What can help brands move away from the stereotypical representation of women in communication narratives

Last week, Hamsini Shivakumar and Kanika Yadav of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting, wrote how most female characters in Indian brand communication remain a manifestation of societal stereotypes. In this article, they delve deeper into factors that help us in moving beyond the stereotypes

Hamsini Shivakumar
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Last week, we discussed the ways in which most female characters in Indian advertising and brand communication remain a manifestation of societal stereotypes. They rarely move beyond the roles of a mother, a wife and a homemaker. We looked at efforts of two kinds - one displaying tokenistic attempts at equality and the second one attempting to reimagine the old roles with new connotations e.g. the in-control homemaker vs. the victimised homemaker.

In this article, we will delve deeper into factors that help us in moving beyond the stereotypes.

Looking beyond brand communications and advertising to content, we find content companies that are set up with the goal of breaking stereotypes and supporting women to make what they wish to, of their lives. 

With the setting up of ventures that are entirely formed by women such as the now globally renowned newspaper Khabar Lahariya (the subject of an Academy Award-nominated documentary, Writing With Fire), the female perspective is finding its footing like never before. Sumukhi Suresh’s content company Motormouth is an initiative in the same stead, aspiring to create stories focused on female characters. To develop a consciousness that questions and rewrites the old depictions, it is crucial to have women both behind and in front of the camera.

Of course, content creators have the benefit of time to bring out the women’s perspective, develop the characters, showcase their behaviours and their worldview.  But creators of advertising and branded content don’t have that luxury of time and space.  How can it then be done?  We have selected a few examples below to show how it can be done as branded content.

Let the subaltern speak - The Person Inside

More often than not the woman advocating for a utensil cleaning liquid or a detergent is over-occupied with the problem-product binary. Her main concern is to ensure the oily stains are out of the utensils, the floor is sparkling clean, the fabrics are soft and so on and so forth. Her thoughts and voice are not projected towards herself. The perspective is not her own. What is it that the person inside the mould of that stereotypical role, thinking? What is it that a homemaker or a mother likes about her chores or a working mother likes about her job? These are the questions that find close to no space in the dominant discourse.

Let's take a look at a short video ‘Meet Hellen’ by Google India to observe how can individuality be foregrounded within a societal role:

Meet Helen - an auto rickshaw driver | Railwire

Helen Jose is introduced to us in first-person narrative. She is an auto-rickshaw driver at the Kollam Railway Station in Kerela. “You can imagine my work hours given how busy the railway station is”, she says. She also happens to be a mother and her job helps her be the provider. But what she really loves about the job is the free wifi available at the railway station. It is of great assistance when it comes to her son’s studies. In addition, she likes it because it allows her to learn a lot too. “London”, she quips when her son asks what’s the capital of Britain?

Her role as a mother is one of the many. Her son is perhaps one of the most important people in her world but that does not negate her own personhood. Her job has two aspects- one that is connected with her home and thus her role as a mother. But almost immediately, the narrative also tells us that the other aspect of her job is her own growth and learning.

In Helen’s characterisation, we see a woman who is not ventriloquising the concerns that are dictated by society. Her documented actions have varied aspirations and consequences, they are not solely aimed at enhancing her role as a mother.

Individual agency

In most ads, women act as proxy agents for their sociological roles - they act on behalf of others. For instance, a wife carries out several tasks and maintains a myriad of inter-personal relationships to assist her husband. As opposed to this, a feminist viewpoint champions the concept of Individual or personal agency, meaning that women act on their own behalf.

The individual agency of women is societally restricted by the age-old discriminatory binary of good woman-bad woman. A good woman is one who follows all the tacit rules in place. All others deviating from this rather loosely defined gold standard would fall on the negative side of the spectrum.  To give a simplified example, in cinematic representation, a woman wearing a short skirt, who also smokes and drinks is a bad woman. A woman who abides by the wishes of her parents or other figures of authority is a good woman.

This is a fairly known and understood concept in our culture. But what can brands possibly do about it while targeting their consumer base?

Consider Happy Teacher’s Day video by Unacademy

Unacademy wishes Happy Teachers’ Day to the change makers

The narrative structure in the video is fairly simple; there’s a worried mother, an achiever daughter and a normal end-of-the-day routine that both of them share. The mother is part of a residual narrative structure and obviously a stereotype. She stays awake waiting for her researcher cum educator daughter who comes home and assures the former.

However, while the film starts off indicating that stereotypes are at play, it then challenges the same.  There is a sense of autonomy in the shared household and routine. The mother is engrossed in a TV program and not in the wall clock. The element of worry is considerably low. The daughter has her own set of keys to the house. She is free to finish her research and come home late.

Lastly, an inherent sense of labelling or judging either as a good or bad woman is very closely subverted by throwing light on the professional role - here that of a teacher. They are both agents of their own individuality although in widely differing capacities. The daughter of course is the one designing her life as she pleases.

Human potential at play

The last metric to counter stereotypical narratives is to look towards a value that occupies the highest echelons in a libertarian society - human potential. A gendered viewpoint limits individual freedom. You are your best self when not bound by the social concepts of either femininity or masculinity. Thus a libertarian, utopic cultural conversation would be gender-neutral. No males, no females but people, humans and individuals.

So, is it possible to skip the gender equation, altogether? We present two examples where female protagonists are not defined by their femininity. It ceases to be the defining factor in the narrative.

Royal Enfield’s ‘Home’

Royal Enfield | Coconut Films | ‘Home’

Home depicts a female biker riding from a bustling city to her home in the mountains. The main narrative is about the journey home (we discussed the same in detail, here). It is almost as if it does not matter if the rider was a male or a female but it is probably a conscious choice on the part of the makers because even the composition of her home is marked by a strong presence of women- sisters, aunts. But the sisterhood is not overtly highlighted, similar to the way it would not have been highlighted if there were males instead of females, thus normalising the portrayal.

In the process, the video also quite directly counters the stereotypical roles as a single female biker is anything but traditional.

‘Pooja didi film by Facebook

Coming back yet again to the comprehensively made Facebook film (we discuss the film, here) that showed a confident woman in charge who goes on to create social impact through her smart use of social media. 'Compassion', a characteristic attached usually with women, might have been one of the factors in showing a female behind the plan to recruit several unemployed people during the Pandemic. But it is not shown so overtly.

Interestingly, the background score features a term from the Punjabi Sufi lexicon - ‘Jugni’. While most Bollywood song remixes take the word from folk literature and use it for female characters, the word in itself is not particularly gendered. It is used to represent the spirit or the essence of life that is embodied by Pooja regardless of her gender.


Changing deeply rooted cultural conditioning far exceeds the primary goals of any piece of brand communication, including branded content. However, going along with age-old stereotypes which have become problematic, is a shortcut that the current generation of consumers will see through at some point. At that point, the advertising / branded content will stop connecting with their audiences.

Given that overcoming cultural stereotypes in communication is a tough challenge to crack, there are multiple approaches towards it, too. Depending on one’s product and specific TG, there are numerous narratives that brands can adopt from the middle point of a scale that has conservative and radical approaches on its opposite ends. 

To read part 1 of this series, please click here.

Hamsini Shivakumar Leapfrog Strategy Consulting Kanika Yadav stereotypical representation of women