The media’s objectification of the youth

BY shivam vij| IN Media Practice | 28/04/2003
The disconnect is not between the urban youth and the realities of India but between the media and the youth.
 

 

 

Shivam Vij

 

 

Roused by Gandhi’s call for civil disobedience in 1930, a thirteen-year-old girl named Rani Gaidilieu raised the banner of rebellion against colonialism in Nagaland. The English put her in prison in 1932, and it was only in 1947 that the government of free India released her, along with encomiums from Nehru. If senior journalists in India are to be believed, we can no longer produce another Rani Gaidilieu, leave alone a Nehru. Here are two examples, one from NDTV and the other from Outlook.

 

Last year when news of terrorists in a busy shopping complex in Delhi was breaking, Star News was airing its popular talk show We The People. There is a perception, Barkha Dutt declared to the audience, that the urban Indian youth is "disconnected from the realities of India".

"Do you read newspapers?" she asked Ayaan and Aman Ali Bangash, who have come to be known more as ‘star kids’ than as exponents of the sarod. "If not in print then at least on the Net," they said, leaving Dutt almost disappointed.

She asked: Why have the young lost the spirit of rebellion? They haven’t, said a young lady, adding that she ‘rebelled’ by taking up a non-conformist career in music. But what Dutt had meant by rebellion was the Amitabh Bachchan-type Angry Young Man stuff.

So the award-winning journalist came on more familiar territory. Do the youth think about their country? Why don’t urban metropolitan youth want to join politics? The implication seemed to be that you cannot ‘think about your country’ without joining politics. A JNU sociologist gave an equally banal answer: politics has come to be associated with crime and corruption...

 

The picture of the Indian teenager that Dutt had in mind was of a consumerist urban animal, living in a cocooned society that is busy eating McDonald’s burgers, freaking out with pals, and enacting an American Desi of sorts in Greater Kailash II.

 

Another journalist aired similar views, this time bolstered with ‘evidence.’ Imaginatively titled "Ungratefuls", the story by Pramila N. Phatarphekar in an Independence Day special issue of Outlook, tried to find out "Gen Next’s ground reality". In this endeavour, "Outlook reporters in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore went out and had a cha t." An excerpt:

MUMBAI: A bunch of girls outside St Xavier’s College. What makes it interesting is that these are students of History, free right now and tanking up on sandwiches between lectures.

Outlook: "What was the whole deal in this Quit India Movement?" (They repeat the words Quit India Movement among themselves.) Then, Rosemary: "We don`t know exactly but there is a lot of Gandhi in that." Outlook: "Why did it all start?" Elan: "No idea."

Not a single interviewee in the four cities could answer such questions as: Have you heard of the RSS? Is Zail Singh dead or alive? What’s the Quit India Movement all about? Is Muslim League a football tournament? How many years did the British rule us? What language is our anthem written in?

The article ended with an expectedly pessimistic note: "Maybe it should be Gen Next after Next we should be thinking about now. For our ‘80s babies may have grown up to nothing besides the challenge of Thums Up."

The story was incredulous enough to invite several readers’ attention, many of whom belonged to the much misunderstood ‘Gen Next’ (the phrase has begun to sound cheap). The letters page berated the story for exaggeration. One undergraduate student of journalism, named Trupthi Basavaraj, said the article indulged in baseless generalisations. "If we seem so hopeless," she asked, "why was there a reduction in the use of firecrackers last Diwali? Why did the youth on Independence Day distribute and wear white ribbons in protest against communal violence? Walk into any school with a decent teaching faculty and ask them who Gandhiji was or what the Quit India movement represented and they will be able to provide you with an answer. You have not only misrepresented youth but also assumed that our previous generation knows so much more than we do…"

Objectification of the youth

The two examples, one from television and the other from print, are  examples of the objectification of the youth in the media. This happens all the time: in films, television, newspapers and magazines. Be it advertising or journalism, cinema or the Ekta Kapoor serials, the media is loath to represent the young as real people with real concerns. Even news channels now reflect this as Pretty Young Things (PYTs) replace serious, experienced journalists on the newsreader’s desk. The newsreader’s good looks are more important than his or her ability to put the right questions to the correspondent in Baghdad. The "MTV generation" is not for real. The phrase should actually be regarded as a euphemism for the collective image of the youth that various media leave in your subconscious.

What is objectification of the youth? To borrow from Dhiraj Singh, a print journalist, it is "The musicvideofication of life, where too much time and energy is expended on being sexually attractive and very little on what wannabe beauty queens in India routinely call, with a dash of irony, ‘inner beauty’." This is not the reality for a majority of the youth, just a façade that the media presents.

