Sexism as Newspaper marketing strategy

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

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.”

Not unexpectedly, the TOI front page picture stoked a controversy on social media. The subsequent discourse offered further insight into the deeply problematic cultures that underline journalism today. Senior journalist Shekhar Gupta tweeted that: “Objections to ToI on Kate's Marilyn moment silly. Brits have grown up view of royals as glamorous celebs. We're trapped in ‘Convented’ times.” Aditya Raj Kaul, a journalist with Times Now was similarly dismissive. “It's a Getty Images picture. Not TOI. Common sense. Better than British Press discussing Kate’s un-pedicured feet,” he tweeted. Apart from the fact that the authorship of the photograph wasn’t really the point of the controversy, these and other similar reactions suggested that some forms of sexism are seen as a natural corollary of fame. One should simply take it in one’s stride and move on. But of course, this was by no means, an isolated incident.

A similar kind of controversy–also centred on the TOI–erupted two years ago when the paper tweeted a video angled to reveal actor Deepika Padukone’s cleavage. “OMG! Deepika Padukone’s cleavage show”, ran the caption. Furious, the actor responded with a tweet: “Supposedly India’s ‘LEADING’ newspaper and this is ‘NEWS’!!??” she wrote. “YES! I am a Woman. I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??” The TOI defended its choice to run the video with the response: “It’s a compliment! You look so great that we want to make sure everyone knew! :)”  The contexts for the two images might be different, but in both Padukone’s case and Middleton’s, it is not difficult to detect a similar objectification of women’s bodies.

On a more fundamental level however, the Middleton controversy (as well as these prior incidents) points to the sexism still rampant in contemporary newsrooms–whether they appear in the form of glass ceilings that women cannot crack or in the selection of news, headlines, images and captions. Images, accompanying news stories on sexual assault that stereotype the portrayal of victims have, for instance, come in for severe criticism of late. In my years of being a journalist, I have noticed that this masculine bias also manifests itself in sexist banter, jokes, conversations–or even outright offensive behaviour in the newsroom. Unfortunately, the marketing of salacious images as news is part of this culture that thrives–both implicitly and explicitly in the day-to-day work of journalism.

Consider, a graphic the Kolkata-based daily The Telegraph carried on its front page on 18 July, 2009. The image showed five men who were then, placed in important positions in Bengal—chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Director General of police Bhupinder Singh, Police Commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti, Chief Secretary Asok Mohan Chakrabarti and Home Secretary, Ardhendu Sen–wrapped in saris. The graphic, dripping with sexism, was meant to hammer home the inertia exhibited by the administration during a bandh (strike) that month that had led to wanton vandalism and the destruction of property. “When citizens don’t feel secure in a situation there is a description for it: collapse of law and order and, by extension, of government. In such circumstances, resigning is an option, the one Mamata Banerjee wants Delhi to force on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee,” said the report accompanying the graphic.

Why sari-clad men had to symbolise ineffective or incompetent decision-making was a question the paper did not appear to have considered. Faced with outrage from women’s organisations and readers, The Telegraph carried the following explanation the next day: “The Telegraph practises gender equality. It also believes that women have long grown beyond stereotypes as the weaker sex in saris. Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee are just two examples of women in positions of strength. There are a million other unknown women—in saris or business suits—in whose daily shows of strength we rejoice in the pages of our newspaper. We hope our readers will see the Gang of Five in Saris in that context.” This ‘explanation’ managed to sidestep an apology. It also failed to address the implicit assumption that the sari, and by extension those who wore them, signified incompetence.

Unfortunately, political or radical liberalism does not always square well with gender consciousness. It is perfectly acceptable and plausible to be simultaneously an evolved liberal and a crass male chauvinist. Feminism continues to be regarded by many as a somewhat crazy idea that robs women off their sense of humour, their ability to laugh and just tolerate apparently benign sexist jokes. To believe that women editors in decision-making positions would eradicate the contemporary sexist culture in one fell swoop, is surely naïve. But, to dismiss the importance of powerful gendered spaces in rectifying gender distortions is no less presumptuous.

The controversy around Middleton’s picture affirms that contemporary Indian media has come to market sexism as a product of consumption, even as it beats the drum for women’s empowerment. In this muddled space, the TOI positions itself as a product that is almost a past master at playing all sides, feeding contradictory imaginations, befuddling complexities and–not taking an identifiable stand on any given subject. This contradiction is reflected in the manner in which the publication responded to the inappropriate comments that the cricketer Chris Gayle had made to a woman television reporter in January this year. The paper ran an editorial, taking Gayle to task, “Perhaps it is time that the likes of Chris Gayle woke up to the fact that the world has changed for the better in terms of gender sensitivity … Being aware of gender sensitivities and recognising that women are not mere sex objects is today a sign of being a 'real man.'

So, even as the TOI runs stories and editorials against sexualising women, it pushes the image of Middleton on its front page, –perhaps confident that some will exonerate it as irreverence. Not unlike other newspapers and television channels, the publication seems content to feed the imagination of both voyeuristic Peeping Toms as well as those who condemn such masculine cultural practices. This is partly why undertaking a proper critique of Indian media is a difficult task. Since they play all sides and are–as a result–attacked by all and sundry, it has now become common for columnists, editors and anchors to ask, “Why shoot the messenger?” Underlying this question, however, is a more complex reality. The relegation of the media to the status of a mere messenger is a tempting, but insufficient defence against the responsibility that it is attempting to eschew.