Sexism as Newspaper marketing strategy

21 April 2016
An ad run by the Times of India on 22 January 2013.
courtesy the Times Of India
An ad run by the Times of India on 22 January 2013.
courtesy the Times Of India

During my time, the evening news meetings in the Delhi office of the Times of India (TOI), during which the paper’s front page is decided, were usually an exclusively male affair. It just so happens that the top rung of the country’s largest media organisation is represented solely by male editors. During the approximately two years I worked at the TOI’s Delhi office, I found women editors at these meetings to be rare or few and far between. The subject of the front page was invariably the prerogative of male editors. This conspicuous absence of women in the top hierarchy of a paper that markets itself as a brandforwomen’sempowerment, besides being ironic, would also seem to explain the sexism that so often manifests itself in the main sections of the paper.

Take, for instance, the paper’s recent front page. On 12 April 2016, the TOI ran a story headlined “Kate’s Marilyn moment at India Gate.” Below the headline was a picture of the visiting Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton laying down a wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti, a national monument dedicated to Indian soldiers who had died in the First World War. In the picture, Kate Middleton is seen struggling to manage her dress as it billows in the strong wind. The caption for the photo read: “It was a solemn occasion as Prince William and his wife Kate laid a wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate. Unfortunately, it was also a gusty afternoon giving Kate some anxious moments as she struggled to manage her unruly $1,700 dress reminding onlookers of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress picture. The couple then visited Gandhi Smriti before leaving for a garden party to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday at the British High Commissioners residence.”

The comparison to the “Marilyn moment” is an allusion to Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe’s famous picture from the 1954 film Seven Year Itch. In the image, Monroe is standing on a subway grate in New York City, attempting to keep her white dress down against the force of a gust of wind. It isn’t entirely unreasonable to wonder what possibly binds these two moments together except that both, in their projection of women in white billowing dresses, suggest a voyeuristic glimpse of the bodies underneath. While in Monroe’s case, the deliberate show of her dress was done as part of a cinematic production, Middleton was merely caught in an embarrassing moment–hardly meant for media intrusion, much less sensationalised publicity.

Not only was the picture on the front page devoid of a whit of news, it also seemed to have been put there only to feed a popular culture of sexism that we encounter in everyday life. This is the same culture that prevails in most media newsrooms. The same strong gust of wind didn’t spare William either–his coat too had turned upwards. But that visual was neither carried nor commented upon. As Rega Jha, the editor of BuzzFeed India, pointed out in an article: “Instead, he (William) was granted privacy and the basic courtesy of a leeway to be human.” Middleton, on the other hand, was easy prey.

The TOI was not alone in yielding to the temptation of projecting the so-called “Kate-Monroe moment” as a titillating news item. Several UK-based tabloids including The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Mirror ran with much the same theme. A report in the mainstream UK-based daily The Telegraph felt the need to add: “The Queen always has weights sewn into the hems of her dresses to ensure she never suffers a ‘Marilyn Monroe moment.’ The Duchess of Cambridge, the story seemed to imply, had erred by not picking up on that tip.”

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.

Keywords: Times of India media ethics Indian media sexism