On Repeating Imagery and Directing Blame

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Sita being kidnapped by Ravana

While traveling through Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, last week, I was reintroduced to Raja Ravi Varma’s  (1848-1906) “Ravana, Sita and Jathayu” at the Sree Chitra Art Gallery. I hope I know better than to express an opinion about one of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana (i.e. no comment here on Sita’s version vs. Ram’s or the influence of Sita in contemporary gender roles…although I find both conversations fascinating) but I couldn’t help realizing that, in fact, I’d seen Sita’s expression before – everywhere! Most of the printed media I had been reading each morning seem to use a visual language similar to Varma’s when choosing images to accompany their features on sexual violence. By perpetuating this image of female as victim, male as aggressor, it seems to constantly shame and blame males when the ancient and deep-rooted cultural biases of society might actually be doing the most damage. Check it out:

Looks familiar, right? (Indian Express – July 1, 2014)

Similar idea… (Femina – May 2014)

And again?! (Femina – May 2014)

Man as hairy monster? AHHHH (Times of India – July 1, 2014)

AND AGAIN??? I could keep posting these but should probably keep writing. (Times of India – June 30, 2014)

Interesting, right? Every single illustration shows a distraught woman, often with head-in-hands, and an evil man lurking in the background. I’m not sure if this is an instance of dramatization of real-life-horror stories (don’t even get me started on my newfound love-hate relationship with the television show Savdhaan India, “India Fights Back”) or just an easily recognizable visual language. Regardless, this unquestioning appropriation of biased imagery in modern reporting and melodrama seems problematic. Americans are guilty of this too, but perhaps it’s because I am a foreigner here that this imagery just seems more prevalent.

Don’t get me wrong; violence against women is absolutely an enormous issue in India. According to a 2011 TrustLaw Women expert poll, India is the fourth most dangerous place in the world for women (http://www.trust.org/spotlight/Rape-cases-spark-outrage-in-India). While the “helpless female” depicted in these illustrations is definitely upsetting, it seems worrisome that the perpetrator is always male, hiding in the shadows having just terrorized his prey. If the visual elements of these articles communicate a theme or idea, it is that women are persistently victims and men almost never to be trusted. It is critical to continue to generate open conversation on these topics, but reinforcing these roles through redundant clip art seems counterproductive.

I am curious: What are the greater implications of recycling this imagery? What if it could be possible to stop or arrest the blame as opposed to directing it? Could another image even function in its place, and if so, what would it look like? I’m probably asking too much. As an artist, though, I have to believe it is possible to generate new images or ideas.

I want to be cautious not to project my own western feminisms or ideals here but it seems as if it is time the media here hold a mirror to whom they are blaming and whom they are giving (and taking) agency. Because if the small selection of pictorial options these newspapers are using to depict stories of sexual violence stay so unbalanced, everyone loses.

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About saschahughescaley

MFA Candidate, Interdisciplinary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 2015 (expected) 2014 CASI Travel Funds for Research Winner https://casistudentprograms.com/author/saschahughescaley/