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On The Idiot Box

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Indian television doesn’t leave us impressed, especially with its regressive portrayal of women. Has western television been any kinder? Pooja Salvi & Anindra Siqueira take you on a walk through decades of television to see if things are changing for the better

Women are coming out of their cocoons and getting rid of their insecurities; actors have been putting themselves out there and picking roles of substance. Progress continues one step at a time, but women still have a long way to go, both on and off the idiot box. However, with all the progress women are making in their careers and life, why does television still love the good wife portrayals? Over the years, women have begun to play more important roles in various fields including academics, politics, science, technology and advertising, but on Indian television they are still seen in largely weaker roles. However, in western television, which has had much more time to evolve, women are zipping ahead of their Indian counterparts.
Are we lagging behind? We’ve created a timeline of western and Indian shows that will give you an idea of how times have changed and we also pick a few great shows from the ’50s to present day that you can catch up with over the weekend.

The evil, conniving saas, the irritating bahu, the mother you hear so little of — these were the roles women played when TV was still young in India in the ’90s. In the west, women had already gone through the classic gender roles — doting mothers, wives who would always stand by their husbands, staying at home and taking care of the children as the man of the house toiled at his stressful desk job. Here’s a glimpse into how women’s roles have evolved on television shows from the west.

’50s: Always in the background
Television in the ’50s typified the ideology of the era. Women took their places in the background as supporting characters — doting mothers and exemplary housewives looking after the house. The father would come home from work, his wife would be tending to the house and the kids were thrown in for the mischief they made or to give viewers a “wholesome family lesson” at the end of each episode.

What to watch Leave it to Beaver was the archetype of the era! Other shows that fit the bill include Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Dennis the Menace and The Honeymooners. If the show wasn’t about home life, women played secretaries like in Perry Mason. And, some left women out of their main cast completely — the likes of Bonanza and Wagon Train, for example. Even I Love Lucy, although it starred Lucille Ball, fell in the same category.

’60s: Time for a change
Many of the hit shows from the ’50s were carried forward, and so were their character types. In that respect, the ’60s weren’t very different — women were still housewives and secretaries. There was a slight shift, however, and female characters began to be pushed a little further ahead into the spotlight.

What to watch Shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie put women into more leading roles, but women as sole leads were still a long way away.

’70s: Stagnant waters
Like everything else in the ’70s, with respect to women in television, TV shows were a mixed bag. Some shows had strong central female characters, while others stuck to the winning formula — that of the wife dutifully tending to the home and children.

What to watch Many shows broke out of the stereotypical “homely” female characters. There were Charlie’s Angels, Laverne & Shirley, Wonder Woman, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and a spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman. However, the tried-and-tested formula of the stay-at-home woman still remained. Shows such as Diff’rent Strokes and Happy Days still retained many elements of decade-old shows.

’80s: The foundation
The ’80s was not a well-defined era in terms of the roles women got on television. All in all, the shows of the ’80s served as a stepping stone for female characters, and when the ’90s rolled in, television audiences were ready to embrace women as central characters, who had lives of their own beyond their husbands and fathers.

What to watch Shows like Who’s the Boss? had a mix of male and female lead roles, but The Golden Girls broke the mould, and Roseanne brought into clear focus the working mother who was trying to make ends meet. Others like The Wonder Years and Small Wonder didn’t do much for forward female roles.

’90s: Breaking out
Now, this is where we saw women and men on as equal a standing as there could ever be. There were so many hit shows in the 90s, and most of them put men and women at pretty much the same level.

What to watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ally McBeal, The X-Files, Seinfeld, Frazier and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch are all great examples of women in more breakout roles, with just as much importance and character depth as the men on the show.

2000s and beyond: TV that’s here to stay?
The current era of television, the 2000s saw shows embrace the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. style cast — a mix of men and women, each bringing something unique to the table, creating a new type of on-screen equation.

What to watch Shows such as C.S.I., Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, Bones, Castle and The Big Bang Theory had — or have, some are still running — a great mix of gender roles, giving audiences a new flavour of television. But still, the world wasn’t done with women-centric television and shows such as Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls, The Good Wife and Veep still garner quite a loyal fan following.

Where it all began
The advent of globalisation and technological advancements popularised the use of television as a medium of the masses especially after India opened its economy to foreign players back in 1991. The entry of foreign media mammoths in the Indian media landscape gave audiences (especially in the metropolitan cities) a range of viewing options to pick from. However, television’s role as an agent of social and political change became a lost cause.

’80s: The beginning
As long as Prasar Bharti (Doordarshan on television and All India Radio on radio) was monopolising the media market, viewers had close to no choice to switch to other channels on television. The open economy in the early ’90s also led to the birth of several Indian-owned, private channels on television. And it is at this time that television became obsessed with the concept on infotainment — a combination of information and entertainment.

What to watch The very first soap opera to be telecast in India was called Hum Log (1984) and was both critically acclaimed and much liked by audiences. Other shows such as Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi (1984), Karamchand (1985) and Buniyaad (1986) did not concentrate on women issues in particular, but enthralled audiences with quality television.

’90s: The boom
We don’t want to say that the Indian television has been selling only the sanskari bahu on air. During the ’90s, Hindi language soaps projected women in different roles — a wife, homemaker and mother. But they also dealt with other issues of working women, divorced women, extra marital relationships, sexual harassment, rape, abortion — issues in which women were fighting for equal rights.

What to watch Shows include Tara (1993), Shanti – Ek aurat ki Kahani (1994), Hasratein and Saans (1998).

The depiction of women in worn out and unoriginal roles didn’t work in favour of real life women, but almost always worked for the women on screen — especially in the context of daily soaps, which continue to have women in such roles irrespective of their age, caste, language, profession and culture. There is no doubt that television soap operas debate social issues such as marriage, crimes against women, patriarchy and family system, but the working woman is conspicuously absent.

2000s: The now
It all started trending with Ekta Kapoor’s hit formula for a successful television show. Her shows had women protagonists, but were they not portrayed in the same manner across all shows? Their characters concentrated on the domestic aspect of their lives, they were full of cultural and family values and had roles and responsibilities confined only to the home. These portrayals left such an impact on the Indian audiences that female actresses who took these roles were recognised by their characters. For instance, Smriti Irani came to be known for her role as Tulsi, and Sakshi Tanwar as Parvati.

What to watch Some of these shows include Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kyuki Saans bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kasautii Zindagii Kay. However, these female roles were completely unreal. Leading ladies were the sansakri daughters-in-law, whose sole purpose was to look for a husband, cook, take care of the family and keep everyone united and sheltered from the evils of all kinds — sacrificing themselves in the process. These characters barely showed any sense of ambition, desire and/or self-respect.

Even today, television soap operas steer clear of portraying women as characters that know what they want. For instance, whenever a woman is shown as career oriented, there is some flaw in her — maybe she cannot find the balance between family and work. What do these flawed portrayals of women signify for Indian society, which is known to have an ingrained prejudice for women? With television ignoring its social responsibility and continuing to put out regressive roles, the prejudice only deepens. This in no way means that television needs to stop entertaining, but it needs to strengthen its stand in a society that needs to take responsibility of its female population.

What do we want to see on TV?
What prevents producers from going the extra mile and offering a more progressive treatment of female characters with innovate and fresh concepts that have more substance? The one answer is that they want to play it safe. They do not want to hurt the sentiments of the larger portion of audiences as well as their commercial motives in case the portrayal is misunderstood.

We’re hoping that soon current shows will be ameliorated  for better, more modern ones. That’s what we’d like to see on television, at least!

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