In Nepal, the depiction of women in media, particularly television commercials, has long been a topic of discussion and critique. The Nepali media landscape has often been accused of objectifying women through what is commonly referred to as the "male gaze." However, it is essential to acknowledge that the role of women in these advertisements goes beyond mere objectification; it symbolises the empowerment of Nepali women, challenging the traditional notion of the male gaze. With that said, however, we cannot ignore the place of patriarchy and patriarchal ethos within it.
Historically, the portrayal of women in Nepali media has been less than favorable. Manju Thapa, in her article "Women and Media in Nepal," highlights the negative and biased representation of women in advertisements, telefilms, dramas, and literary works. Women have frequently been confined to stereotypical roles, such as homemakers, while men have been portrayed as active professionals in public spaces. This gender bias in media has contributed to the objectification of women, reducing them to mere entertainment fixtures.
The limited participation of women in media has been a significant factor in perpetuating these biases. However, with the emergence of private media outlets and the increasing presence of women in the field, the media landscape began to shift. In 1988, Nepal boasted 400 newspapers and magazines, yet none of them catered to the specific news and concerns of women, minorities, and the marginalised. It was this notable absence that inspired two pioneering women journalists, Susan Maskey and Anju Chhetri, to take action. They co-founded Asmita Publication House with the goal of launching Nepal's very first magazine dedicated to women's issues, aptly named 'Asmita,' signifying 'identity.'
Community radio stations and journals like Asmita played a pivotal role in providing a platform for women's voices and concerns. The empowerment of women in media was not merely a reaction to male control but also an assertion of female resistance and the formation of female discourses of power. This transformation in the media landscape empowered economically disadvantaged Nepali women and altered the dynamics of the subject-object relationship between men and women. It also helped women produce knowledge and discourse by deconstructing binary oppositions, such as male/female, centre/margin, oppressor/oppressed, and rulers/ruled. Women began to challenge traditional roles and claim their space in the media.
As more women entered the media sector, they established women's organisations at the local level and began to run alternative media alongside traditional male-dominated media. The convergence of new media technologies and private media organisations contributed to the increasing presence of women in both print and electronic media. Women's voices and protests against negative portrayals and representations of women have led to more subtle and nuanced depictions of women in recent years. In recent times, we've witnessed a significant shift in Nepal, with many women taking on roles as editors-in-chief, running podcasts, and actively participating in broadcast and print media. These empowered women are breaking free from the confines of traditional gender roles, demonstrating their talents and influence far beyond the kitchen's four walls.
In her book "Nepali Media, Gender, and Future Policies: A Case Study of Women Journalists Based in Pokhara," Kripa Bhandari sheds light on the everyday challenges encountered by women journalists in a male-dominated society. These challenges include incidents of sexual harassment and various forms of insults, both overt and subtle, many of which often go unreported. Indeed, we cannot overlook the interplay of these two arguments. On one hand, the male gaze continues to persist in Nepali society, despite women's increasing presence in various professions. The patriarchal ethos remains ingrained. However, on the other hand, the way women have entered the media landscape, exploring their own sexuality and bodies as an empowering metaphor, subverts the traditional notion of the male gaze.
In this regard, it challenges the status quo and reverses the dynamic. It is essential to redefine the concept of the male gaze in the context of modern Nepal. While the traditional male gaze implies dominance and control over women, the evolving media landscape has given rise to a female gaze. The female gaze is about women's empowerment, embracing their femininity, bodies, sexuality, and the erotic power they hold. With that said, at times, the portrayal of women in commercials challenges the traditional male gaze by exploring the complexities of today's multicultural society.
In conclusion, Nepal's media landscape has witnessed significant transformations, with women breaking barriers and emerging as prominent figures in the field. The journey from a lack of representation and women's voices going unheard to the present, where women have taken the helm as editors-in-chief and content creators, is a testament to their resilience and determination. Nevertheless, challenges persist, with women confronting issues like sexual harassment and subtle insults in a society still marked by a male gaze and patriarchal norms.
The duality of this situation is striking. On one hand, the enduring presence of the male gaze and patriarchal values cannot be ignored, regardless of women's increasing presence in various professions. However, on the other hand, the women in the media have harnessed their roles to redefine the narrative, exploring their own sexuality and bodies as symbols of empowerment. This subversion of the traditional male gaze represents a profound shift in societal dynamics, challenging established norms and reshaping the media landscape.
As Nepal's women continue to push boundaries and redefine their roles in the media, it is evident that they are not limiting themselves to the confines of traditional expectations. They are reshaping the narrative and amplifying their voices, not just within the four walls of a kitchen, but throughout society. This dual perspective, acknowledging the challenges while celebrating the progress, encapsulates the evolving role of women in Nepal's media, painting a promising picture for the future.
(Dr. Acharya is a social science director at Nexus Institute or Research and Innovation.)