CONSTRUCTING WOMANHOOD: DISCOURSE OF FEMININITY IN SELECT INDIAN ADVERTISEMENTS

Dr Merry Baruah Bora

Contemporary Indian advertising scene appears to have undergone far-reaching variations in the modes of representation perhaps since liberalisation of the economy which began in the last decade of the twentieth century.  Advertisements came to play a significant role not only in providing product information but also in producing certain images through representation whereby the corporeal body came to be foregrounded; more than the product in itself the body as a subject came to assume the dimensions of a commodity, constituted through the discursive realm of the representation.  Interestingly enough ideas such as the feminine body, womanhood and femininity too underwent perceptible changes whereby women came to be discursively constructed with which women as consumers began to identify thereby bestowing meaning to such constructions.  The discourse of femininity appears to be generally perpetuated through the texts of most of the advertisements that engage in the politics of representation thereby creating certain subject positions for women who may be identified as the consumers of such discourse.  A glance at some of the cosmetic products and their advertisements for instance, which flooded the media would perhaps reveal how the advertising industry had achieved revolutionary success in transforming commodities into ‘glamorous signifiers’ for the target audience comprising women belonging to both middle class and upper class urban India.  By now of course, both urban and rural India seems to be under the over imposing grasp of the ‘glamorous signifiers’ made widely available through easy connectivity and revolutionary progress in communication systems and images of woman, in her various desirable avatars flood the commercial space of advertising industry selling various commodities ranging from personal beauty care products, utility items, automobiles, and almost every product irrespective of the target consumers.  For obvious reasons it would be rather difficult to attempt a critique of all such texts owing to which this paper would make an effort to examine some of the popular narratives to arrive at an understanding of how some of such contemporary representations engage with the politics of construction of femininity within the socio-cultural paradigms of patriarchy.     

The cosmetic industry in India for instance thrives on perhaps one of its most degenerate construction of female identity when it perpetuates the notion of fairness linked to the qualities such as confidence or beauty giving rise to a false sense of value associated with fairness.  Cosmetic products such as Fair & Lovely, Ponds White Beauty, and other products from multinational cosmetic houses such as L’Oreal Paris among others appear to endorse fairness to be one of the most important parameters on the basis of which a woman’s worth comes to be measured, which again is an idea that one needs to be critical of. As far as such constructions of identity is concerned in relation to women in the contemporary socio-cultural Indian imagination, fairness then, appears as a marker that scores high in creating in the individual a sense of confidence; it has been equated with education – a tool which empowers an individual to achieve socio-economic security and status. Thus to be “not fair” would imply that one loses out in confidence and success in life, an idea which perhaps, every discerning mind would be sceptical of.  Indian culture industry comprising the film industry, advertisements, radio programmes, electronic media and so on, is replete with representations which has been booming in organising perceptions about ourselves and our lived realities through images, icons and discursive practices which appear to border on the politics of exclusion.  This exclusion operates along the lines of the corporeal body – aiming to discipline, regulate and produce a docile body that conforms to the ideology driven market and cultural specificities of the lived lives.  The discourse of such representations “defines and produces the objects of knowledge (read fair woman) in an intelligible way while excluding other forms of reasoning as unintelligible” (Barker, 2003: p.101).  The ‘disciplinary technologies’ of such representations appear to engage in ‘dividing practices’ within which violence seems inherent as it contravenes the ethics of nature while masking the politics of construction of femininity in the socio-cultural space.

What is then, the politics that is responsible for ‘construction’ of femininity and how is violence a part of the process? In her crucial study on the female body, Susan Bordo observes:

“…through the organization and regulation of the time, space, and movements of our daily lives, our bodies are trained, shaped and impressed with the stamp of …forms of…femininity…[f]or women, as study after study shows, are spending more time on the management and discipline of our bodies…the intensifications of such regimens appear diversionary and subverting.  Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity – a pursuit without a terminus…female bodies become docile bodies – bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection and transformation, “improvement”.  Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup and dress– central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women – we are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focussed on self modification.  Through these disciplines we continue to memorize on our bodies the feel and conviction of lack, of insufficiency, of never being good enough.  At the farthest extremes, the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation and death” (Leitch et al., 2001: p. 2363, italics mine).  