This is not to single out youth channels. The so-called Page Three supplements, which are considered to be the bane of Indian journalism, do the same thing, making the problem much worse. It is their self-avowed aim to cater to young readers and as such fulfil a demand. You are told that since young readers are not interested in a drought or a political party’s electoral successes, you need something else to keep them interested in your paper. And that something else is all that is sexy: scantily clad models and gossip about who is Tom Cruise’s latest crush.  Also agony aunt columns that trivialise readers’ problems (with inspiration from "MTV Loveline") and profiles of public figures that never question, that are never critical: they are just exercises in PR.

The media is unconsciously desensitising society towards the youth. If you don’t find too many people protesting against this, it is because objectification of the youth is far subtler than, say, objectification of women. It has made it unfashionable for youngsters to be intellectual. It pressurises them to conform to a stereotype of being ‘cool, young and happening’ (a Page Three editor used that phrase when she refused to accept a serious article from me). As Bipasha Basu said in an interview, "If you are not sexy, you are boring." ‘Sexy’ here is not just about how you look, but also how you think and who you are.

Not just teenagers, even the pre-teens are victims of objectification of a more direct kind. Children, acknowledged to be high-spending consumers, are rarely presented as individuals in their own right. In Pinki Virani’s Bitter Chocolate, she writes that children are more visible in the media than ever before, and they are increasingly represented as attractive objects, "at times — particularly in the case of female children — as objects of desire".

This is seen most often in advertising. Virani writes: "A little girl in an off-the-shoulder black velvet dress and ringlets, dancing in Bollywood film heroine style, frontally, for the camera, may even appear cute to some viewers. But this objectified representation of the little girl mimicking an adult object of desire is to me objectionable... Such modes of representation also begin to set the benchmark for the way little girls dress... wearing more and more inappropriate clothes."

Surveying the facts

The raison d’etre of Page Threeism — the driving force behind youth objectification — is giving readers ‘what they want’. The truth, however, is that media planners and channel executives seem to have decided on their own what their young audiences want. When MTV came to India, for instance, it was wholly about contemporary Western music — that’s what highly Westernised Indian guys and gals want, they thought. But when their ratings stagnated after a time, it took a market research survey for them to discover that young India wanted contemporary Indian ‘pop’ and film music as well.

Similar is the mistake that media planners make when they say that young readers and audiences want only non-serious content. If this were true, the India Today Group’s youth magazine, Teens Today, would have been a roaring success. It had all the elements of a yuppie culture that the media says has arrived. But Teens Today had to close down. There wasn’t a market large enough to sustain it.

In contrast, if you look at the National Readership Survey (NRS) 2002, India’s largest selling magazine is Saras Salil of the Delhi Press Publications, selling a whopping 63 lakh copies every fortnight. And what exactly is Saras Salil all about? It’s a B-Grade youth magazine in Hindi that comes for as little as four rupees. The first issue of April 2003, for instance, talks about the budget (‘the government is looting the poor...’) and politics (‘the BJP’s fortunes aren’t getting any better...’). Serious leftist stuff, along with short stories and features on issues like child marriage and child labour. Of course there’s covert sex, because the readers are adolescents, but that’s only towards the end. Teens Today, music channels and the Page Three supplements presume that having some fun and intellectual stimulation are mutually exclusive. But Saras Salil knows better.

Some would argue that the perception of Indian youth as IBCD’s (Indian Born Confused Desis) applies only to urban metropolitan youth, and Saras Salil’s readership comes mainly from villages and small towns, from the kind of people who are disparagingly dismissed as HMT’s or Hindi Medium Types. Proving this incorrect is a 1999 India Today-ORG MARG survey, conducted to ascertain the "mind of the young voter" on the eve of general elections. Amongst the findings was that youth in rural areas are less interested in politics and current affairs than their urban counterparts for the simple reason that literacy levels are lower in rural areas.

Other findings showed that the youth still have a very conservative outlook. 81 per cent preferred arrange marriage to love marriage, and 84 per cent wanted to marry within their community; 66 per cent said married women shouldn’t work.

A majority said they’d vote for the BJP, and sure, Vajpayee came to power. Television and newspapers were their prime source of political information. 90 per cent said they would serve the country in case of war, 58 per cent said economic liberalisation was the right step, although 84 per cent condoned protectionism. 65 per cent wanted reservations to go and 79 per cent said they wouldn’t settle abroad even if they were given a chance to do so. Yet the image of the youth that the media presents is diametrically opposite of these attitudes.

In a Hindustan Times education supplement I once saw a story about books being ‘back in fashion’ amongst teenagers. The story must have been more of a self-discovery for the reporter rather than an essay on youth trends, because the India Today-ORG MARG survey also said 67 per cent of those surveyed were ‘interested’ in books!

