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The adman's woman
An interactive, multimedia curriculum for students of media courses encourages a critical exploration of advertising and the images of women that it projects.
Posted/Updated Thursday, Nov 13 00:00:00, 2003

Women`s Feature Service


There`s a revolution 'happenin' and we barely notice. Slowly but surely, our advertising industry is fashioning out a new woman for us. In the war of the image between Tulsi (of the serial `Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi`) and the Nokia girl, the latter is clearly everywhere. Advertisers have found it far easier to clone the young and `mod` party-happy girl.

'If you look at only one advertisement or two, it doesn`t hit you,' says Bishaka Datta, head of Point of View (POV), a Mumbai-based NGO that works to promote the points of view of women, through creative use of the media. 'But if you look at advert after advert, the pattern emerges clearly. There`s no doubt that the advertising industry is aiming to create a different look - that of a westernised, fair, blonde, light-eyed, slim and high-cheek-boned young woman.'

However, it isn`t only the look that bothers the members of POV. It is also the messages implicit in advertisements. In a major exercise, members of the NGO began collecting adverts in which women have been used to sell different products or those in which they appear as mere appendages.

The idea was to design an interactive curriculum that young college students would use, to critically explore the relationships between women, beauty and advertising. Entitled `The Beauty Spectrum`, the multimedia curriculum has been developed by a POV team. The team includes Datta, Shilpa Phadke (a sociologist currently working on a PhD on media and sexuality), and Alexis Kort (a student of Middle Eastern Studies from Canada who did an internship with POV).

According to Kort, their purpose was to show that there is little diversity in the image of women`s beauty. 'These women are often portrayed in stereotypical roles (mothers, wives, or just something pretty to look at). We gathered adverts from a range of English magazines available in Mumbai, mostly Indian publications and a few international publications (like Cosmopolitan). We had about 200 ads of a huge variety of products, from cosmetics to cars.'
                        
The basic criterion was simple: Anything that used an image of a woman to sell the product. The ads were categorised into those that used women in traditional roles (mothers and wives); ads that used the image of a beautiful woman somewhat out of context (like a bikini clad young woman selling a car); and of course, a category specifically selling beauty products.

What came across was the insidious change in the overall `look` of the women in the adverts. Both Kort and Datta were struck by the preponderance of the `westernised` look of the women models. Besides, says Phadke, `contradictory messages` continue to co-exist - the sari-clad, large bindi, magalsutra and sindhoor sporting women, and the sex symbol images in which the bodies of motorcycles and women are placed side by side in a comparison of curves!


The message, she said, seems to be: be Indian, be sexy, be thin, be glamorous even when your back aches, be a superwoman but what ever you do - don`t think!

The curriculum is being tested in a few colleges in Mumbai (beginning with St Xavier`s College in July), primarily with students of media courses as POV felt that it would help to work with students undergoing training as media professionals. In eight parts, the curriculum covers a gallery of beautiful women, clocking the changes in images of beauty over the years.


According to Kort, the students enjoyed the curriculum very much. There was a debate in which students had to agree or disagree with a given statement. The statement `women who dress provocatively are asking to be sexually harassed` generated a heated debate. One young man said a girl walking around dressed `sexy`, was like going into a fireworks store with a book of matches.

But most women students felt the culture they lived in provided a permissive environment for men to sexually harass women. This, they said, needed to be changed and that they should be free to wear whatever they wanted wherever they want. They also pointed out that they could be victims of sexual harassment whether they were wearing a miniskirt or a conservative salwar kameez.

The students, Phadke adds, felt a sense of identification with the themes in the curriculum. They had a forum to discuss issues, articulate confusions and be provocative without the fear of being ridiculed. In this sense, she said, the exercise was a rather successful one. 

The POV team did not intend a watertight agenda of indoctrination. The aim was to expose the changing visions of `beauty` and the inconsistencies that operate across time. The hope was to encourage reflection on the constructed nature of `beauty`, and to illustrate how much it is dependent on imagery within a patriarchal culture. The team did not tell the students 'what to think', instead they created a space where they could think for themselves and arrive at perceptions that were informed.

Phadke herself is anxious and concerned about the prevailing culture among youth today - when visions of modernity and liberation are being increasingly tied to looks rather than other kinds of achievement. However, the POV curriculum sought to show students the advertising industry`s monolithic image of women and beauty and the stereotypes used to sell products.

As the POV team said, 'We wanted students to think more about beauty and power and how they can shake up the status quo. They were receptive to our ideas and most important, we gave them a forum to discuss their feelings and perceptions about the image of women used by the mainstream media in India.'

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