Bordo’s analysis of the practices of femininity engendered by the diversionary and subverting regimens normalized by the elusive ideals of feminine body serves to critique the representation of the female body in the discursive space of the culture industry and what seems crucial to Bordo’s analysis is the fact that “the practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation and death” – is it not then a covertly violent practice that thwarts the very notion of self esteem in an individual? The artificial values gain authority of cultural conformity through the representation created using images of perfection which is a quality perhaps impossible to achieve.  Sustained proliferation of such biased narratives eventually attains significant success in legitimising the ‘constructed body’ through an internalisation of the hegemonic codes – a technique that works subtly towards the production of amnesia whereby the body in question exists in a state of ‘loss’ of the essential personhood.  In the wake of a postmodern consumerist culture in India and elsewhere, the discourse of advertisements representing the notion of ‘ideal’ womanhood and femininity appears to target the female body and acquire authority over it by subjugating it through an exercise of power that aims to control and shape the body while constituting “a whole restrictive economy” (Foucault, 1978: p.18).  Within the paradigm of restrictive economy imposed upon the female body, it becomes imperative to analyse the discursive terrain of mass-media, especially Indian advertisements both print and electronic, which intend to define and redefine womanhood along the lines of patriarchal ideology while camouflaging rather perfectly the debilitating and demoralizing sensation “of never being good enough” in the women who do not seem to conform to image produced in such representations. 

The cultural imagination of perfect womanhood within the Indian socio-cultural scene is to a large extent shaped by the mass production of images perpetuated through the texts and visuals of advertisements.  In his essay titled “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth Century Art, Medicine, and Literature” Sander L. Gilman states:     

“How do we organize our perceptions of the world?  Recent discussions of this age-old question have centred around the function of visual conventions as the primary means by which we perceive and transmit our understanding of the world about us.  Nowhere are these conventions more evident than in artistic representations, which consist more or less exclusively of icons.  Rather than presenting the world, icons represent it. Even with a modest nod to supposedly mimetic portrayals it is apparent that, when individuals are shown within a work of art (no matter how broadly defined), the ideologically charged iconographic nature of representation dominates.  And it dominates in a very specific manner, for the representation of individuals implies the creation of some greater class or classes to which individual is seen to belong.  These classes in turn are characterised by the use of a model which synthesizes our perception of the uniformity of the groups into a convincingly homogeneous image.  The resulting stereotypes may be overt,...or covert…[b]ut they serve to focus the viewer’s attention on the relationship between the portrayed individual and the general qualities ascribed to the class” (Schech and Haggis, 2002: p.65).

It is of particular interest to note the use of phrases such as “ideologically charged iconographic nature of representation”, “synthesizes our perception”, “homogeneous image”, “resulting stereotypes” in the aforementioned extract from Gilman’s essay.  What these phrases imply is the fact that representations are ideologically charged and are responsible for creating a perception or meaning while simulating the reality of lived lives thereby giving rise to stereotypes – though these stereotypes produce the façade of homogeneity they are in fact diversionary and elusive as they fail to include all those who do not conform to their ideologically charged construction of femininity.  Thus, going back to the Fair & Lovely ad once again and the discourse associated with it, one would realise how the representation in this case has been able to normalize and naturalize “fairness” as an essential mark of femininity which enhances the sense of security and confidence thereby producing the desirable female body in the process.  This body is the object of the male gaze, product of desire which constitutes conventional patriarchal imagination.  Thus the apparently innocent narrative seems loaded with hegemonic signification that engenders stereotypes which in the words of Hall ‘reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes “difference” (Hall, 1997: p.258).       

