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Soaps and serials are specifically tuned to inform an objectified general public rather than a multitude of subjective individuals. In economic terms, they speak to a target market rather than relate to individual viewers. The contingencies of misunderstanding potent in this media do not allow us to assume that the message that one “gets” from a serial or soap is the message that another intended to “give.” Subjectivity governs the individual perception of meaning. However, at the level of the system, popular media succeed in defining central tendencies in meaning. They succeed because few other sources transmit this meaning across to so many people.

Among recent serials hitting the small screen dealing with the girl-child is Jhansi Ki Rani. The small screen is virtually flooded with serials and soaps centered on the girl-child in all her conventional, superstitious and humiliating glory. Balika Vadhu is about a child-bride Anandi who is married when only ten years old to 12-year-old Jagdish, the heir apparent of a feudal, affluent family. The serial’s triumph lies not so much in holding up the evils of child marriage, which is very much there, but more on the total subservience of women within patriarchy. It is a transgenerational subservience that is present as much in the small girl as it is in her seemingly autocratic Daadima.

Though the Sarada Act made child marriage illegal way back in 1929, Balika Vadhu on the small screen spells out a different story altogether. Agreed that child marriage still sustains in Rajasthan in gross violation of the Act; but to draw attention to it under pretensions of pleading the cause of the girl-child through a mass media like television does not quite amount to ‘social change’, does it? Balika Vadhu, let me point out, is not an exception. Rather, it is the rule where almost every episodic serial is trying to cash in on different issues linked directly to the girl child ranging from female foeticide, to dowry, to polygamy to poverty-linked exploitation across the board. Numerous serials based on social issues, ranging from female foeticide and young girls engaged in back-breaking work in our villages mark prime-time on the television screen today, distanced from wicked mothers-in-law, adulterous sisters, passive, back-bending daughters-in-law who live in homes as glossy and glitzy and shiny as their Benarasi saris. “Programming has moved from kitchen politics to a wider range in storytelling," said Anupama Mandloi, creative vice-president at Star Plus, the channel which ruled the roost for nine years before Colors took over. “Every episode (of Balika Vadhu) highlights how child marriage is a damaging and harmful tradition," said Ashvini Yardi, Head of Programming for Colors television. “So if anyone thinks Balika Vadhu glorifies child marriage -- they need to watch the show again.”
If one agrees with Yardi, one must retract from that agreement when the same serial shows how the other teenaged girl, Suguna, whose husband is killed by bandits, has to wear widow’s weeds and is not invited to a wedding because she is a widow. She forever wears a weepy expression of guilt and grief as if she is responsible for her husband’s untimely death. “Some negative traditions and mores are being ratified by these serials,” says Renuka Singh, a sociologist with JNU, Delhi.

Naa Aana Is Desh Laado talks about the ugly practice of female infanticide. It showed spine-chilling promos of a female infant being drowned in a milk vessel which is a fictional account of real life practices in Rajasthan. Agle Janam Mohe Bitiyan Hi Kijo deals for the first time with a low-caste, very poor family of professional rat killers. The protagonist Lali, raises uncomfortable questions about the status of girls in her community who are married young and sometimes sold off to traffickers, sometimes even killed, their deaths being swept under the carpet called ‘suicide.’ Set in a Gujarati household, Ghar Ki Lakshmi Betiyaan addresses the issue of gender discrimination. This too began its telecast in 2005, featuring a father obsessed with siring a son and hating his four daughters. As it turns out, he has a clandestine son hidden from view because of his illegitimate status. He is a useless boy and the father finally awakens to the fact that daughters need not be marginalized by virtue of their sex.

Sabki Ladli Bebo focuses on the girl-child. Its launch was in association with Project Nanhi Kali, formed by the late K.C. Mahindra in 1953 of K. C. Mahindra Education Trust with the vision of “transforming the lives of people through education, by providing financial assistance and recognition to them, across age groups and income strata. Of late, a number of TV serials are focussing on issues linked to the girl child issues in an interesting manner. Viewership is huge and therefore, they serve as an excellent medium not only to send out the intended message, but also to influence the audience to support girls. It is extremely important to project a positive image of women. Hence the association with the TV serial, Sabki Ladli Bebo,” says Nalini Das of Nanhi Kali. Aapki Antara on Zee TV is about a five-year-old autistic girl who has been taken in by a young man, much to the disgust and dismay of his wife, his extended family, her parents and his own child.
But what about the little girls who, as actresses, are part of this hard-sell of manipulative images? Are they mature enough to draw the line between their real lives and their reel characters? Will they be able to go back to the life they left behind when they slipped into fictitious characters of a bygone era? Are the software makers, scriptwriters and channels, including their parents, not stealing away the precious gift of childhood they have a right to enjoy and experience? The parents find these children their personal short-cut to fame, power and money gained vicariously, refusing to let go once they have got a taste of that forbidden apple. But these children’s lives are destroyed forever. Child rights activists were not too happy when Colors' Na Aana Iss Des Laado went on air. They felt footage of a baby girl being immersed into a pot of boiling milk was too grim and hard-hitting for a TV show meant for entertainment. According to Sandhya Bajaj, member of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), if people feel they can help in eradicating such social evils through a mass medium like the television, it is worth appreciating, but it must be done very subtly. But what does ‘very subtle’ mean? How does one show something on an audiovisual medium that is loud in a ‘subtle’ manner?
According to data gathered by Action Aid from interviews with a representative sample of over 6000 households show sex ratios have dropped in four out of five districts since the 2001 census. In Punjab among the upper caste Jat Sikh community just 500 girls were found for every 1000 boys in rural areas. In urban Punjab among Brahmins the ratio is a shocking 300. In Himachal Pradesh and Punjab, researchers recorded a growing preference for having just one child. "Squeeze on family size is fuelling the trend of 'disappearing' daughters. For households expressing preference for one child only, they want to make sure this is a son," says ActionAid researcher, Jyoti Sapru. The study has been coordinated by ActionAid with the support of International Development Research Centre, Canada. Advisory Board for the study comprises of sociologists and demographers from Jawaharlal University, Delhi University and Centre for Women Development Studies.
Television is a powerful tool. Its influence in shaping the Indian girl's self-esteem and her future is significant. The media's ability to convey mixed messages to women that fragment their identities makes it difficult for the women to become unified selves. Schizophrenic methods adopted to portray the roles of women in our society have just that effect on us: we are each an unorganized mixture of different women who have learnt that we are always being watched.
Content and serial makers put forth the argument that serials being reflective of reality are intended to reform men who indulge in violent acts against girls and women. But these so-called ‘reforms’ do not come across either in form, or in content or in their implication and impact on viewers. A large number of girls and women watch these serials. There are few buyers among men. After thousands of episodes of the so-called women oriented and girl-centered serials, crimes against women have increased, not decreased. This applies even to Kerala that boasts a positive image of women through its development indices. Sponsors keep backing these soaps and serials on the pretext of high viewership. The social costs of the profits sponsors and serial makers rake in need to be measured. To begin the reversal of gender oppression, women need to re-define themselves. We should not accept patriarchal definitions of our bodies and personas. We need a new goddess, a new woman, and a new cultural female icon that does not limit women. And girls!


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