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The Woman Who Has It All: The Popular Superwoman Trope In Indian TV Shows

Indian television, with its seeming niche audience of primarily middle-aged homemakers, is often seen as conservative or backward and thus not deserving much discussion. Its abundant use of dramatic techniques, ludicrous plotlines, and often unrealistic characters account for its dismissal from serious social debates. However, it would be erroneous to suggest that these shows have no relation to and impact on people's real lives and that they exist in their fantastical realm, created for only entertainment value. These shows, too, can reflect many common social paradigms, generate ideas and opinions, and evolve with changing times. This article deals with a popular trope on Indian television — the superwoman — and discusses its social implications.


Unlike the other mainstream media — Bollywood/Tollywood movies, superhero fiction — that mostly posits a male lead, the Indian daily soaps have quintessential female protagonists. This might indicate a feminist turn as women-centric narratives are spun to focus on their thoughts, emotions, issues, and lives. Recent trends also show that the prevalent trend of creating a Madonna/whore binary has been replaced by showing more rounded characters and better instances of female friendship. A popular tv show, Anupama, changed its plotline to accommodate these, as it includes: diverse women (who are not just foils to the protagonist) and a mature rendition of female relations (who are not just established as each other’s rivals vying for male attention).


Another considered progressive strain is the depiction of strong, independent women who can ‘have it all’: a thriving personal life and a successful professional one. These women are adept at work, juggling different relations, managing extensive households, and handling profound emotional dilemmas. They are often the saviors: fighting ill-intentioned villains, resolving domestic conflicts, and bringing answers to every problem. In short, they are the superwomen! Their stature is blown out of proportion in these narratives as they often become idealistic: the socio-moral center of the serial’s universe.


However, these ostensibly forward-looking steps do not carry as much feminist potential as they should. They are, ultimately, tokenish in nature; they can, instead of dispelling misogynist attitudes, generate problematic patriarchal outlooks. Akanksha Bhatia defines this tokenism in these popular daily soaps: “The concept of tokenism is including someone in a group for the sake of sounding or appearing diverse. In the same way, Indian television added ‘feminists’ to their list of leading ladies, but soon after the pilot episode, it began to lose track of the plot”. Bhatia suggests that these shows only superficially engage with feminist ideas, and their plots soon imitate the older patterns of representing regressive femininity. The same patriarchal standards are upheld to create drama through victimized femininity or traditional womanhood.


The ‘superwoman’ trope also suffers from this. In the guise of creating a self-sufficient woman, a highly unrealistic woman is fostered. By presenting such women as inspirational models, unreasonable expectations are put forward for women. They become the epitome of perfect womanhood, yet, at the same time, put enormous pressure on actual women to emulate these qualities, which are unachievable. As remarked before, these shows target women who live in similar, relatable life situations as the shows’ heroines. And as these shows portray huge responsibilities being shouldered by female protagonists, that makes women, in real life, susceptible to self-blame if they cannot echo the actions of their beloved fictionalized characters. Watching these serials daily, women are made to internalize the idea that they, too, possess these superheroic qualities of balancing love, family, work, society, and life seamlessly; and, if they fail to do that, then it is a lack on their part and not the fault of a culture that puts the onus on women for every problem.


To illustrate, one can again take up the example of the show Anupama. The show revolves around the eponymous figure — Anupama — whose journey from a timid, abused housewife to an independent, remarried woman becomes the story's focus. The premise is promising, but soon it is clear that the show is a series of crisis after a crisis involving various characters, where their only hope of redemption is Anupama: an exemplary problem-solver. She is also the moral voice on the show, where her occasional high-blown monologues often render her character unrealistic. On the one hand, this might be useful in driving home specific ethical and social comments. On the other hand, this is done under the garb of acute realism while creating a character that cannot viably exist in reality.


Another recent show, Katha Ankahee, also creates a superwoman from its eponymous character: Katha. As a single working mother, she does it all: she is at the top of her profession with the whole office single-handedly dependent on her, and she is the ideal mother ready to go to any extent for her son. Without a moment of rest, recreation, or selfish indulgence, she dutifully performs all these tasks. Her struggles get valorized in the narrative as she overcomes all obstacles, all alone and without complaint. She is invested with a somewhat superhuman zeal and power that, instead of becoming motivating, can make the struggles of other real-life single mothers appear simplistic and straightforward


Moreover, the ‘superwoman’ trope gets complemented by the self-sacrificial instinct in these daily soap dramas to emphasize the greatness of the heroine. Motherhood, wifehood, daughterhood, and daughter-in-law hood get essentialized in the form of a virtuous, sympathetic, and sacrificing woman. Nupur J describes the paradox embedded in the ‘superwoman’: “She can be progressive, bold and beautiful and an all-rounder, but she cannot be brave enough to think of her happiness over others”. After all, the main superpower of these women is their ‘virtue’: an amalgamation of chastity, familial obedience and care, generosity, and the knowledge of the right. They might have encroached upon the male domain of heroism, but their qualities are still conventionally feminine. Additionally, putting others before themselves defines the greatness of these women: part of their ‘savior complex.’ This might work with the fantasy genre of superhero fiction; however, narratives posing as realistic, by using this idea, propagate the patriarchal notion of women’s needs as secondary to others.


Finally, it can be concluded that the ‘superwoman’ trope used in Indian television is not as feminist as it seems. Srishti Lakhotia words this by explaining that the primary motive of these shows is to generate TRP: “The answer is in all capitals, TRP, which is Television Rating Point. It is a metric to determine a show’s target audience and reach. It is often why we see most Hindi serials starting at a positive, social commentary and then midway switching to rely on masala”. Therefore, the impulse of social change gets subsumed under financial desires. This leads to a female protagonist who can create excitement through her audacious superhuman efforts and sweet femininity but cannot materially change social perceptions or sexist ideologies.

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