The Sunday TimesPlus

18h February 1996




When Media Mould Women

By Dharshini Seneviratne

Works of imagination have a way of working on the imagination. They shape the way we see our society, including women, and what we expect from society. And these perceptions have an effect on the destiny of society. This week, Towards Change appeals for a new feminist aesthetic in the local media so that less women bicker or sigh in tele-dramas and more men wash their own clothes in advertisements.

From virago to whimpering victim to dutiful career, the local media seems to be setting women in sexist media moulds made by men. For, if any institution is guilty of sexual discrimination, then the media arts should be somewhere at the top of the list. From the 30-second television ad to the large-screen movie, women have been represented in certain stereotypical ways that either denigrate them, or idealize them in ways men want them to be. These then becomes not mere representations but shape the attitudes of millions of media consumers.

Television is a good case in point. One Sunday evening, for example, two women are bickering about property rights in Doo Daruwo, perhaps the most popular Sinhala tele-drama before it wound up recently. Audiences (including women) have an almost spontaneous reaction to this kind of scene which is common in tele-dramas; a sarcastic and deploring rejoinder - "women", (i.e. "this is the way they are").

Doo Daruwo is a drama with which audiences identified totally for its "realism". Women, in this "realistic" drama were either bickering and miserly (these scenes are repeated consistently), or quiet, passive and helpless (wish-fulfilment for the chauvinist male). None of them struck a happy balance of authority and common sense. The men in the drama, of course, had their faults, but they were angels compared to the women! The men, like Dias, inspite of their faults, are "lovable", the women hardly ever so. And some did happen to strike the happy balance (Sudu Mama, for example).

These images of women are not just accidental, but recur in mainstream tele-dramas, movies and novels, ultimately shaping the way we see women. Along with the stereotypical village idiots and city villains, women seems to be under the axe in the creative media arts.

Strength in women are hardly ever portrayed in a positive way. Sri Lanka, which boasts of a society that is far more gender-equal than other eastern societies, has yet to prove it through positive representations in the media that acknowledge the strength of the woman. If a female character can speak for herself, the tendency is to present her as bossy, or talkative (and beware, a woman's sword, they say, is her tongue). If a man can do the same thing, he is self-possessed. Weak, submissive women at the mercy of a man's support, on the other hand, are idealized.

Of course, in the real world, you find garrulous women, and vain women, so are there so-called "rational" men, but why these "selective" portrayals in the media, where there seems to be more of certain "sorts" of women and certain other "sorts" of men? Don't men gossip, and aren't they sometimes vain? And if you take the question of female vanity for example, isn't it a matter of sticking to social prescriptions that demand that women be beautiful, or at least careful about their appearance? Doo Daruwo and other media productions are signs of a largely male media industry that consciously or sub-consciously cultivate these stereotypes of women without attempting to break away from them. The "subversive" images of women created in the West by feminist artists who attempt to portray positive, active and intelligent women characters have not yet met their match in Sri Lanka, outside of a negligible number of films and teledramas.

Nor has Sri Lankan "creations" of the woman gone even as far as creating the "Superwoman" images that American television and movies are so full of, Bat Woman and Super Woman to name a few (how many Chandi Shyamas have you seen in our media?). Here, of course, you have to be careful, for the macho woman is never seen in the light of the macho man, and ends up looking comic rather than courageous. Malini Fonseka giving a karate shot to a man would create peals of laughter, but Sanath Gunethilake doing the same thing would perhaps create admiring applause. So, thanks partly to representation, the world at large still sees, or at least speaks of women as evil, gossips, and incapable of solidarity among thmselves, (It is not once that I have heard both men and women say "women can never work together without fighting?). They are praised, on the other hand, for being meek, docile, and by implication, dependent.

Do we, then, talk of the "ills" of women through our own experiences, or through culturally ingrained ideas that establish certain sexist power structures? For what artistes do through the media is not "reflect" reality, but "represent" it through their own personal, perhaps prejudiced vision of the world.