The capitalist culture of consumerism that has come to pervade the Indian economic scene post globalisation has its repercussions in the strengthening of the commoditization of the female body in the discursive practices of culture reflected in the way in which media represents it.  Advertisements engage in constructing “subject positions for women that place them in patriarchal work of domesticity, child care, beautification and ‘catching men’.  Women are to be mothers, housewives sexually attractive, and so forth” (Barker, 2003:P.310).  As Barker points out the subject positions that are represented through advertisements constructs women ideologically – the signifiers give rise to meanings that conform to the patriarchal ideology that permeates the lived lives of women in this country.  Gender stereotyping in the realm of advertisements conform to the patriarchal imagination of womanhood and femininity through which the commodification of woman appears legitimate.  In the context of advertising and the politics of representation with which the discourse engages, Winship observes:

“Addressing us in our private personae, ads sell us, as women, not just as commodities but also our personal relationships in which we are feminine: how we are/ should be/can be a certain feminine woman, whose attributes in relation to men and the family derive from the use of these commodities, …A woman is nothing more than the commodities she wears: the lipsticks, the tights, the clothes and so on are ‘woman’ (Barker, 2003: p. 310).

The subject positions thus engendered reinforces patriarchal ideology through the images of women attributed to the politics of representation, within the paradigms of socio-cultural desirability.  Such representation of the female body with its accompanying signifiers of femininity appears to create a ‘disciplinary cultural norm’ within which disciplined, docile and useful womanly bodies are imagined and legitimised.  These images of womanhood are the ones accepted within patriarchy as they conform to the normative impositions – the feminine woman thus attains legitimacy in the cultural imagination of the collective unconscious through such discursive constructions that masks the practices of patriarchal hegemonic discourse and the commodification of the female body.  One however needs to question the notion of the desirable feminine body which appears to be the norm within the socio-cultural locale of contemporary Indian society.  It would be rather interesting to note that even the image of the apparently ‘empowered modern woman’ is in fact, a woman imagined to suit the practices of patriarchy – this is the woman who appears in numerous advertisements that sell cosmetics, medicines, diet products, household goods and so on.  Therefore, MTR products that specialises in food product advertises a mother who has ‘magic’ in her hands to cook as many as four different varieties of breakfast items for the four members of her family; however, her choice of food for that particular meal of the day is not overtly shown.  The dress and the appearance of the mother and the home decor are almost akin to any other urban home in India.  Her demeanour makes it clear that she is happy to be able to meet the individual needs of each member of the family – her excellent performance of the roles of ‘mother’, ‘daughter-in-law’ and ‘wife’ – all rolled into one makes the viewer partake of her self-contentment and happiness at her being able to make her family happy – an image that is reminiscent of the mythical image of ‘Annapurna’.  ‘Parachute Advanced Body Lotion’ with its tagline ‘Jagaye Love Dobara’ represents the woman who is a wife and a mother and is yet the object of desire for the husband only because she uses the body lotion – it gives her the curvaceous body which is replicated in the container of the lotion, she is capable of seducing the man and arousing his desire despite her being the mother of a son; even in an ad for a certain brand of deodorant for man, a woman is shown entering the office chamber of  a man who is supposedly wearing that brand; she enters the room and is shown charmed to point of seduction by the fragrance that she does not hesitate physical intimacy – the use value of the product in this case is optimised as it is not only able to provide fragrance but also and more significantly able to equip the man with a tool to seduce women and fulfil his desire of being in charge of situation and the female body.  And of course Abhishek-Aishwarya’s famous Prestige Cooker ad “Jo biwi se kare pyar, woh Prestige (cooker) se kaise kare inkaar!” (may be loosely translated as how can a man who loves his wife deny [her] a Prestige) – in this particular narrative representation of conjugal love one may discern the underlying practices of patriarchy – here love of the man for the woman is displayed through his loyalty towards a particular product that he purchases for his wife to enable her to perform her wifely role with finesse – a conformist framework within which the idea of happily married life is situated.  The narratives of the advertisements referred to above takes recourse to the traditionally idealised  image of the woman in her various roles – mother, wife, daughter-in-law, lover – which appear, in deeper analysis the consequences of patriarchal ideology.  It shall be seen that all these roles are conventional; socio-cultural imagination that bestow legitimacy to such constructions are in opposition to the idea of the liberation of the self as they seek to culturally legitimise and endorse female subordination.  It is from this perspective that such texts become a reflection of the tension inherent in the construction of the narratives of masculinity and femininity where the latter seems to be always in conformity with the socio-cultural codes.  Native to such ideological constructions is the element of violence as it verges on the politics of restriction through a deprivation of equal opportunities in terms of mobility and choices, growth and development and many other such parameters in relation to the woman who seems to be always ‘happy’ and ‘content’ within the gender circumscribed life that she leads.  The deceptive images that are perpetuated through media reinforces the conformist nature of cultural ideology which vindicates the hegemonic discourse of patriarchal culture thereby legitimising the deprivation and denial the woman experiences as a human being within her specific existential predicament.  What one perhaps fails to discern is the fact that these images that are disseminated within the sphere of culture industry are inherently deceptive and the deception is executed through the ideological apparatus of culture which succeeds in glossing over the politics of construction – in a manner quite similar to that of colonial discourse that produces and stabilises stereotyped ‘native’, media too perpetuates the stereotyped female thereby legitimising the hegemonic practices of patriarchy.  Viewed from this perspective, the apparatus of culture then emerges as inherently violent which legitimises the ‘restrictive economy’ inflicted upon the female body while denying her the rights of equality in a holistic sense.  A glance at the project of civilisation apparently executed through the West would perhaps reveal the underlying patterns of violence which was inflicted upon the subject nations/races – the realisation of which may be considered as one of the reasons in the rise of the post colonial discourse and debate that emerged in the twentieth century that critiques the hegemony of Eurocentric discursive practices.  A similar approach may be adopted while looking at the images of womanhood in Indian media, especially advertisements which represent and construct the desirable/ acceptable/useful body by engaging in a discourse which succeeds in masking the politics of construction engendered through age old conventions of patriarchy.   In her essay “Reading the Slender Body” Susan Bordo remarks:
  
