Women Groups and NGOs can play an important role in curbing the menace of indecent representation of Women in Advertisements. As a result of a collaborative effort between the National Commission for Women, the various State Commissions in different parts of the country and several non-government organizations working for the empowerment of women, media watch groups are being set up in various cities for continuous and sustained monitoring of portrayal of women in the media

Self Regulation

In India, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) is a self regulatory voluntary organization of the advertising industry. The Role and Functioning of the ASCI & its CCC are in dealing with complaints received from Consumers and Industry, against Advertisements which are considered as False, Misleading, Indecent, Illegal, leading to Unsafe practices, or Unfair to competition, and consequently in contravention of the ASCI Code for Self-Regulation in Advertising.

The public can play an important role in curbing the indecent representations of women in advertisements, by objecting to it and by choosing not to remain silent.

News Media

The news media is the watch dog of justice. News media can play an important role in protesting the indecent and/or stereotyped representation of women in the media.

Mainstream news media is gradually waking up to the fact that women’s’ issues need sensitive handling. Several news media houses and media agencies have devised guidelines on how to report on women’s issues. The Reuters General Style Guide emphasises on use of right kind of language while reporting on gender related issues[12]. IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) guideline for reporting violence against women also urges journalists to use accurate, non-judgmental language. It says that sensitive reporting means ensuring that contact for media interview meets the needs of the survivor and urges the journalists to treat the survivor with respect and maintain confidentiality. [13]

Here are some suggestions for the media (taken from several media house guidelines)

Media should

  • Promote Gender sensitive language, sites and domains
  • Support to cultural sensitivities that promote gender rights.
  • Incorporate a gender consultant and committee on board to mainstream, audit and screen gender representation and portrayal.
  • Ensure gender diversity across all job capacities.
  • Ensure capacity building of journalists through several gender sensation programmes.
  • Define procedures for dealing with sexual harassment in a balanced way.
  • Incorporate gender into relevant issues rather than isolate and deal with gender as a weekly page, column or programme specific issue.
  • Address gender rather than being women centric.
  • Lay down guidelines to deal with cases of gender violence to protect victim interests.

Media should not

¡        Use of femininity or masculinity as a brand

¡        Use of stereotypes, symbols, myths that portray dominant notions of male-female differentiation

¡        through roles, norms, values and practices particularly in spheres of authority, decision-making and sexuality

¡        Caution against imaging women as cultural repositories of a particular ethnic or social group

¡        Check against promoting violent masculinity as a value

¡        Blanket privileging of group identities over gender identities


Indian society is full of diversified cultures, traditions and beliefs. Our mass media's role as a social constructor and representative of people has greater responsibility in binding these complexities of culture and processes with the people of the society.

In India as a whole the status of women is undergoing a perceptible change. Women entering the labour market are on the rise, there is increase in the number of educated women, and heightened awareness of their mobilization to fight discrimination.

The role of women in the family life has undergone significant changes. As an educated housewife or as a working woman she has acquired a respectable place in society by her own merit and effort. Mainstream media should reflect the image of the new, emancipated but responsible women, in stead of stereotyping women according to the dot or dash of their bindis.   


[1] The term stereotype came into vogue during the industrial age in Europe. Two printers invented a new way to reproduce images that would fix them permanently. The process was called stereotyping. In course of time, the word came to be applied to the fixing of intellectual as opposed to printed images. American columnist Walter Lippman adopted the term ‘stereotype’ in the 1920s to describe rigid ideas that many use as justification for treating all members of a group in an identical manner. Lacking the time and patience to probe, the mass media often seek a short cut to define a complicated process. They pick up selective traits of a person and attribute his individual qualities to all members of his group. Regardless of diversities among its members, a tiny sample comes to represent the entire group.

[2] Magic Bullet Theory or Hypodermic Needle Theory thought messages disseminated through media are some kind of magic bullet, which hit the audience and influence them.

[3] World Bank Report, 2002

[4] Beauty

[5] Beauty

[6] Sex

[7] Media

[8] Media

[10] Chatterjee Soma, Behind the lessening of true potential, May5, 2006

[12] Reuters Handbook of Journalism, April 2008. “Do not use language that perpetuates sexual, racial, religious or other stereotypes. Such language is offensive, out of date and often simply inaccurate. A person’s gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or marital status should not be cited unless it is relevant to the story. Even then, consideration must be given to where in the story such information needs to be placed. It is wrong to assume that police, fire fighters or soldiers are men. Police is shorter than policemen anyway. Do not describe a woman’s dress or hairstyle where you would not describe a man’s. Where possible use the same term for men and women, e.g. mayor or poet, not mayoress or poetess. Use chairman, chairwoman not chair; spokesman, spokeswoman not spokesperson”.

[13] IFJ Guidelines for Reporting on Violence Against Women. Contact IFJ:, 00 32 235 22 16

1. Identify violence against women accurately through the internationally accepted definition in the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

2. Use accurate, non-judgmental language. For instance, rape or sexual assault is not in any way to be associated with normal sexual activity; and trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution. Good journalists will strike a balance when deciding how much graphic detail to include. Too much may be sensationalist and can be gratuitous; too little can weaken the victim’s case. At all times, the language of reporting should avoid suggestions that the survivors may be to blame, or were otherwise responsible for the attack or acts of violence against them.

3. People who suffer in such an ordeal will not wish to be described as a ‘victim’ unless they use the word themselves. The use of labels can be harmful. A term that more accurately describes the reality of a person who has suffered in this way is ‘survivor.’

4. Sensitive reporting means ensuring that contact for media interview meets the needs of the survivor. A female interviewer should be on hand and the setting must always be secure and private, recognising that there may be a social stigma attached. Media must do everything they can to avoid exposing the interviewee to further abuse. This includes avoiding actions that may undermine their quality of life or their standing in the community.

5. Treat the survivor with respect. For journalists this means respecting privacy, providing detailed and complete information about the topics to be covered in any interview, as well as how it will be reported. Survivors have the right to refuse to answer any questions or not to divulge more than they are comfortable with. Journalists should make themselves available for later contact; providing contact details to interviewee will ensure they are able to keep in contact if they wish or need to do so.

6. Use statistics and social background information to place the incident within the context of violence in the community, or conflict. Readers and the media audience need to be informed of the bigger picture. The opinion of experts on violence against women such as the DART centre will always increase the depth of understanding by providing relevant and useful information. This will also ensure that media never give the impression that violence against women has an inexplicable tragedy that cannot be solved.

7. Tell the whole story: sometimes media identify specific incidents and focus on the tragic aspects of it, but reporters do well to understand that abuse might be part of a long-standing social problem, armed conflict, or part of a community history.

8. Maintain confidentiality: as part of their duty of care media and journalists have an ethical responsibility not to publish or broadcast names or identify places that in any way might further compromise the safety and security of survivors or witnesses. This is particularly important when those responsible for violence are the police, or troops in a conflict, or agents of the state or government, or people connected with other large and powerful organisations.

9. Use local resources: Media who take contact with experts, women groups and organisations on the ground about proper interviewing techniques, questions and places will always do good work and avoid situations – such as where it is unacceptable for male camera workers or reporters to enter a secluded place – which can cause embarrassment or hostility. There is always virtue in reporters educating themselves on the specific cultural contexts and respect them.

10. Provide Useful Information: reports that include details of sources and the contact details of local support organizations and services will provide vital and helpful information for survivors/witnesses and their families and others who may be affected.

26 October, 2009

journalism online