Words by Shruti Tiwari
“The Modern Woman can do it all.” It was with this motto that the advertising industry was revolutionised in the early 90s in India marked by a socio-cultural change in the country. The “new” woman worked a 9-5 job, maintained the house, raised the kids, cooked food, catered to the needs her old in laws- all without breaking a sweat and looking like a goddess with unblemished skin, thick black hair and the corner of her saree tucked around her petite waste making her ever so desirable and the epitome of womanhood. With this idea, a new way of selling products came into being that not only focused on the women as a target audience but used their body and sexuality to milk this idea in generating such a need in their consumers that remains unsatisfied till date.
The new Prestige pressure cookers enables our modern woman to cook in minutes and has “more time, more money for other useful work” like washing the clothes with the new Surf Excel detergent which not only takes off tough stain off her husband’s shirts (while he eats the food prepared in Dalda ghee- because responsible mothers and wife cook for their family only in Dalda ghee) but also keeps her hands soft so that she continues to be the ideal and physically desirable wife. The well-known Usha sewing machine moulds any girl into a “prefect housewife” and is the best gift for your daughter. Furthermore, in order to promote this idea of an all rounded, perfect woman, often religious symbols are used. Women are depicted with six hands carrying not only kitchen tools but also electronics and files emphasising their “modernity.”
One needs to question that these advertisements (and by extension ideas) are a source of patriarchal standards in the society or a mere reflection of the same. Even when with evolving times, woman stepped outside the domestic spaces to work, she couldn’t let go of her conventional femininity and the expected responsibilities that came with it. She would definitely need the new mixer grinder to save her time so that she could reach work on time. It goes without saying that the freedom that was ‘granted’ to woman came with its conditions. It was precisely these conditions that used by the advertising industry for their benefit. The narratives were based on chaining women and then selling a key to the same for sky rocketed prices.
In addition to this, the portrayal of women sexuality in the advertisements further highlights the plight of representation of real woman (or lack thereof) in the advertising industry. The 1980 print ad for Linoleum floor covering shows a woman leisurely reading on the floor, with her saree falling, giving us a clear look of her cleavage, the ads of most automobiles consisted of propagating the idea of the possession of a Royal Enfield make a man sought after by depicting women falling over him on the motorcycle. The Liril film ad of 1970 was the first time a bikini clad Indian woman was shown in advertising. The man who directed the film hailed it to be progressive saying “prior to that she was always shown as very demure and mostly fully clad.”
But was it really progressive? It is crucial to note how during this time, the feminist movement was only a half-baked idea that would not find its standing for another ten years. Therefore, the idea of autonomy of one’s body was still a distant dream for most women. It was against this backdrop that the print and digital ads depicting women is revealing clothes was termed as “progressive”. It can very well be argued that the revealing of women’s bodies and depiction of their sexuality was (and still is) accepted as long as it is for pleasure of men and consumerism.
Even as we have progressed into the 21st century, the digital advertisement of Lux features an eminent heroine bathing in a bathtub full of rose petals and the advertisements of male products like inner wear and deodorants have multiple women depicted as mere arm candy. Hence, it is safe to question, has the blatant sexism and patriarchy in Indian advertising industry changed over the years? Have women attained the right to be depicted as normal human beings? The answer to the above maybe subjective but it remains an uncontested fact that the idea of a woman completely abandoning the home maker role is problematic. Therefore, most print and digital advertisements still show a woman in the home space in compared to a man. The New Woman is still located within the constraints of traditional roles i.e., a mother coming back to her kids at the end of the day and cooking the ready-made food ever manufactured and ever advertised by the consumer-focused industry.