Representation of Gender in Indian Society


Gender performs a significant role in every aspect of our life. It bears and imposes certain established beliefs and regulations on the people, and most of them follow it knowingly or unknowingly.  It seems to be inescapable and unavoidable, as it is deeply rooted in the culture and the society that the individual lives in. It is learned, accepted and barely questioned. The regulations and beliefs disposed for each gender is inculcated in childhood itself, when the child begins to observe the behaviour and appearances displayed and followed by the elders of different gender, follows it as a cue to be a part of that gender, orfurther than that to be accepted. 

These beliefs and regulations are observed and learned by the child, and it is implanted throughout their life through various sources beginning from media, politics, social networks, one’s own family, and other social institutions.  The beliefs and regulations eventually transform into stereotypes within one’s society. It affects all genders by developing power struggles, their performance as an individual in the society, their independency, and a need to form an identity according to their own will. Scrutinizing the stereotypes and trying to find the purpose behind their creation can help us to comprehend their existence, and thus it will cease us from recognizing the world and everything that we are exposed to, through gendered perceptions.  Gender stereotypes, mostly regarding women and the LGBT community, and its representation in the Indian context will be discussed below, exemplified by various visual texts, which mainly consist of films and advertisements, and also textual matter.

In ‘The Namesake’, the conflict between the traditional stereotypical women versus the modern-minded women is brought about by Jhumpa Lahiri through the character of Ashima, who is not ready to let go of the traditions that are embedded in her, especially with respect to her role as a wife and a mother against that of the character of Moushumi, who is described as a rebel, tired of following the traditional standards of being a woman.  Ashima cannot be completely perceived as a stereotypical traditional wife and mother. She is contented and satisfied with her position as a wife and a mother. She doesn’t feel subjugated or repressed. Instead she finds happiness in her position, especially in her relationship with her husband, Ashoke.

However, her character is labelled as stereotypical, because the westernized understating of women empowerment is utterly contrasting from what the character of Ashima depicts. For her, the role of the wife and the mother emboldens her with strength and independence within the surrounding of her own family. The concept of ‘transnational feminism’ is exemplified through the character of Ashima. Transnational feminism contradicts the ideas of the liberal feminism, which promotes the idea that a woman should get educated and be independent. For them anything remotely related to the traditional and the stereotypical woman is regarded as oppression. They have set their own definition of independence and freedom, and completely rejects the idea that woman can be contend and independent within her role in the household.  Liberal feminism was ethnocentric and it naturally assumed that women all around the world faced similar situations and lived in similar social construct. Ashima can be seen as experiencing a silent and peaceful empowerment throughout the book.

The movie, ‘The Lunchbox, depicts Ila, a neglected married wife. In the beginning of the movie she is shown as a dependent wife, desperately seeking the attention of her husband. Ila, who is an magnificent cook, depends on her food to be the saviour of her marriage. While the food does not hold any symbolic importance for the husband, for Ila is a means through which she can gets her distant husband to be closer to her.

 She is financially dependent, lonely, overlooked, and desperate. She conforms to the norms of the society, of being a faithful, loyal, hardworking, and completely devoted wife Although an outsider watching her seek her husband’s attention might believe that she is better off without him,  she is believes that only her husband can make her happy.  Her situation, her role as married woman in a society, which makes her believe that it’s a wife’s job to keep her husband happy can be described through the following quote from, The Second Sex’,

“She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.”(Simmone,15)

By believing that she cannot live without his acknowledgement, she falls victim to the societal norms. She becomes the subaltern – the other, who is ignored, powerless and isolated.

By the virtue of being the subaltern, she loses her dignity, her purpose of existence, is denied emotional autonomy, and her presence is disdained. She becomes inferior. But towards the end, she realizes her mistake chooses her way out of the marriage, makes her own decisions, understands the fruitlessness of her relationship, and thus decides to leave. Her decision to leave her husband symbolizes the change in her previous belief that only her husband can save her. She finally understands that she is her own saviour. Thus, throughout the movie we can see her character evolving from a dependent to an independent and from a lonely to a self- sufficient woman. In a way, the movie depicts what the society expects from marriage and the failures of blindly following norms.

Earlier, the LGBT community in India was not being depicted in media to a great extent but now the scenario is changing. There are many films which portray the difficulty of being a part of the LGBT community - the societal pressure to abide by their assigned roles for each gender, their conflicts regarding their decision to be honest with the society and to face the consequences of criticisms, rejection or acceptance. The movie Welcome to Sajjanpur, depicts the different issues prevalent in India. In one instance, a widow remarriage is disrupted by the villagers who kill the couple for being from different castes. The character Munni is a eunuch who aspires to become the Sarpanch of the village, but he is threatened by his landlord. Eventually, he is murdered, which was mostly based on his sexual orientation rather than his decision to contest the elections. 

Ardhanaari, is a Malayalam movie based on the life of the transgender residing in Kerala. It focuses on the difficulties that they have to face in the society, the society’s perception and behaviour towards them. It shows the audience a glimpse of their everyday lives, where they are discouraged and humiliated by the people, even though they are as human as them. Vinayan is the protagonist who eventually realizes that he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body. He faces a lot of mockery and contempt because of his sexual orientation. However, he is eventually accepted by a group of transgender. Sometimes, the movies include the characters of transgender to add a comical effect to the plot, and it is thus filled with mockery.

Hence, non-gendered representations in media and other texts educate people about how we are bombarded with gendered ideas which we unknowingly accept. However, if seen through the political lens, India’s democracy ensures equality through the universal right to vote. Thus, irrespective of an individual’s sexual orientation, he/she is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity.  However, the media has depicted both the stereotypes and exceptions regarding all genders in India and these have surely affected the audience’s perception of gender norms in some way.

Ann Thomson