Then there is advertising, that again operate on male wish fulfilment (even when the ad is made by a woman). Advertisements live through the stereotyping of women as mothers, wives and careers, largely to the exclusion of most other images that women have created for themselves in the real world. Daily, we are bombarded with images of women happily washing clothes or cooking for the family in television and newspaper advertisements.

Women's magazines and television programmes for women are mostly restricted to cookery, beauty care and how to be a good wife and mother (with one or two "serious" issues thrown in). All these images condition the way we think about men and women in the real world. Indirectly then, men are stripped of their responsibility in domestic roles. Women, these images tells us, have primary responsibility for caring for the household, men are the breadwinners. This is a pressure not only for women, but also for men.

In this way, even though there may be legal and policy developments that assert equal rights for women, ideological reasons propagated through this "imaging" might still keep them away from pursuing goals other than the ones ascribed to them through society and the media. Many women feel far more guilty than their husbands for example, if they feel their career is neglecting work in the homefront. Why should this be so?

Fortunately or unfortunately, cultural puritanism has meant that the local media hardly objectify the woman's body. So even for the wrong reasons, the right thing is getting done. Unlike in the western film and television circles, where women are filmed in a particularly sexist way that focuses on parts of their body, Sri Lankan films largely avoid these portrayals (except in sex scenes) mostly for cultural reasons. Because it is "bad" to do so. Not, mind you, because of feminist arguments that object to the same thing because it demeans the female through the objectification of the body. But beauty queen contests and highly "sophisticated" advertising in Sri Lanka continue to ape the West in this sense.

Meanwhile, the sympathetic portrayal of women's issues in the media are scarce. Problems within marriage, the plight of the economically dependent woman or the battered wife, hardly see the light of day. These are issues that can be easily ignored in a male-dominated media industry, where ironically enough, the notion of the battering, bullying wife (see both Sinhala and English comic strips, for instance) seems to be the order of the day. If sympathetic portrayals of women's issues do appear, they are sporadic and inconsistent enough not to get as noticed as much as the stereotypes.

Trying to break in to this kind of socially sensitive representation itself seems difficult to do for most media men (yes, "men".) In the controversial film Agey Vairaya (Her Revenge) for example, the attempt to show the plight of the rape victim ultimately turns into a farce of obsessive portrayals of the naked female form and the rather questionable behaviour of the woman protagonist at certain points. Ultimately, it understandably earned the coinage "Angey Vairaya" (The revenge of the body"). And the controversy, predictably enough, was not about the portrayal of women's issues, but about whose body was shown in the rape scenes!

In the much acclaimed film Ayoma (a true story), the purposes are again defeated. According to the posters advertising it, the film attempts to portary the "plight of thousands of subjugated women". Who is the representative? A woman who sleeps in the houses of strange men who they meet in the bus, who sleeps with men who tell them sob stories about unhappy marriages, and also, a woman who ends up as a sex worker. This is certainly not to pass moral judgment on sex work, but to point out that it is a strange kind of character through which to portray the "subjugation of women", particularly when you know the perceptions of audiences on issues such as the above. After all, "true stories" abound about the more pervasive kinds of subjugation women undergo in society. The hands of a patronising male creator is very obvious in the movie. (Even as the sympathetic portrayal of the life of a sex worker, it leaves many things unsaid.)

How do we break away from these media moulds? Of course, the media is another way in which we present cultural values, but the media also has the power of shaping values, so why not get on with it? So how do we go about it? Is it enough to make sure that more women enter the industry? This is a crucial step forward, but surely a feminist male in the industry is better than a non-feminist female who has internalized these notions of "womanhood" and repeat them in her own productions? The first step though, is gender sensitization in the media industry (including advertising) at all levels so that a more feminist aesthetic is followed by all concerned, whether they be women, or men. Institution responsible for the media should make gender issues integral to training programmes, and individual media personnel should keep themselves abreast of issues of "imaging". Hopefully then, less women will bicker in programmes like Doo Daruwo. And more men will wash their own clothes in advertising.

Go to the Plus Archive


Home Page Front Page OP/ED News Business

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to or to