“In advertisements, the construction of the body as an alien attacker, threatening to erupt in an unsightly display of bulging flesh, is a ubiquitous cultural image. Until the last decade, excess weight was the target of most ads for diet products; today one is much more likely to find the enemy constructed as bulge, fat or ‘flab’. ‘Now’ (a typical ad runs) ‘ get rid of those embarrassing bumps, bulges, large stomach…feel younger and help prevent cellulite build-up…Have a nice shape with no tummy.’ To achieve such results a violent assault on the enemy is usually required; bulges must be ‘attacked’ and ‘destroyed’, fat ‘burned’ and stomachs must be ‘busted’ and ‘eliminated’ (Thornham et al., 1996: p. 332).

The ‘ubiquitous cultural image’ that Bordo engages with is the body constructed by the practices of femininity; this body is the gendered body and its behavioural patterns and focus of action appear to be constituted through the discursive paradigms of patriarchy in opposition to essentialist biological performance of the body.  Such narratives reiterate politics of socio-cultural practices which aim at “the control of women’s bodies by male dominated interests” (Rich, 1979: p. 267). A political reading of “the continuum between female disorder and “normal” feminine practice” purportedly revealed through these narratives would signify as Bordo would have us believe, that

“[t]he symptomatology of these disorders reveals itself as textuality.  Loss of mobility, loss of voice, inability to leave the home, feeding others while starving oneself – all have symbolic meaning, …varying under the rules governing the historical construction of gender.   Working within this framework, we see that whether we look at hysteria, agoraphobia, or anorexia, we find the body of the sufferer deeply inscribed with an ideological construction of femininity…the construction, of course, is always homogenizing and normalizing…the construction of femininity is written in disturbingly concrete, hyperbolic terms: exaggerated, extremely literal, at times virtually caricatured presentations of the ruling feminine mystique.  The bodies of disordered women in this way offer themselves as an aggressively graphic text for the interpreter – a texts that insists, actually demands, that it be read as a cultural statement…” (Leitch et al., 2001: p.2365).

