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Counter-revolution in soaps

Prime-time soap operas have undone the efforts of the feminist movement. NEERA CHANDHOKE writes about the enthusiastic audience reception of serials that present women as happily domesticated, though research has shown the traditionally patriarchal household as a structure of power where women are denied even their basic rights.

THE feminist revolution in India has many firsts to its credit, but its main achievement has been to give us a picture of the woman as an individual, as someone who possesses an irreducible identity of her own. While the movement does not deny that women are embedded in a web of relationships, it tells us that she is above all a human being who possesses, by virtue of being human, an innate right to be treated with dignity. For this purpose, the movement abstracted the woman from what is generally considered her natural habitat in India — the extended family, and presented her as an individual whose identity pre-dates that of the identity she has been traditionally allotted — the pillar of the joint family.

This strategy is not unknown in the history of political thought. When Thomas Hobbes, writing against the background of the English civil war, wanted to show that individuals have rights in their own right, he took out man from society and gave him only one identity: that of the individual, who is free and who is equal by the laws of nature. The entire edifice of human rights was constructed upon this strategic ploy of abstracting the human being from his/her constitutive community.

The women's movement adopted precisely this strategy. The woman is entrenched in many relationships, but any relationship between two human beings is sound only if it is based upon mutual extension of respect and not upon female subordination and male superiority. This in short is the essence of the feminist revolution — a recognition of the woman's search for dignity as a human being, the woman's right to be treated as an individual in her own right, and the woman's refusal to be seen as a mere appendage of predominantly male dominated social relationships in a patriarchal society. In India, this was particularly revolutionary given the low esteem with which women are generally treated; witness the adverse sex ratios found in major parts of the country till today. Of course the women's movement has had to battle tremendous odds, storm the conceptual ramparts of historically created and nurtured gender stereotypes of a patriarchal society, in order to accomplish this.

However, revolutions prove the exception more than the rule in a power-bound society and this particular power-bound society — read patriarchal society — has quickly found a way of closing ranks against the feminist revolution. The counter revolution has somewhat laughably taken the shape of the commonplace but admittedly influential soap opera, particularly the kind of soap opera unleashed by Ekta Kapoor and her family firm, Balaji Telefilms. The "K" title monopolises most television channels today, but viewer ratings show that the most watched of all the television serials that present themselves to the collective gaze of Indian audiences is "Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi" (KSBKBT). And here lies the problem.

For what Ms. Kapoor has succeeded in doing, is in taking the woman out of the space that had been forged for her with great difficulty by the women's movement, and putting her back into the claustrophobic joint family. She has in the process normalised both the idea of the sindoor laden, overdressed, and over-bejewelled women, as well as the idea that women spend their time in household tasks or in conspiring against each other, or indeed competing for the favour of men. Women are set against women, and the gain of the women's movement, that of women's solidarity, has been rent apart, as also the image that women are perfectly capable of doing things other than what is stereotypically considered feminine. For the only things that the women in Kapoor's teleserial do, is to pray, keep karva chauth, dance the dandiya at Navratri and think of ways to out manoeuvre each other. Superficial, scheming, petty, and stupidly emotional women are the staple stereotypes of KSBKBT.

These are not normal women who are capable of so many things; they are clichés. For instance, Tulsi, the protagonist of KSBKBT, is a confident, intelligent woman, who could well be the CEO of a corporate house given her capacity for out-thinking other schemers. Yet she never seems to read a book or the newspaper, she never goes out with friends for coffee or a movie, nor does she ever engage in a discussion about what is going on outside the household. The September 11 attacks in the U.S. or the bombing of Afghanistan may have never happened as far as the female protagonists of the serial are concerned. Their domain is the household, and their pains and pleasures are purely personal and self-referential, the outside world and its problems simply do not exist.

Savita who represents a silly caricature of an egoistic, power-hungry woman, is preoccupied solely with ways in which she can outwit and control her in-laws. And what picture of the working woman do we get from the soap? Consider the hapless Mandira, a doctor whom we never get to see practicing medicine, but who is busy wilting for love. Obviously professional interests fly out of the window when love enters from the door. Arti used to work in the family business, she gives it up on the insistence of her husband, and now she moons over someone else's child. And that poor Payal who is the only full-time working woman is portrayed as such a vamp that she puts Bollywood vamps of yore to shame.

Arguably we are witnessing a deliberate and insistent attempt by the producers of soap operas to reconstruct a female subjectivity, or what may be called a "national female imaginary" in the last two years or so. What this form of entertainment has done is to take the woman who had been emancipated from her given traditional roles by the feminists, and relocate her in the domestic arena. In the process it has given to us a politics of representation and a politics of femininity, which does not recognise the travails of the ordinary woman who performs a delicate and a consummate balancing act between her domesticity and her own aspirations. And women who can do much more than turn into watering pots over personal squabbles have been domesticated once again.

The problem would not be serious if we did not recollect that prime time TV soap opera is the most popular form of entertainment in contemporary India. And it is popular precisely because it gives us clear-cut definite images, a fairly uncomplicated story line, and the promise that <147,1,0>things would be OK only if people did what they had to do and not tread on others' toes. There are no contradictions, only manageable tensions in our social institutions. And this is not innocent by any means, for roles, which quickly turn into stereotypes, and which are attractively packaged for public consumption and imitation, serve to fortify the dominant images of a patriarchal society. To put it differently, soaps forge and shape the symbolic means by which our patriarchal society reproduces and legitimises itself. What is more troublesome is the enthusiastic audience reception of serials that present women as happily domesticated, at a time when feminist research tells us that the household is a structure of power where women are battered and humiliated and denied their basic rights on a daily basis. The feminists have been out-manoeuvred by the ordinary soap opera!

This is understandable for in challenging the structures of the patriarchal household, which is the microcosm of society, feminism has succeeded in challenging society. Therefore, the soap functions to re-legitimise a society that badly needs to be shaken up from top to bottom. It serves to integrate watchers into existing structures of patriarchal power, to socialise and to normalise. The private fantasy world of the TV family drama in effect proves the psychic counterpart to India's patriarchal society. Certainly our patriarchal society benefits from all this but I wonder who else benefits. The producers of the tele-serial?

Or perchance the manufacturers of sindoor?

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