The beautiful housewife and other stereotypes

Hana Shams Ahmed

Published in the One World South Asia on 8 October.

Anwara Begum’s new book takes a look at women in the Bangladesh media. She argues that TV ads don’t only sell products but also attitudes and in the process set standards of beauty and mannerism, as defined by men. This piece reflects on the stereotyping of women.

Dighi is the darling of the Bangladeshi media. She has long, beautiful hair and has just the right moves that will keep the viewers glued to the TV screen. There are life-size photos of her on big billboards in the city and big roles in films and drama serials already.

It was a commercial for a brand of henna that gave her the big break. In the ad, with a face full of pinkish makeup, she flaunts her translucent pearl-coloured hands exquisitely decorated with dark henna. Her on-screen friends gaze at her hands longingly, wishing they too could look like her.

Of course, this feeling is shared by thousand of girls who are on the other side of the television screen. Although Dighi’s hands look beautiful, one doubts whether that is what the viewers are focusing on.

The attention is clearly on what she represents. As Anwara Begum points out in her book, ‘Magical Shadows: Women in the Bangladesh Media’ (AH Development Publishing House, 2008), “TV ads don’t only sell products, they sell attitudes.” At an innocent age of 10 years, Dighi is the nation’s favourite child model.

The ‘attitude’ sold in the henna commercial is the standard of beauty and mannerism, as defined by men – the fair-skinned, long-haired, bubbly girl. The consequence of the ad is the indoctrination of this attitude in girls who have not even reached puberty!

The ‘modernisation’ of the media culture over the years, with the arrival of private television channels and advertisement firms has had commensurate effects on the culture of patriarchy.

Take for example, this set of ads. An earlier commercial shows a woman, who had come to be ‘viewed’ by a prospective groom, pleasing the family with her fine culinary skills, indicating that she remains within the four walls of the house.

The next version shows a woman who is not domesticated, she does not know how to cook and her husband rebukes her for this. Hurt and distraught at her ‘failure’, she wins him back by whipping up a delicious meal with her discovery of readymade cooking spices. The next phase shows a man cooking.

The readymade spices are so easy to use that EVEN a man can cook. Of course, he makes a mess in the kitchen, emphasising further that the kitchen is not really his place to be.

This shows that the camera almost always serves patriarchal interests. So the heavily made-up woman’s delight at getting the keys to a beautiful new apartment from her husband seems to be perfectly logical. It’s the wife, the mother or the children, who receive privileges, like living in a luxury apartment, from the ‘shonar chele’ (golden son). A man’s success in life is rated by what he brings for those who depend on him – the various women in his life.

In her book, Anwara Begum explores these relationships – like the phone which brings the man and woman together.

The man leaves his wife to go to London for a work visit, the mother breaks down because her son has found a job in the city, the little girl asks her father to scold the mother for not believing her… Again, the father is in an office and the mother at home.

Of course, companies are aware that portraying the woman strictly in the home environment is no more acceptable. So out comes a phone package for women, the “Ladies First” for working women who have to talk a lot.

Currently, there is a cement ad that proudly states: “Today’s mechanic, tomorrow’s engineer”, and shows two boys with hard hats pretend playing to be construction engineers, while their female counterpart pretends to be a school teacher.

Not that it is any less respectable to be school teacher, but on screen some professions like teaching, nursing and fashion designing seem to be reserved for women, while engineering, politics and multinational business management are for men.

Advertising agencies are doing good business: A whopping US$215 million has been spent on advertisements by corporations this year so far. New money has been poured in to get fresh ideas from these advertising power houses.

However, the general theme of the ads – be it romance, where the shy young woman is waiting to be swept off her feet by a handsome man; or marriage, where the wife, even if she is employed, is still in charge the family, are still very popular. The single, independent, successful woman is hardly represented.

Take the ad for an antiseptic soap that shows a child impressing his mother by showing her an excellent result sheet and no absence record at school. On cue the father comes home from work to tell the wife that he has received a bonus for not missing a day of work. He hands over the envelope to her because, of course, it was her conscientious care-giving that keeps the family healthy. The audience does not know what she does but the underlying assumption is that she is a housewife.

The stereotype continues

It is with hair care products that women’s images are most objectified. Commercials do show clear signs of cultural change – the woman is no longer house bound, she is wearing trendy clothes and she is seen within the work space.

The constant feature, however, is that she is embarrassed if every physical attribute of hers is not in perfect order and she is also forever seeking the attention of the man. The confident woman is the woman with the perfect hair. She has the best job, is the perfect wife and mother.

Anwara Begum talks about the effect that this desire for unattainable perfection has on women. She says, “This story of lovely heterosexual romance functions to cover up the harsh realities in relationships between men and women is a restrictive patriarchy where most suicides are committed by women.”

The electronic media does its own bit of social responsibility when covering events – from press conferences to art show openings. In a nod to affirmative action, they give equal screen space to men and women.

But the TV camera operator seeks out the most attractive-looking woman in the press conference and focuses the camera on her for much more time than is necessary.

This woman might not have any relevance to the story being told but perhaps the underlying notion is that it brings more viewers for the TV channel. Given that most camera operators are men, this kind of treatment is hardly surprising.

Someone once observed that the sure-fire sign of a more liberal and progressive Bangladeshi society was its ever increasing number of beauty pageants and catwalks. It was his firm conviction that a coy-looking model with perfect physical features walking down a ramp was a statement of the woman’s newfound independence.

A bank’s billboard reflects this thought. It shows “achievement” as perceived by three groups. The child’s achievement is learning the skill of tying a shoelace, the man’s achievement is making his first step on the moon and, finally, the woman’s achievement is getting crowned in a beauty pageant.

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