The cultural statements such as those offered through the texts of advertisements selling various products ranging from diet product, medicines, utility goods and beauty products tend to produce ideologically the ‘useful’ body which is manipulated and managed by way of technology such as liposuction for instance unless medically required, is perhaps one of the manifold ways of being physically violent towards the body.  Apart from the psychological violence incurred upon the lived body through the narrative construction of desirable feminine body, use of technology in various forms including liposuction and cosmetic surgery intending the production of ‘feminine mystique’ may be read as violence against the  ‘given’ body – a violence that culture seeks to legitimise.  Given such a socio-cultural locale, the construction of womanhood in the discourse of Indian advertisements may be read as a manifestation of patriarchal imagination which seeks to regulate women’s lived lives within hegemonic role performance while revealing the dynamics of patriarchal socialization which is conformist in nature.  One may refer to Gilbert and Gubar’s observation in this regard:

“…patriarchal socialization literally makes women sick, both physically and mentally…any young girl…is likely to experience her education in docility, submissiveness, selflessness as in some sense sickening.  To be trained in renunciation is almost necessarily to be trained in ill health, since the human animal’s first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, pleasure, assertion…[l]earning to become beautiful object, the girl learns anxiety about – perhaps even loathing of – her own flesh” (Leitch et al., 2001: p.2013).

Given such critical perspectives it would then perhaps not be erroneous to assume that patriarchal socialization legitimises the ideological construction of femininity which engages in the manipulation of the female body; apparently with an aim to produce the ‘useful feminine body’ it essentially engages with the normalisation of constructed truths.  The end to which culture, seems to work, in whatever, context is to legitimise the inherent inequalities of a community’s lived lives and patriarchal culture is no exception.  Women under such cultural situation perhaps need to create their own sense of individuality without being passively submissive to the disciplining and regulatory codes of patriarchy – it would be a process of reclaiming one’s self by “taking responsibility” towards oneself.  Social and cultural codes for women have “offered ethical models of the self-denying wife and mother; intellectual models of the brilliant but slapdash dilettante who never commits herself to anything the whole way, or the intelligent woman who denies her intelligence in order to seem more “feminine”…(Rich, 1979: p.233) reclaiming oneself from the web of such images and representations loaded with patriarchal imagination would mean that the woman would no longer give in to the politics of construction and begin being responsible towards herself ; that she would begin to think of herself as a human being capable of evolving as a resourceful unit of the society instead of a commodity out to conform to the strictures laid down by a society that seems to operate through the mechanics of a restrictive economy.  And it is in this context of ‘taking responsibility’ towards reclaiming and rediscovering oneself from the state of loss engendered by patriarchal codes that Adrienne Rich’s observation appears most relevant:

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence grappling with hard work.  It means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies and minds are inseparable in this life, and when we allow our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger…And this in turn means resisting the forces in society which say women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in places assigned to us.” (Rich, 1979: p. 234).

Thus women’s reclaiming of their lost selves would entitle them to a life of ‘real’ existence through a resistance of the socio-cultural meanings imposed upon them through a codification of their bodies within their situational contexts; it would perhaps bring about sensible and practical empowerment women who shall no longer be subject bodies produced through the disciplining regimens of patriarchy, bringing into existence individuals who as human beings create their own sense of worth and value. 

References 
  • Chris Barker. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2003.
  • Susan Bordo. “Reading the Slender Body”.  Media Studies: A Reader. Ed. Thornham, Sue et al. USA: New York University Press, 1996. 330 -340.
  • ---. “Unbearable Weight.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 2360-2376.
  • Michel Foucault. History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
  • Gubar and Gilbert. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 2023-2035.
  • Stuart Hall (ed).  Representations. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.
  • Adrienne Rich. On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose. USA: Norton, 1979.
  • Sander L. Gilman. “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth Century Art, Medicine, and Literature”. Development: A Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Susanne Schech and Jane Haggis. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002. pp.65-78.   
About the author: Dr. Merry Baruah Bora is an Assistant Professor (Selection Grade) in the Department of English, Cotton College, Guwahati, Assam and has received her PhD from the Dept of HSS, IIT, Guwahati. She has published research articles in journals, contributed chapters to anthologies and textbooks for UG and PG courses KKHSOU, Assam and IDOL, Tezpur University, Assam. She is a former Visiting Faculty at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus. She is interested in Womens’ Writing, Indian Writings in English, Literary Theory and Translation.

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