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About a week ago, IIM Udaipur's Consumer Culture Lab broke down a scene from the 2013 film Queen. The scene showed Kangana Ranaut’s character accompanied by her little brother (pre-pubescent) to date as a safety measure chosen by her parents. It made light of the very real Indian practice of families allowing and even encouraging their sons to accompany their sisters to places and social situations they feel unsure of. (Read the Consumer Culture Lab’s analysis for more on the practice).

If branded content can be considered a fair reflection of where society is headed, then it seems we’ve grown more culturally aware of this practice since the film’s release. Since the last few years, brands have started to question this water-tight conceptualisation of brother and sister. Especially to mark Raksha Bandhan that has hugely contributed to cementing this idea of the protector and the protected.

With the festival fast approaching again, we've chosen to study content based on this theme, to see how the idea has evolved over time. How brands have reimagined the bond of protection between brother and sister to update their cultural stance. And the ways in which that has shaken the traditional understanding at the root.

We've picked five pieces, each from a different year, starting from 2017. And given the nature of the subject, four out of our samples had been created for Raksha Bandhan.

Here are the themes we have found.

Sisters need to be supported, not protected

An honour culture like ours prefers to keep girls in a safe bubble whose boundaries are manned by her brother. He is meant to act as her protector 24x7 to ensure that no harm ever befalls her. Practically, this translates into supervising all his sister’s activities and interactions. Wherever she goes and whoever she talks to.

From the sister’s perspective, this social sanction equals a lack of freedom. It either means never being able to make a choice that truly reflects her desires and preferences, or doing so in secret by briefly escaping her brother’s supervision.

Unacademy’s ‘Teach Them Young’ (2021) and Schmitten’s #EkRakhiAur (2018) challenge this social sanction and nudge their viewers to reimagine the brother’s role as protector.

‘Teach Them Young’ shows a school-going boy in his teens who has just returned home with his sister.

His sister’s frustration with him, his bruised face and the consequent chat with his father revealed that he got into yet another fight with someone who showed interest in her – a fact he came to learn after looking through her school bag and finding a love letter.

To him, his actions seem justified since someone had to protect her and his sister is too young to know better. But his father reveals his response for what it is – reflective of the self-assumed role of protector as an elder brother, who doesn’t know when to step back and let his sister be.

#EkRakhiAur is built on the same idea of teaching brothers to respect their sisters as individuals in their own right. But in terms of storyline, its characters aren't flawed people who are just beginning to unlearn orthodox teachings about their social roles. Instead, they are well-settled in their progressive thinking and show the ease with which their viewers too could live along the same lines.

The video shows them on the day of Raksha Bandhan, when the sister ties her brother two rakhis instead of one. One for protecting her. And the other for not invading her privacy or coddling her in the name of protection – “Mera password jaante hue bhi mera phone nahi check karne ke liye. Mujhe sirf ek choti behen nahi, apne barabar ka samajhne ke liye.”

However, unlike the case of Unacademy's characters, their parents can’t be credited for this empowering stance. Their mother, while she seems well-meaning, would rather that her son ensures his sister's safety at all times. As observed at the video's start, when she tries to convince him to drive his sister where she needs to go, saying "choti behen hai teri, zara bhi fikar nahi hai?"

Together, the videos by Unacademy and Schmitten make for the dos and don’ts of how the modern-day brother should treat his sister. They try to explain that her welfare will not result from trying to impose archaic ideas of protection and rescue on her, which boost the brother's ego more than anything. But will emerge from offering her support as an ally when she is trying to be her own person.

Protection is not anchored in gender

This thought has been repeated over the years by Ferns N Petals in 2017, ICICI Lombard in 2019 and The Man Company in 2020. These brands, unlike the two before, aren’t challenging what protection means but are questioning the social understanding of who is supposed to offer it.

According to them, the strong must certainly protect the weak. But that an age-old festival like Raksha Bandhan must not get to determine which one is which between brother and sister. It must simply celebrate the bond of protection regardless of where it flows from.

The Man Company's 'The Truth' sees a brother leave his sister a letter by her bedside on the day of the festival.

Through it, he explains his reasons for wanting to reverse the tradition by tying his sister a rakhi and not the other way round. She is the one who has always protected him, shielded him from their father's scolding, rescued him from bullies at school, helped him deal with the consequences of a bad decision and comforted him when he was heartbroken. So, he’d much rather revise a tradition to make it an honest reflection of their relationship than practise it unchanged for the sake of it.

The other two videos are very similar in the brother’s logic for celebrating his sister as the protector in the relationship. The only differences being, in ICICI Lombard’s ‘Promise of Protection’, Mary Kom’s brother is tied a rakhi by her but doesn’t take it to indicate that he is the protector. And in Ferns N Petals ‘Rakhi from Brother’, the brother is happy being tied a rakhi by his sister but insists on tying her one too.

Like Unacademy and Schmitten, these brands are also trying to undo the sister’s association with weakness, in a greater effort to weaken patriarchal holds that are built to privilege men over women. They’ve just taken a different route to do it.

Wrapping Up

There seem to be major cultural shifts underway that are trying to turn our collective thinking more progressive, as we have noticed through the branded content we have studied over the last year.

Brands are trying to encourage gender equality by suggesting that new-age fathers take the same kind of initiative with raising their children as their wives do. They are trying to get modern-day couples to fairly split kitchen duty so an equal division of chores doesn't remain a utopic dream. And, as we have shared through this piece, they are also starting to challenge the socially ordained role of the brother as protector of his sister.

Overall, brands are beginning to question stereotypical role-bound expectations and associations in the hope that their audience will gradually learn to do the same. Seeing how this is turning into a dominant trend, perhaps more of them should be looking into how they can expand these conversations beyond the current talking points. And pump greater fuel into a movement that looks like it’s here to stay.