Challenging the not-so-obvious

I have just landed in Bangalore and am travelling toward the city, my eye idly hovering over the hoardings that populate the roadside demanding attention. The usual. Fancy watches. Sleek motorbikes. Airlines proffering comfort and efficiency. And then one hits out at me like a slap on the wrist. It’s a magazine for men (called, no surprises, The Man), and the signboard advertises the latest issue. A lovely girl gazes into the camera while the accompanying headline says: “Girl-child… opens up to The Man”. It’s just one more of the many selling messages that ride on the image and promise of a woman’s body. But (for obvious reasons, perhaps) it gets my goat more than most.

My mind flicks back to the events of recent weeks. A staircase stampede in a Delhi school. Girls complaining of being “felt up” by boys in their cohort. Panic, and a tragic accident. Yes, the staircase was too narrow, and yes, there were no other means of reaching the next floor. Issues of safe construction are no doubt key here. But so is the issue of some boys – no more than children – treating their peers as objects to be used at will.

Some of us may feel that issues of objectification and exploitation are not topics for classroom conversation. That children need to discover social and sexual equations for themselves, or that it is their parents’ business to sensitise them to such things. But increasingly, all of us, and particularly children, are exposed to a multiplicity of messages that seem to validate the idea that it’s okay to use the image of a woman to sell anything, from motorcycles to deodorant to cement to engineering expertise. Not woman as consumer or expert, mind you, but woman as a reward and object of desire. Objectification is a process by which an entity (say, a person) becomes a “thing”, losing its identity as a person or a living being. It takes away the responsibility or the need to worry about the “thing’s” feelings and rights.

The classroom may not be the place to address all social ills, but certainly, it is a place to begin to get children to think about issues and their responses to them, to get them to recognise that how they think and behave has consequences and reasons. To get them to look at media products (ads, for instance) and challenge the assumptions they make and perpetuate. And to think about how these assumptions can have tragic consequences.

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