Pooja Arora

Communication and Commodification  of  Gender 
The ‘telos’ of culture is ‘change for the good’. Information overflow and development of communication technology has caused a never-seen-before type socio-cultural regulation. Mass media is notorious for reproducing truth in a manner that commodifies everything and constructs reality with ‘moolah’ as its end: a representation of mass culture, which when decoded becomes the popular culture. Communication theorists also suggest that media products regulate mass culture. Taking both the views into consideration, one can say that mass media creates a vicious circle that can be credited with ‘cultural commodification’ and ‘regulatory nature of culture’. Development of communication technology has re-defined gender stereotypes and relationships, especially with regards to how people connect and view each other. The purpose of this paper is to try and create an ethical theory of visualizing gender in mass communication taking into perspective subjective decoding as when media products become an item in the list of ‘confirmation bias’ of a person, either magic or blunders are created.

Any attempt aimed towards establishing an ethical theory of representation of gender in communication media taking subjective decoding into consideration will first involve an analysis of a particular universe of media products of different categories and then will theorise on the black, white and grey areas of the same. Stuart Hall’s communication circuit has been the prime inspiration of this attempt to theorise a way to reduce ‘subjective interpretation’ to the maximum. The need for such a theory is based in the trends of the effects of pseudo-individualization. For instance, the ‘zero-size mania’ or ‘macho-fair and handsome man’, have become common ‘ideals’. The pouting selfie is trending on social media, while a fairly large number of youth are trying to emulate SRK and Salman Khan from ‘Don 2’ and ‘Dabangg 2’ or Kareena Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai from ‘Tashan’ and ‘Dhoom 2’ respectively. Media defines the manner in which people look at them and others, which combined with the pressures of an industrialized and globalised life, can induce psychological oppression resulting in an incurable or probably even undetectable mental injury causing poor cognition, low productivity and an even lower self-esteem.

This paper will first analyse the changing nature of gender relations and perceptions in media in a holistic perspective, then will elucidate the inspiration taken from Stuart Hall’s communication circuit, moving on to an analyses of gender perceptions in cinema, going on to the channel ‘Colors’ as a case study on daily soaps, then will analyse pseudo individualisation in advertising, and finally will try to theorize a manner of reducing subjective interpretation and will examine if ethics and ‘meaning in the message’ can be entwined at all.

‘Ram-Seeta’ to ‘Ram-Leela’

Gender is the manifestation of the perceptions of the masculine and feminine in a society. From times immemorial, Ram has been the ideal man and Seeta, the ideal woman (the terms are connotative) both of who are more of cultural manufactures and perhaps an early attempt at ‘idealisation’. India is predominantly a patriarchal society and that had been the dominant-hegemonic idiom of the media. The shy, submissive, sari-clad, sacrificing, chaste woman and the filially devoted, dominating, suit-clad man, but the past decade has seen a drastic change in these stereotypes which have been challenged by characters like Veronica from Cocktail (2012), Gayatri from Shuddh Desi romance (2013), and Leela from Ram Leela (2013), the independent thinking, bold and expressive women  and the like who are presented in direct contrast to their counterparts in men and other women who are still dealing with an identity crisis and ethical revaluation. The perceptions of masculinity have changed as well wherein the ‘ultra-ethical’ Ram has been replaced by ‘ultra-flexible’ Raghu (SDR). The traditional division of labour has also been challenged, surprisingly by a new genre of daily soaps (this paper will take the channel ‘colors’ as a case study) including ‘Madhubala-Ek Ishq Ek Junoon’, ‘Balika Vadhu’, and ‘Na Bole Tum na Mene Kuch kaha’. And even though there is a shift, the body of the male and female is becoming the site where ‘self’ and ‘other’ are being contested.

The challenge to dominant-hegemonic notions is real. But what impact can such a challenge have and to what extent will the audience be receptive to it? Will the meaning encoded in the message be decoded correctly? Or will one see the message being misinterpreted as portrayed in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur II’ where in one of the characters repeats in a bold scene with a female friend, “ek ladka aur ek ladki kabhi dost nahi ho sakte” (a woman and a man can never be just friends). If a corollary to this is to be applied, the SDR should point towards a diminishing utility of love, but that didn’t happen or, did it?

