When soaps froth violence

When soaps froth violence

It surprises me to see the blatant and repeated violence on the daily soaps that we watch on television. One has to just switch popular channels during evening hours to find the predominance of these soaps in a menu that also comprises staged reality shows, game shows and cookery shows. And the various forms of abuse presented in these serials are simply mind-boggling. Often, I have to ask my mother to switch channels so that my son, who is in the same room, is not exposed to these brazen acts of violence.

There are a number of reasons why this display of violence bothers me. But most prominently, what worries me is that much of this violence is directed against women and is shown so habitually.

On the one hand, many people are trying to fight this menace, and setting up initiatives and even laws to curb it. For example, organizations such as ActionAid, Oxfam India, Sahayog, United Nations Development Fund for Women, Jagori, and even various government departments are running programmes to curb these atrocities. These efforts include providing legal and counselling services and social support; working with men and boys on stopping violence against women and also on cases of violence based on caste or religion. Some such as Breakthrough have a special media initiative on this issue called the Bell Bajao campaign that has even been promoted by a few of the popular television soaps.

Violence against women is a serious problem in India. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3, 2005-06) collected information from married and unmarried women about their experience of physical and sexual violence. Overall, one-third of women aged 15-49 said they had experienced physical violence, and about one in 10 said they had experienced sexual violence. In total, 35% had undergone physical or sexual violence. This figure translates into millions of women who have suffered, and continue to suffer, at the hands of husbands and other family members.

Similarly, in a recent study done by the Centre for Media Studies for the Centre for Equity and Inclusion on “Perception and Experience of Gendered Violations in Public Places in the city of Delhi", 98.6% respondents reported to have faced harassment in public places of the Capital. The social and economic costs of violence against women are enormous, and have ripple effects throughout society. Women may suffer isolation, inability to work, loss of wages, lack of participation in regular activities, and limited ability to care for themselves and their children.

In response, the government and civil society are spending resources and efforts trying to raise awareness and voice about violence against women—but repeated displays of such violence and disrespectful behaviour towards women on our daily soaps is negating these efforts. While some of these soaps even claim to be on or against these social evils, they repeatedly show and reinforce these negative images and storylines, perhaps ending with a few minutes of positivity against the social trend. Other soaps, specially regional language ones, don’t even have an excuse— their format and the flow of daily storyline do not need a reason to show continuous scenes of wife-beating and other such acts. It’s either gory scenes of violence and crime, or complete storylines on the planning and scheming of these brutal events. These soaps completely ignore that such acts are criminal and punishable offences.

My friends in the media often reason that these serials reflect our social realities, and use the “chicken and egg" argument to justify their stand. While they may not be entirely wrong, their case is weakened by the fact that they often take an aberration and showcase it as routine. In some cases, this may have led to prominence of the issue itself, but in most cases such anomalies are only used to bring in elements of drama, diversion and delight in the storyline, a case in example being the so-called social soaps on child marriages or female foeticide. In such soaps, these issues or their implications are not the agenda. Instead, they are but a disguise for a “new angle" in the story to create the necessary drama. The peg may be on social injustice, yet the violence is constantly repeated, providing an unclear message. How else can you explain the extremely negative messages featuring on our television diet?

One may argue that it’s a positive initiative to bring such issues to our homes. However, it’s important to audit what’s depicted. It would be wrong to romanticize such serious issues.

While violence has been part of entertainment for decades now, it’s current graphic, gruesome and frequent depiction in our drawing rooms is quite frightening. It not only numbs us to this aggression, but also creates an atmosphere in which aggression against women becomes as normative, even acceptable.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies

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