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Today’s Indian Woman: Old Relationship, New Robot

Posted: February 21, 2011
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The New Indian Woman in the Star Plus anthem: is she Superwoman or just on some powerful drugs?

By Amrita Rajan

The new Star Plus anthem introduces us to a fresh ideal of the modern Indian woman: the superwoman in her guise of the everywoman. A fetching young lady wakes up at the crack of dawn, salwar kameez-and-dupatta in place, to fix her adorable toddler a school lunch, before bullying her mother-in-law into sticking with her vocal exercises and her father-in-law his diet. She makes out with her amorous husband in the bathroom, hangs out with a senior citizen, circles around to blow her husband a goodbye kiss on his way to the office, and then jogs in friendly fashion around her neighborhood.

A round of socializing with the family, friends and random passersby is interspersed by her communing with nature. Next comes a dance class at home and flying kites with her devoted family and helping out with the household chores. She ventures out in between to direct traffic and beat off villainous-looking political types trying to plaster the walls of her home with illegal posters. Afterwards, she heads off to anchor a TV show where she works overtime like a good employee even if it means she’s late to her own birthday party. But that’s all right, because she makes up for it by rousing her family and showing them a jolly good time before cuddling on the rooftop with her husband and stargazing late into the night. When the sun comes up, we are left to assume, the cycle begins all over again.

The New Indian Woman must also be on some powerful drugs because just typing out that description of her typical day leaves me exhausted. Where does she find the time to think, to breathe, just have a minute to herself? More importantly, when does she go to the bathroom?

The evolving role of women in India 

I suppose the creative team behind this PR campaign has its heart in the right place – it’s pretty remarkable that a channel whose top rated TV serial, Saath Nibhana Saathiya, is about as maddeningly conservative as it gets, would choose “Rishta wahi, Soch nayi” (“Old relationship, New thought”) as its tagline and prominently feature a working woman. And there are worse ways to depict a woman than to cast her as a superwoman who can do it all, as Star Plus should know all too well.

But it should be of concern to all of us that these kind of aspirational ideals are increasingly directed toward women. When was the last time anybody referenced an Ideal Indian Man? Women are always asked what kind of man they’d like to marry but it’s the set up for an easy joke – an example of their unrealistic expectations. When was the last time parents were exhorted to raise their sons to those specifications? Yet men with no special achievement to their name other than being male and perhaps a job can advertise for a “homely, convent-educated, beautiful, fair-skinned, tall, slim girl of X caste” and still get away with it. In fact, parents will go the extra mile to ensure their daughter fulfills as many of those conditions as she possibly can, even if it means spending tons of money on weight-loss programs run by quacks and dubious products like Fair & Lovely.

…the notion of the perfect woman has expanded to a point where it’s hard to see how any one woman could ever be happy about her life.

A century or two ago, both men and women were being raised to meet certain expectations. Of course, even back then men got a significant headstart in life, but society still had its standards. Somewhere along the way, the qualities of the perfect man appear to have become all but unimportant (do you have money and muscles? Congratulations! You’re a demi-god!) while the notion of the perfect woman has expanded to a point where it’s hard to see how any one woman could ever be happy about her life.

Manic robots such as the one in the Star Plus anthem are the end result because real people can only do so much. When a woman, not just in India but anywhere in the world, decides she wants a career, she’s basically signing up for two – the one with the paycheck and the default one where she manages a home and family, quite often to universal dissatisfaction.

Numerous studies on women in business all come to the same conclusion viz. many women choose entrepreneurship over employment. This allows them to fulfill their social obligations (the ones their male colleagues traditionally pass on to their wives) and set their own schedule without struggling with feelings of incompetence for failing to simultaneously live up to the male-centric concept of a typical work day and successful career strategy as well as society’s ideal of a nurturing woman, which stresses completely different values.

Ambition might not know any gender but social obligations do. As more and more women join the workforce, surely we can admit that nobody of either gender can do it all? Perhaps that nice husband in the Star Plus ad could fix his daughter a sandwich tomorrow morning. That would be an old relationship with a new thought.

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