Stuart Hall’s Communication circuit:

Stuart Hall’s essay on encoding and decoding is the initiation to ‘audience reception’. He advocates a four-step communication theory: production, circulation, consumption, and reproduction, wherein each stage enjoys ‘relative autonomy’. This refers to the fact that the coding of the message does control its reception but not transparently. Each stage has its own determining limits and possibilities. In actual social existence, this would mean that each stage is dictated by its own ‘structures of dominance’ as at each stage a pattern of institutional power-relations is in place. So it could mean that what is encoded may not fit or loosely fit the power relations at the consumption point. In this manner, the communication circuit reproduces a pattern of domination.

In simple terms, at the production point the image of the woman may be encoded as the modern-day independent professional, which is popular urban culture and it may or may not be understood by a family in a rural sphere which still believes in the traditional modes of division of labour. Another situation which arises is that a woman from that very rural sphere is able to attain what the ‘image’ had achieved in the encoded message and she becomes an ideal to emulate for all the women in the village. So then the encoded dominant-populist urban culture would turn into the mass culture of the village.

Hall also talks about the concept of selective perception, a concept that has been known to find significant clustering of perceptions across different individuals, and is the basic premise of audience research. According to him, there are three different kinds of hypothetical positions from which the decoding of a televisual discourse may be constructed:

The dominant-hegemonic position, the negotiated code and the oppositional code. As the names suggest the dominant-hegemonic position is constructed when the viewer interprets the meaning as has been intended by the encoder, the former is where the viewer decodes by negotiating between the dominant and what is convenient to him and the latter wherein any dominant code is met with opposition during decoding.

‘What comes after love and before commitment?’

The answer is not a very difficult one. It is fascinating to see the amount of seduction and the sexually explicit nature of the audio and the visual in cinema. Not that such boldness was non-existent earlier. There have been stalwarts of the game; Helen, Dimple Kapadia and Suchitra Sen to name a few and songs like ‘bahon mein chale aao’, ‘yeh mera dil pyaar ka deewana’ and ‘chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko’ are legendary. But the dominant paradigm in those decades of hindi cinema was a saintly man and a sati-savitri woman. The dominant paradigm today discards the sati-savitris but fails to recognize the thin line between seductive and vulgar. From ‘jaane do na’ to ‘ang laga de re’ is a great leap; more towards the positive but so is the leap from ‘tumse mili nazar’ to ‘chikni chameli’ and most audience researchers would not consider it to be a positive leap.

Cinema is cashing on the popular culture of live-in, open relationships, casual relationships, and one - night stands and like. But how positive a leap this is, remains to be proved. Popular culture is known to become mass culture, but may take a derogatory form too wherein intimacy is degraded to a vulgar kind of sexual anarchism.

The SDR, though, is a pragmatic step to catch the ‘hidden affairs’ of Indian youth in action. The title track of the movie says, and rightly so, “jhute samajo mein, jhute riwazon mein liye hi jaye koi chance”. The characters of Gayatri and Raghu, shown to be sharing a bond and yet nothing conventional between them (“tere mere beech mein kya hai…ummmm baatein?”) is a new step and a representation of something very real. Both characters come out as independent individuals who are averse to marriage and are looking for a companion and not the conventional lover. But shown caught in the Indian-ness of his character is Gautam (played by Saif Ali Khan) in Cocktail (2012) who choses Meera, the woman who is desi and will be accepted by his mother instead of Veronica, who shares a close friendship and casual sex with him. Nothing is wrong with Veronica, as is perhaps portrayed (or decoded by some) when she plays the martyr and gets Gautam and Meera back together. It’s the Indian-ness that is being questioned. Men still get the freedom to be flirty. Its not acceptable when a woman behaves the same way (even though the movie is based in London). Hence, SDR proves to be such a great leap forward in the portrayal of love, sex and relationships in cinema. The women in the movie are bolder than the guy. (Treat for the feminists). There is equality, fun, companionship and friendship between the lead couple. But if decoded, will the encoded message reach? Was SDR just a romantic comedy?

