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Refashioning India: Gender, Media, and a Transformed Public Discourse a book by Maitrayee Chaudhuri tells the story of the unfolding changes in India’s public discourse after 1991. It highlights the fact that the dramatic growth and transformation of media post liberalisation made it a central site and ideological apparatus in the making of a new social imagery of the Indian nation and the notion of gender.

The book comprises twelve chapters, written and published in the span of twenty-five years. It comprises of an exhausting analysis of the many newspapers, magazines, dailies, television shows, advertisements, and textbooks.

Image source: Orient Black Swan

Maitrayee Chaudhuri describes herself as “a middle-class woman participant observer”. This is to say that she is as much a participant member as an observer of everyday life in this changing India. Through her study of different texts, she noticed that liberalisation brought in a transformation of the media. With the exceptional growth in advertisements, there was an ushering in of new images and of a new India and Indian.

Role of Media in Transforming the Image of the Nation

Maitrayee begins her book by highlighting how modern public discourse can be understood as the presentation of the nation’s self. This image of the Indian nation has been different in different contexts, she says. In 1947, after independence, the state became the centre of India’s political and economic life. It was the central site of ideological production. This changed post-1991 as the media became the dominant apparatus for ideological recasting. Democracies struggled to meet the demands of the common good while capitalism, aided by the advertisement industry, responded only to what people wanted as individual consumers.

Media brought in the new spirit and practices of capitalism. And constructed new ‘global’ cultures which promoted a “ready-to-consume platitudes of feel-good nationalism.” The state’s agenda shifted away from a professed commitment to the people’s issues and the rhetoric of abstract national security gains ascendance. Finding the enemy of the state became the prerogative of the nation.

Role of Media in Presenting a New Indian

According to her study, the advertisements showed that the new Indian is global and cosmopolitan. The advertisements cultivated an image of an international look and lifestyle. Even when the ‘traditional’ or ‘ethnicised’ Indian is presented, the construct is a Western one. While some images of Indian women “remained traditional (homemaker and mother), many were new (the globe-trotting corporate leader).” Despite this, images of either a peasant woman or of working-class men were not common at all, she says.

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The advertisements stress upon success and a glamorous lifestyle. Thereby displacing the larger section of Indian men and women from the public discourse. These adverts eclipsed the image of the “poor and battered, tribal and peasant, working class and Dalit” from the public discourse.

Role of Media in Refashioning Gender

In an interview with The Wire, Maitrayee Chaudhuri said that “My argument is that we seem to have shifted from an era of invisibility of women (issue that feminists raised in the late 1970s) to hypervisibility as we witness in contemporary mediatised word.”

In the modern recasting of Indian women, we had a construction of middle-class domesticity, much along the lines of Victorian England and Hindu culture. It defined the normative Indian woman as gentle, refined and skilled in running a home. Women were recast as creatures of domesticity and the status of the nation was ought to be gauged by the status of women. So even though, the neo-liberal state is supposed to be committed to the rights of individuals, their woman individual was relegated to its role towards its family and the nation.

Gender, thus, Maitrayee says, offers a very productive vantage point from which to map and analyse the transformation of Indian public discourse. According to her, the story of the recasting of women and gender in India over the years cannot be seen in isolation. It can be more fruitfully understood only in the context of neoliberal capitalism. It is within the processes at work that one can make sense of the hyper-visibility of gender.

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The new Indian is body conscious. There is a column of health in almost every magazine and newspaper. This new body consciousness cuts across gender. Male models became more conspicuous with newer notions of power and success. Liberalisation made different male cosmetics available. Power, in the corporate world, was projected as a necessary and exclusively male quality. The man had to be rich and powerful. Thus, liberalisation heralded a new effort to make the Indian male more like a ‘man’ and less like a ‘native slob’.

Role of Media in Constructing an Image of Indian Families

The book also highlights how common sense produces and is produced by the knowledge represented in media including textbooks and advertisements. It does so by focussing on the representation of the family in various sites.

Maitrayee Chaudhuri challenges the idea of the joint family as the traditional form of family in India and saw this notion as a product of Hinduisation and Western Orientalism. She also highlights the issues of domination and hierarchy prevalent in and between families by focussing on the treatment of gender and old age in families.

