Why I take issue with most Indian Soap Operas’ treatment of women

My home has a lot of Hindi TV playing, and through the many hours and seasons, I’ve noticed (and have becomes especially frustrated) with certain disturbing trends in the majority of the television shows that are so widely viewed and loved by its audience.

Indian serials perpetuate a Madonna-Whore complex. In brief, the Madonna-Whore complex is this notion that women exist only on two opposite poles: one is the celebrated “Madonna,” the symbol of all that is pure, chaste, virtuous, soft-spoken, meek, etc. while the other is the scorned “Whore,” embodying the opposite. In most Indian soap operas, the main female protagonist is loved and admired because of a few choice characteristics: modesty, humility, loyalty, unquestioning subservience to the elders of her home, and the ability to quietly tolerate any and all hardship without protest; in short, is the archetypical Madonna. The female antagonist, on the other hand, is written to be loathed for her ambition, outspokenness, and/or desire to challenge the traditional hierarchical family structure. She almost always dresses in a less demure way than the female lead, and has more jarring makeup. She may have had a *gasp* divorce, is married a second time, or is a young woman who plans on snatching away the female lead’s man.

This dichotomy is so infuriating, because it’s perpetuated in show after show, episode after episode, as the antagonist female’s independence, self-reliance, and outspokenness is demonized in the face of the protagonist’s subservient/maternal/tolerating nature. The few times a female lead begins to take a more proactive, non-passive role is when her family’s honor is at stake– which is very noble and honorable I guess, but we never see her do the same for herself. Indian serials need to stop glorifying this over the top, self-sacrificing nature that reinforces the idea that a woman’s only role is to serve others around her. We need more female protagonist characters that seek out success for themselves. 

Indian serials’ female characters’ entire lives revolve solely around acquiring/serving the significant male figure in their life. Indian culture is obsessed with marriage. The central theme of the majority of the Hindi serials on air right now is either the struggle to get married, or the struggle to maintain a marriage. And we get it. Yes, marriage is a milestone in life–but it’s not the sole reason for existence.

In a similar strain to my previous point, women in Hindi T.V. serials need to be more independent– not just from a character’s standpoint of being financial and emotional independence, but from the writer’s point as well. A sort of litmus test: Her character should be complex and developed enough that if you take out the significant male characters from her life, she can still stand as a believable character and  complete human being, instead of an empty shell of dependent emotions and responses to the actions of those around her. If she can’t, then the character is too weak to even put into the story. Give her as complex of a backstory as the male lead. Write her a history, a reputation, that doesn’t solely revolve around her past romantic interests.

Hindi television’s main problem is that it lacks not only protagonist strong women to begin with, but is completely devoid of complex women. This quote has been making rounds on Tumblr, and I feel it perfectly encapsulates the crux of my argument.

“Screw writing “strong” women. Write interesting women. Write well-rounded women. Write complicated women. Write a woman who kicks ass, write a woman who cowers in a corner. Write a woman who’s desperate for a husband. Write a woman who doesn’t need a man. Write women who cry, women who rant, women who are shy, women who don’t take no shit, women who need validation and women who don’t care what anybody thinks. They are all ok, and all those things could exist in the same woman. ” –Lori

More excellent commentary on the role of females in media (not just in Indian media, but in general) can also be found here and here

3 thoughts on “Why I take issue with most Indian Soap Operas’ treatment of women

  1. Swati August 18, 2014 / 5:05 am

    Hi Antara, I’m from Singapore and have the same reactions to the serials. I’ve basically stopped watching them as they are SEXIST! These TV shows perpetuate the beliefs that ‘good’ women are submissive, shy, wives, mothers, wear salwar kemez or saris etc etc .

    The antagonist is ALWAYS the modern 21st century women who works, wears jeans and T’s and speaks her mind. No wonder the crime rate against women in India is so high . The perceptions about women of the 21st century is so skewed and perpetuated by the media.

  2. Gaurav Kabeer August 23, 2014 / 12:37 pm

    very correct and interesting

  3. Britney December 5, 2014 / 8:57 am

    Other soaps might have scenes that violate the right of women and some scenes that shows improper treatment for women, but as an Indian soap opera lover I can say that not every soap opera such as sarswatichandra has scenes which violate the right and dignity of women, they show stronger and Intelligent women

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