At present, soap operas are arguably the most highly appraised epicenter of entertainment in the average household in our part of the world. By definition, “soap operas are ongoing works of fiction, and episodic in nature. In layman’s terms, soaps are stories told over an extended period, with different characters being featured at different times” (Burch, 2002). Some common elements in soap operas include personal relationships, emotional and moral conflicts and various burning social issues such as rape, teen drinking, drug abuse, adoption, addiction and more. Within this realm, representation of women in TV soaps has always been a heated issue.
In our society, gender roles are socially constructed (Berger and Luckman, 1966). Most of the behavior associated with gender is learned rather than innate. People learn what sorts of behavior and personality are regarded in their cultural context as appropriate for males or females. Women in the social construction of gender are believed to be the subject of ‘male gaze’ in order to be a part of the social construction system and maintain social norms of a long living society.
Currently, most of the Indian and Bangladeshi TV soaps show ‘home’ or the domestic sphere as the core setting and the fundamental theme is centered on women whose primary concern is family. In this context, women’s achievement is valued in terms of their responsibility for running a successful household, settling down in matrimonial bliss, bearing children, teaching them to be ‘ideal’ human beings.
Generally, women are portrayed in a number of stereotypical roles in these TV programs. Of them, the most common one is the portrayal as “Ideal Mother”, a person who possesses greater wisdom than all her children, whose sympathy is large enough to encompass the conflicting claims of her family and who has no demands or claims of her own (Modleski, 1979). This character eventually features prominently in Bangladeshi soap operas too.
Little discussion is done by academics on women’s representation in Bangladeshi television, especially in the soap operas. As a keen observer of trends, my approach is as a participant observer where I will show that women are still typecast in traditional roles, and stereotypically represented as dependent, docile, emotional women in TV soaps.
Indian soaps like their Bangladeshi counterpart focus on the family; women are mainly seen as wives, mothers, and daughters spending much of their time in experiencing and discussing personal and domestic crises. These programs, widely available through satellite television, are not only popular with Bangladeshi audiences but also have influenced the local product. Within that context, the programs might centre on the value of the mother’s nurturance and work, as shown in popular Star Plus serials.
The backgrounds, characters, and the narratives of central theme of these soaps are related to women’s issues and the problems they face in their daily lives. However, from my point of view, these soap operas are guilty of stereotyping women and of being excessively dramatic, they define distorted perceptions of gender roles in the minds of the people. The soaps also depict some bad and scheming women who are often dressed boldly with plunging necklines, deep cut blouses, short hair, big ‘bindis’, dark lipstick and heavy makeup to reinforce the kitchen politics. The qualities of the “perfect woman” include femininity, beauty, propriety, congeniality, vigilance and a caring nature. At the same time, the soaps incorporate some negative narcissistic female characters as schemers and manipulators to spice up the plot for the target audience.
Bangladeshi soap operas also perpetuate myths by creating a world of fantasy rather than portraying the reality. For example, the popular Bangladeshi TV soap Gulshan Avenue, aired on Bangla Vision satellite TV channel portrays the central female character as the unrealistic ‘superwoman’ (somebody who performs all household chores, takes care of children and also admirable at workplace), the super wife, the super daughter-in law and the super mother.
Characterization in the serial is also consistent with the melodramatic mode of narration. Characters occupy one dimension of a polarized moral economy of good and evil, which Gledhill (1992) identifies as central to melodrama as opposed to realism. Those supportive of the main protagonists in the serial are shown to be good, and worthy of an audiences’ sympathies, while the rest are shown as villainous – avaricious, selfish, venal and so on. In Gulshan Avenue, the principal character Samia represents the ideal woman, well educated, a perfect blend of modern and traditional values. Yasmin, who supports Samia in the plot, is also quite commendable character-wise. On the other hand, the ‘bad’ women (Laboni, Rehana and Sonia) are shown to dress much less modestly than Samia and Yasmin, often glamorously in the brighter, expensive and flashy sharees and jewelry they wear.
The extravagant lifestyles shown by TV soaps are further examples of a dominant pattern in melodramatic forms. In Gulshan Avenue, the Chowdhury family’s wealth and elite social status is underlined at every occasion but at no point the source of this wealth is mentioned. The business tycoons in TV soaps deal in crores, but hardly are they seen working. Rather they are hooked up resolving their personal issues which is impractical and unrealistic in Bangladeshi context.
It is generally argued that Bangladeshi soaps project gender stereotypes, present an unreal picture of women and do not mirror contemporary urban society. Khan, Hoque, and Khan (2001) also emphasize the fact by saying that even the state regulated Bangladeshi television (BTV) shows distorted images of women that represent typical feudal images of women, thereby strengthening the traditional patriarchy. The central protagonists of most popular prime-time soap operas are typical prototypes of the ‘glorious motherhood’ images. Here I would like to describe Yasmin’s character from the soap Gulshan Avenue. Yasmin is honest, kind, deferential, and sometimes misunderstood by the other members of her family. She always reacts in a socially correct manner and when she decides to solve a problem she does it her way. Her primary concern is maintaining family relationships. Therefore she seeks reconciliation and tries to maintain her family unity.
In Bangladeshi soap operas, representation of women as mothers and wives seems to be the most difficult stereotypes to break. Moreover, soap operas portray characters for who the family, home, and particularly the children forever remain of primary importance. In the soaps, women perform all household chores like vacuuming, laundry folding, cooking, and serving food, taking care of her children irrespective of her job. For example in the soap FnF, the character Opi works in an office and takes care of her family. Her character exhibits her excellent professional commitments, meeting deadlines and achieving success. When she stays with her husband, she does everything herself happily. My prediction is that, if she were to hire a professional cook or cleaner, the audience might deny accepting her as an ideal woman. That’s how Bangladeshi soaps fantasize the concept of superwomen through the role of Opi. In reality such unrealistic representation of women creates pressure on working women who often have to cope with their domestic responsibilities besides fulfilling their professional commitments. On the other hand, the so-called ‘successful women’ are often divorced and are presented in a manner characteristic of this type of soaps. Their traits include heavy make-up, abundance of jewelry, and provocative outfits, often in bright colors.
While watching women’s representation in Bangladeshi soaps, I observe Modleski’s (1988) view that soaps basically serve to reinforce patriarchal ideologies by connecting to women’s sense of powerlessness. The passive woman in Bangladeshi soap, not surprisingly, is submissive and self-sacrificing. She is trained to take on the only socially acceptable role for a woman, that of wife and mother. She is not allowed to marry the person she loves; rather she has to marry someone her family thinks is ideal for her.
In Bangladeshi soap operas, gender role stereotyping in the portrayal of women has continued into the mid-2000s although the percentage of women shown as professionals and managers has made modest gains since the late 1990s. However, some recent popular Bangladeshi soap operas Dainik Tolpar, FnF, and Dolls House are more likely to portray women as independent, educated and self-sufficient.
The modern Bangladeshi woman has come a long way. In the contemporary society, women are better educated, hold more qualified jobs, and earn more money than ever before.
Despite new Bangladeshi TV soaps are trying to portray the real image of Bangladeshi women that represents the actual scenario of the society, women still are usually portrayed in stereotypical images and therefore, the TV soaps perpetuate unequal social representations and myths. But still TV soaps are extremely popular with housewives as well as working women in Bangladesh. The reasons can be inferred as the soap operas provide the audiences a base of social interaction and integration, escapist fantasy, and personal identity which are often regarded as the dominant set of needs that soap viewing gratifies.
The story was first published in INTELLECT Issue no.3, dated November 2013.