More recently, a Hindustan Times-commissioned survey by Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) Mode in five metros, made similar findings (HT Sunday Magazine, 3 February 2003). The survey was conducted amongst young men and women between 16 and 24 years of age. Self-styled journalists talk about lack of role models in society to inspire the youth, but a third of the respondents listed their own parents as role models. Family bonding was important for 84 per cent. This is a generation brought up on cable TV no doubt, but their favourite was Star Plus, followed by Discovery and Nat Geo, leaving the music channels in the third spot. Other findings included an inclination towards religion and the lack of any such thing as a ‘sexual revolution’ that the media would have us believe is already here.

 

Women remain more housebound than men and gender biases still prevail. A career in teaching is especially popular with women but overall, according to the survey, the traditional doctor-engineer-MBA kind of careers rule the roost. This is contrary to the yuppie image, which suggests that everyone is taking up ‘sexy’ careers like modelling, films, television, and fashion designing. The reality, in fact, is that youngsters wanting to take up unconventional careers face considerable obstacles of acceptance by family and friends. Support for them should ideally come, say, from the education and career supplements by highlighting the opportunities in an unconventional career. But these supplements tend to focus on the IAS-IIM-IIT-PMT circuit because that is what brings in the ads from coaching institutes.

Youngsters anxious about the non-IIT/PMT careers turn to the Internet as recourse. Indeed, the new media is one medium that does not objectify the youth. Being interactive by nature, it leaves ample room for individuality. As psychiatric counselling remains unthinkable for many, they turn to chat rooms with their problems. Email lists and blogs, websites and search engines make sure that there is no high-profile newspaper manager deciding for you what you want.

The politics of being young

The ‘clinching’ argument of those protesting against the 80’s babies as a lost generation is that they aren’t ‘interested in politics’. If by being disinterested in politics one means they don’t want to join politics, sure, that’s true. Disinterest in politics is attributed to disillusionment with the performance of politicians. As the JNU sociologist said with banality in We The People: politics has come to be associated with crime and corruption. Yet, if this was true, a majority would have been disillusioned with the future of India? Not quite. They are happily Hindustani: 70 per c ent in the HT-TNS Mode survey said they believed in the promise of a bright future in this country, 39 per cent of them fervently so.

In fact, politics as a career is not very attractive in anywhere in the world for the simple reason that it’s not easy being a politician: for one, there is no job security.

On the other hand, if by being disinterested in politics one means they don’t keep in touch with what’s happening in the world or that they aren’t responsible citizens, this is false. The HT-TNS Mode survey, for instance, says: "Young urban Indians are concerned about many issues — communalism, corruption, Kashmir..." The India Today-ORG MARG survey found that a number of young voters had strong views on several political questions: from liberalisation to nuclearisation, from the use of religion in politics to whether a foreign-born should be allowed to prime minister, they had a view on everything. More significantly, a good 82 per cent said they would caste their vote in the imminent general elections. (75 per cent of the minority who did not intend to vote listed their reason as the absence of their names from the voters’ list.) The magazine observed: "Interestingly, the apathy displayed by upper-class voters on polling day was not in evidence among the youth." So who’s disinterested in politics, the youth or their previous generations?

The disconnect, therefore, is not between the urban youth and ‘the realities of India’ but between the media and the youth. ‘Disconnect’ here is a euphemism for generation gap. The mindsets and personalities of the ‘80s babies have been shaped by the ‘90s - the decade when they became teenagers, a decade of tremendous societal change in India and the world. It is thus inevitable that the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s babies are not able to understand the present generation.

The eighties was a decade of transition, of caste clashes and the coming of the ‘information age’. In 1991 as India changed track towards free enterprise, it was India’s second independence, the beginning of the decade which shaped the minds of the ‘80s babies. The economy was freed from much of the state controls. As things started moving, a million mutinies resulted in imparting the new generation a strong sense of individualism. They didn’t grow up with history, but they grew up to the challenge of an ever so competitive future.

This has made them less political than the previous generations. It should be a matter of celebration, not dismay, that they are a little detached from politics. Too much politics has a vulgarising effect. Media planners are unable to understand these generational changes and jump to baseless conclusions about ‘the 80’s babies’.

This is how the report on the HT-TNS Mode survey ended: "Disenchantment with politics is high. But then so is idealism and a belief in family values. This is a generation that is equally at home with Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and MTV. Above all, it’s a generation that believes in India and the promise that it holds out. All things considered, that’s a cause for cheer."

What is not a cause for cheer, however, is that the media misunderstands the urban youth (and never pretends that there is any such species as the rural youth), it under-estimates their intelligence, ignores their concerns and objectifies them.

Shivam Vij is a student. Contact: shivamvij@hotmail.com

 

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