“When will women stop watching the Saas vs Bahu type of shows? Such a waste of time!” This post on a social media group garnered more than a 100 likes. Replies were many in the vein of "Hear, hear" and "TV serials are making women dumb and naive", as more and more users got indignant about the current state of Indian women’s intelligence. If only they could stop watching bad TV, the world would be so much better.
I wouldn’t bet on it.
These women watch mega serials because they identify with them. Why? Why are they so enthralled with shows that mostly concentrate on twisted, violent and abusive topics and relationships? Why do they emphathise, nod along and shed tears over these fictional characters, mostly blood relatives living inside four walls, who scheme and plan one another’s downfall? Why is the trope of family and non-family members ganging up on the innocent daughter-in-law so popular, her struggles as she survives many incredible attempts on her sanity and life watched with bated breath in almost every Indian home that has cable and a Woman of a Certain Age?
I know, I know, your mom/wife/aunt watches only CNN or shuns TV as the spawn of Satan, so all women have free choice, surely? I mean, nobody has put a gun to their head, forcing them to watch badly made shows day in and day out. Or have they?
Let’s look at Mrs X, who loves Crap TV. She is from a background of zero autonomy over her time. She was given token freedom but her role in life was very clear – to be an impeccable supporter of the male provider. She’s probably not a great reader, mostly due to financial reasons or uninformed upbringing. She is transported from a conservative birth family to a similar (if not more) one, more often than not via an arranged marriage.
Creative or personal freedom, to Mrs X, is an unheard-of concept. She rarely had a movie night with friends or travelled to another city to take a class (the blasphemy). She had no friends or personal plans, period. If she did, such individualistic traits were ruthlessly challenged and disciplined over time, for the sake of “family well-being”, by either her life partner or the ubiquitous, well-meaning elders.
Her life was, invariably, consumed by home management and the routine duties inflicted on a typical Indian wife and mother. So, we can agree without much ado that the bulk of Mrs X’s life was spent on taking care of her family (whether she wanted to or not). Whatever brains and curiosity she possessed have long been crushed by societal expectations on how she should lead life as a bharatiya nari.
Instead, she was integrated into a never-ending saga of obligations and landmines that is the Great Indian Family, where she had to use all her available intelligence to become as street-smart as the co-players in order to survive. In short, she is now as good as a bonsai. Well-pruned, in its own pot.
At one point in her later life, the heroine of our story realises that she doesn’t have to bow down to Higher Powers any more, that she now has some autonomy over her time. Suddenly, we are telling the bonsai to shoot tall, fly high, spread the wings. Good intentions, yes, but to a long-term prisoner, freedom can be terrifying. Mrs X has absolutely no idea what to do with it.
Historically she was tolerated, if not outright praised, for watching TV, an indoor activity that obeyed unwritten respectability rules. Slowly, insidiously, the thing she did because she had no other choice has taken over as her major hobby. Why should - and how could - she come out of it now?
Women who binge watch melodramatic shows are neither lazy nor dumb. They are prisoners of their own mind, mostly – okay, always - due to patriarchy. Change at their age can be impossible; at the very least, it gives them horrifying vertigo. They'd rather languish in limbo; at least they know it's comfortable.
Their entire lives were spent adhering to other people’s rules, and one of their major thrills is to see various versions of their lives played out by richer, prettier artists; they live through imaginary characters on the screen, whose lives sometimes depict their own eclipsed ones. Demanding these unfortunate women to stop doing that – well, that’s just another insensitive and judgemental attack on their autonomy. Believe me, these women know they are addicted to the TV... you are not teaching them anything new about their own life. They do have a swan song desire to do something else before their time runs out, but more often than not, it's just too little, too late; they are caught in the maze with no resources to plot an exit.
We know it’s as simple as switching off the gadget. They don’t, for them it’s like switching off a life support machine that had their back through their loneliest years. You have got your Game of Thrones, they have got theirs. Theirs is definitely the less cool option, but let’s not get into snobbish territory here... as far as serial addiction goes! The truth is, nobody born with even average privilege can begin to understand or hope to undo the long-term damage of how and why an entire generation of women came to be addicted to terribly plotted mega serials. That ship has sailed. Or has it?
You, Sir, Miss, why not ask your dear family member addicted to bad TV shows, what she would prefer as a substitute to that TV show? And perhaps, I don’t know, lift your gaze from your navel and help her? It may, I’m afraid, involve you in interacting with said family member, definitely more than you do now. I’m also afraid that nine out of 10 would balk at this experiment. We don’t want to actually do something dynamic, we only want to put up status updates on the atrocity of it all and feel good about our progressive attitudes!
You, Keyboard Warrior, perhaps your (admittedly righteous) anger on this issue can be directed at the makers of the said high-drama, low-logic shows who pulled off a coup when they decided to profit from a sector of stagnated population? Demand should not be justified for the supply of poison, and the burden should not be on the consumer (victim?) alone. A wee bit unreasonable to expect people (men and women) to practice self control when they are addicted and the fix is all around them, ambushing them in their own home, 24/7.
Another experiment: Casually observe who complains the loudest about women’s entertainment habits. You might just find Mr/Master X to be the most intolerant critique of Mrs X. Which begs the question: what would pass muster? If the women do sign off from the cable once for all, and manage to do something else, I have a sneaking suspicion that the new initiative will quickly come under censure if it doesn’t align with popular expectations of what a woman’s hobby ought to be. “Not age appropriate” is a favourite attack, with “I don’t see the point of it” a close second.
We really need to stop telling women what they can or cannot do with their time.
Views expressed are author's own.
Radhika Meganathan is a published author and ancestral diet supporter based in Chennai. Her debut novel The Gurukul Chronicles won the manuscript contest at the Pune International Literary Festival, 2016.