Role of Media in Commercialisation

Maitrayee Chaudhuri argues against the stance taken by modern market economics who justify advertisements on the grounds that they create the conditions for free choice. She says that the media’s dependence on corporate advertisements logically erodes its autonomy. As media increasingly becomes the site of ideology production, we see a growth of the corporate capitalist class. She asks some important questions: “Do we need what you produce?” “Who pays for you, anyway?” “How do advertisements constrict the freedom of media?” “How can individuals be free to choose when the information available is entirely suffused with corporate speech?”

In addition to the role of corporations, the West, international institutions and NGOs also actively engaged with state, academia, and media, and become central sites of knowledge production and opinion making. ‘Gender’, ‘sexuality’, ‘cultural diversity’, and ‘race’ are used for sale. It is because of this that neoliberalism has led to the institutionalisation of the nation and of feminism in India.

“One of the chapters in my book refers to how researchers for advertisers suggest that when you have to target middle-class women, there should be an element of feminism in it”, Maitrayee Chaudhuri told FirstPost.

The author notes that in post-liberalisation there has been an increase in the assertion by marginalised sections which led to the rise of new issues. But this was impinged upon by globalisation. Thus, globalisation has had a massive impact on local movements, notwithstanding their own internal dynamics.   

Role of Media in Promoting ‘Post Truth’

In the second last chapter of the book, Maitrayee Chaudhuri dealt with the question about the form of discourse. Or what one can term as the infinite possibilities of the media. In this chapter, she highlighted that the internet and the new media changed our relationship with time and space. It allowed information and images to travel the world instantly.

But despite its 24*7 access, it continues to be dominated by communities and cultures that are in power. There are unequal levels of global knowledge and ignorance within which both the making of and access to media content takes place. This revolutionised media is also responsible for transforming the ‘social and political’ to mediatised identities.

The author presents WhatsApp messages, whether of virulent or banal content, in circulation as evidence of this. In addition to this, she states the television coverage of 2016 JNU protests and the prevalence of the tag ‘anti-national’ as another example. While the initial message of both these mediums can be proven incorrect, but because they travel so far and wide, they become impervious to correction.

To describe this phenomenon, the author uses the term ‘post-truth’. A process in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. The BJP understood this, she says.

Role of media in the Rise of BJP

The last chapter of the book shows how the BJP was a party that had sensed the power of the media and used it to a great advantage. It has emptied out the ‘coffers of political discourses’ and led to ‘mindless nationalism’ where people are forced to mouth a vacant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, Maitrayee says.

BJP had realised that, in times of instant news, the best way to dislodge ‘bad press’ is to launch a ‘new’ product that the media could play upon. India thus witnessed surgical strikes against Pakistan to be quickly followed in the media by demonitisation. It was early to use the language of a corporate advertisement on an unprecedented scale.

Even though the core ideology and functioning of BJP are in contrast to the issues of gender, it still used commitment to women’s equality as a buzzword to gain the support of the Indian population. It also used gender to pursue other agendas. For example, BJP fought aggressively against triple talaaq to portray itself as a champion of women’s right and to belittle the Muslim men.

The BJP constantly created a central other to hate and an aggressive self to champion. All dissenting voices were deemed anti-national. There was an ideological assault on the Constitutional identity of India, the assertion of a vacuous nationalism, and the rise of the media as a central actor in this process.

Critique

Chaudhuri’s book Refashioning India: Gender, Media, and a Transformed Public Discourse is an exhaustive revisiting of the transition of Indian media post liberalisation. In the process, it charts the growth of capitalism and commercialisation, changing depiction of Indian nation and gender, and the institutionalisation of feminism and other movements.

In her analysis, however, the author restricted herself to a content analysis approach. She did not take up an audience reception approach. Because of this a lot of the arguments put forward in the book can be considered as mere assumptions. Considering that meaning can be different for each individual, we do not know what effect each of these advertisements had on different audience members. And we do not know how each audience member perceived these advertisements.

The book takes a very binary approach towards gender in analysing its representation. It talks about only men and women. The representation of other identities has not been addressed. The book also doesn’t address the different intersectionalities within the binary. It treats women of different abilities, caste, sexualities, religions, regions as equal.

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Maitrayee also fails to take into account the many media ventures, also known as alternate media, that are recently coming up. Most of them, owned by the marginalised communities and reporting from the margins, are bringing about a different image of the nation and its citizens.


Featured Image Source: The Wire

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