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The joke is always on women, but why are we laughing?

Last week, I (among others) took offence to a recent outdoor hoarding. I was shocked by its casual sexism and peeved about the use of cheap publicity to get eyeballs. A half-baked apology only added insult to injury. But it is hard to hold on to outrage—especially when we all seem to be outrage-ing so much about so many things nowadays—and by Monday I was much calmer.

But I couldn’t get the episode out of my mind. I found myself wondering about the diversity of reactions to the ad itself, which used abbreviations for common Hindi abuses that depict incest. I also kept thinking about how some folks on social media who found the ad funny, not offensive—and I’ll be the first to say that they are entitled to their opinion—also expressed their distress about the rape of a 4-year old girl, which was reported in the media around the same time. It is hard for me to wrap my head around this dichotomy and yet, it aptly demonstrates the extent to which sexual violence against women has got normalised in our society. It takes the rape of a child to upset us, but mothers and sisters being raped is now par for the course!

I find it fascinating that, for the majority, there is no relevant link between sexist advertising (and jokes) and the dismal record of Indian cities on women’s safety. Recently released data from NCRB shows that reported rape cases increased by 12.4% between 2015 and 2016. While crime data on domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction and rape is collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), many others forms of violence that women experience on a daily basis remain poorly documented. We know from media reports as well as many micro studies these too are widespread and on the rise. The statistics on child abuse, unfortunately, are worse. Across the country young children, mostly girls, are being sexually assaulted, often times by teachers, family members, neighbours and caregivers, people whom they implicitly trust. The NCRB reports a dramatic 13.6% increase in crime against children over the last three years, with about 35% of the cases registered under POCSO, or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.

These numbers, shocking as they are, no longer make an impression on us because we seem to have accepted that this is how Indian society is. Our reactions to the news items about raped children comprise expressing anguish, tightening security around our families and securing good marriages for our daughters, thus passing on the responsibility of their safety to someone else. Or, for the elite, sending our children abroad.

Unlike in other issues like terrorism or national security, we find it hard to pin point the enemy in the case of gender-based violence and so we blame the ‘other’, usually folks from another class and/or religion. Helpless and frustrated, we take solace in our WhatsApp groups, our laughter clubs, our kitty circles, our YouTube stand-up comedies, our Friday beers and we enjoy a few ‘husband-wife’ or ‘blonde’ jokes. The next morning, we read about another rape story and hurriedly turn to the sports page, where BCCI slamming pollution-troubled Sri Lankan cricketers makes for an entertaining read.

Missing the point! Delhi police ad to aid women’s safety

This ad is in the papers this morning and its good to see the police sending out a strong message about something that has really become a talking point in Delhi and where the police have taken a huge beating to their reputation.
In a presentation to the LG, DDA body UTTIPEC had suggested pro active campaigns that used images of men to reinforce that men need to take the initiative on an issue like violence against women as opposed to constantly showing a woman as a victim. Looks like the suggestion was well taken. I am a bit concerned about the copy here though. It suggests that men should take personal action (beat them?) against perpetrators of crimes against women. It’s only the small print that clarifies that the suggestion is for men to report other men who they observe committing such crimes!
While I think it’s a great idea to start a campaign that calls on citizens to partner with the police, I am not sure this sends out the right message! Comments anyone?


Putting advertising in perspective for my kids! Battle is on- Aug 13, 2012

Aadyaa does not know what a cigarette is and am I glad about that! Stupid me brought cigarette smoking up in a conversation and met a blank stare! This is how it happened.
Lately, I’ve been getting plagued by her requests for products she sees in advertisements. She asked me for some Barbie accessories at a mall the other day. She was rather insistent but I wiggled out of it by saying we can make much nicer clothes for her dolls from scrap cloth we have at home. Which is true, but what sold the concept to get was that those clothes would be different, exclusive! Today she wanted something else. I couldn’t even understand what it was, probably something sweet and refined 🙂
So I had to say something to stem this tide. I have experience in conditioning the minds of children with respect to advertising about which I have very strong views! Udai had once wanted to have Complan and not Bournvita with his milk. Maybe it was the other way around, how does it matter? So I sat him down and told him advertising (mostly) was paid for by profit making companies to influence our minds so that we buy their product not their competitors. I also went on to say that brands targeted children as agents to influence buying decisions of adults who are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles of impressionable and demanding kids! Also that claims made in ads may or may not be true. He bought the arguments entirely, to the extent that he started drinking his milk without either of those additives! And still does! This set of conversations also taught him not to accept everything at face value and not get carried away by gloss and glamour, to evaluate information and think it through.
Today I told Aadyaa all of that. And then I tried to give cigarettes as an example. That it is bad for health but advertisements can influence people to smoke! And there’s where I hit a dead end. I was thinking about my childhood. Things have changed now. Cigarette smoking is no longer the iconic cool thing it was, at least I hope so. Not only is there no advertising permitted for cigarettes and alcohol, smoking is banned from public places. So Aadyaa simply doesn’t know what a cigarette is! Blissfully oblivious. I don’t know what that means for her adult life and I am hoping it is a positive thing. But I need to find another example to revisit the advertising discussion. She is a tougher nut to crack, but I am getting there slowly! I have cracked through the obsession with girlie pink (also a sad stereotype created by branding and ads) and got her to appreciate the rest of the colour palette. I will convince her to see ads in a balanced way as well. The battle is on!


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