Essentialism in Western Media Perspectives
Even today, among reputable news sources, there still remains a level of ignorance and an essentialist undertone in Western media perspectives of the “developing world.”
For example, in a recent issue of The Economist, I came across a feature on Gendercide in India, which discusses the distorted sex ratios in India and China. The article offers fresh insights- for example, that the frequency and prevalence of female foeticide have shown to have little correlation with poverty and family education levels, a conclusion which the average reader would not anticipate. However, it glosses over the issue without carefully delving into the root cause, or even differentiating among regions that are particularly at risk. Except for one or two redeeming sentences about specific states, the author extrapolates very specific circumstances to the entire population of approximately 1.2 billion citizens.
A similar feature, India’s Skewed Sex Ratio, opens with the touching story of a girl who was sold to a wage-laborer for the equivalent of one hundred dollars, a narrative meant to appeal to the readers’ emotions. It then concludes with broad statements about gender discrimination, highlighting practices that are still made infamous in Western media, such as the significance of dowries and the necessity of marriage across India. Without further scrutiny, these assertions place female infanticide/foeticide with other infamous practices under the umbrella of “patriarchal traditions observed throughout India,” obscuring the cultural, religious, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity of the population.
These articles represent a broader issue, that Westerners have always had skewed images of India. But how could they not, when their preconceptions are thoroughly confirmed in award-winning films like “Slumdog Millionaire”- in which everything that could go violently wrong in Mumbai slums, does go wrong, and yet the protagonist emerges without a scratch just in time to entertain the audience with a synchronized Bollywood-style dance scene during the end credits? And how about the more recent, “Eat, Pray, Love,” in which Julia Roberts’s privileged American character lives every new-age Westerner’s dream, travelling to an Indian ashram where she finds her inner God, connects with a free-roaming elephant, and befriends a hapless young Indian girl who is reluctant about her impending arranged marriage to a computer programmer in Delhi? Filled with precisely the images that American audiences want to believe!
Mainstream America is thus exposed to three distorted images of India: the India living in abject poverty, with subjugated women, starving children, and amoral, eve-teasing men; the blindingly-colorful India that spontaneously breaks into ecstatic singing and dancing; and the mystical, ancient India that is one with the universe. Even worse are the Western tourists who, after travelling through only a handful of major cities and landmarks, claim that they have seen India. This is the equivalent of a tourist claiming to be an expert on America after having passed through New York City, the Mississippi River Corridor, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The combination of Western films, newspapers, and dismal reports by NGOs and development organizations minimize the vibrant, intelligent, conscientious, and progressive middle and upper classes that have always existed in the subcontinent.
Articles like the ones above implicitly paint pictures of homogenous societies that suffer under a pervasive and inevitable oppression, which is a sensationalist and dangerously essentialist way to educate readers about global issues. Any meticulous writer or journalist would embrace the responsibility to capture the intricacies of the communities they are writing about, not only to avoid essentialism, but also to contribute more meaningfully to sensible, concrete solutions.Sarah Amin is a Program and Research intern with the SISGI Group’s Research Division focused on Human Rights Advocacy, International Disability Rights, and Gender Equality/Gender Mainstreaming. To learn more about the SISGI Group visit www.sisgigroup.org