Decoding ‘COLORS’

The Channel Colors has an image of doing creative and unique things. From Golden Petal Awards to Balika Vadhu, every programme they manufacture, they have made a mark (at least in the intent). The show with the highest TRPs on the channel is Balika Vadhu, which surprisingly enough for a daily soap opera has moved beyond the typical saas-bahu conflict plot to involve bigger questions about the conflicts in the lives of people. The character of Anandi as the perfect ‘daughter-in-law’, the transformation of Jagdish from a brat to a family man, the evolution of the grandmother (dadi-sa, the head of family), is inspiring enough. But there is a persona conflict that the characters go through, which leads to the portrayal negative behaviour, and people of almost all ages watch these soaps.

For instance, when Madhubala (Dhrashti Dhami) does not stand up for her rights as a wife and accepts everything that her mother-in-law (Pabbo) asks her to do, she is secretly asking the viewer to decode that an ideal daughter-in-law should remain silent and go through every irrational atrocity to protect her family (stress on irrational). Another negative aspect of behaviour comes out when SSK’s (Sasural Simar ka) famous daughter-in-laws fight to protect the irrational family customs in ways which would seem foolish to any rational and yet considered ideal by the ‘Bharadwaj parivaar’ (Bharadwaj family). From the perspective of decoding, SSK is not such a positive soap to watch as it might prompt the irrational traditions to be respected only because they are traditions, while Madhubala is and proclaimed to be a love story (which has now turned into ‘The adventures of RK and Madhu) is a matter of selective perception, and Balika Vadhu, the characters have become a little old and the plot is a too stretched but yes, it is perhaps the only soap that talks of the development of the individual. The message in the latter is simple and hence the denotation and connotation would not be, in every positive circumstance, misinterpreted.

When it comes to daily soaps, things have moved beyond the traditional saas-bahu (hindu) dramas. Various cultures and religions are being incorporated while offbeat plots are coming up, encoded in simple, developmental symbols which are probably not going to impact negatively.

 “Give in to the touch”- Pseudo-individualisation

            Advertisements-perhaps the biggest culprits in creating images of the self and the body-for –other in the mind. Even though advertisements have shown an inclination towards the positive, a major part of them remains dominated by the hegemonic stereotypes of masculine and feminine. The fair, the desirable, angel who is attracted to the macho, fair, tall guy with either engage deo or the axe one.

The process of pseudo-individualisation works in a peculiar manner.  A set of qualities are attached to a product and the product is made the representation of your personality. So, a lipstick of lakme is for the working 9-5 woman and the one by maybeline is for ‘baby lips’.
(even though its just about the lipstick). Such a phenomenon is responsible for the extreme inferiority complex experienced by some and obseophobias and other psychological diseases. The presentation of a perfect life due to the product is something that keeps creating a void in the mind of the viewer, and such a void, today is supplemented by the social media where ‘pretty is the popular’. Advertisers nowadays make use of ‘selfie-mania’ via online competitions. And if your selfie does not get ‘likes’, you are stamped as non-desirable, which again becomes the key to a cycle of low self esteem and psychological oppression.

And even though advertisers, somewhere, are taking baby steps towards making people see the beauty, it will never become the hegemonic paradigm which is dominated by a few MNCs in a monopolistic structure (not to be confused with monopoly) who want people to think of themselves in a certain way so that they can keep ‘selling’ their products. And here there is nothing but psychological oppression to decode. There cannot be negotiated or oppositional decoding.

Reduction of the ‘Subjective interpretation’

Any negation of subjective interpretation would refer to the negation of selective perception which in turn will form a part of the critique of audience reception studies, which is not acceptable as there is no logical explanation to the non-existence of the former. But reducing subjective interpretation and entwining ethics with message of the programme or the media product is possible through an increase in the ‘framework of knowledge’ the encoders so as to reduce the impact of institutional power relations on the ‘meaning structure 1’ via surveys, experiments and psycho-analytic studies and the strengthening of the feedback mechanism, so as to destroy the ‘imagined market-scape of gender’ and create something that is more natural and realistic.


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