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Sensationalising the stereotypes

The channel equated abortion with murder and propagated dangerous messages

On June 6, an advertorial printed in The Times of India ran with the headline, “Mother asked to kill her own child”. The ad was for an episode of a show on Sony TV called Zindagi Ke Crossroads and covered a fourth of the front page of the TOI. Within those words though, lies something so fundamentally skewed that by printing it, both the Sony Group and TOI have publicly equated abortion to murder.

The advertorial (below) read: “However, their joy was short-lived, when during a routine visit, Neha’s (34) doctor Ragini (32), who also happens to be her sister-in-law; revealed that Neha’s child would be born with permanent abnormalities; it would be a ‘special child’.” During the episode, the actress playing Ragini would go on to use these exact words and suggests abortion as the correct course of action. The advertorial explains the specifics of the situation, with the primary concern being that, besides Ragini, Neha’s husband Rahul was also insisting upon the abortion.

Zindagi ke Crossroads is a reality TV show hosted by Ram Kapoor and airs on Sony TV every Wednesday evening. The show focuses on difficult choices that people must make, and used the ad to publicise its first episode. The main sell comes towards the end of the ad when it invites viewers to share their opinions on what Neha should do by “downloading the Sony Liv App”. Neha would also be asked to publicly announce her decision during a live broadcast.

While an advertorial on whether a specific person should abort her child is atrocious in itself, it raises other concerns. Two aspects stand out. The first: the implications of such a piece in a national newspaper, and the impact this could have on widespread public perceptions. Second, the episode itself, titled “Emotion or Practicality”, and the understanding that media houses like Sony have on what is acceptable on broadcast television.

The advertorial employed language that was clearly meant to maximise both readership, and consequently viewership. In this spirit of releasing “sensational stories”, the piece dramatised and even trivialised the situation. By narrating it as though it was a story — a fault made once again in the episode — the scenario seems almost fictional, taking away from the gravity of it. Neha’s story is basically being used as a tool to garner ratings.

The advertorial also effectively stigmatises abortion. The first impression any reader gets from the piece is that Neha is committing a crime. The quote caught my eye, but it was what it implied — that the mother would essentially be committing a murder — that got me thinking. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but no progressive society can stand by the social criminalisation of abortion.

While we are meant to empathise with the couple, the stronger message that comes out is the responsibility of a mother, which apparently means a woman has no ambitions or duties beyond a child. Latent patriarchy still plagues Indian society, and through this advertorial, our media does as well. The episode very unabashedly emphasises this mindset propagating male chauvinism when the husband says, “I spend all my time chasing my ambitions”, and the wife sits silently; smiling and nodding.
The quote has not been attributed to anyone. For a prominent newspaper to endorse — regardless of whether it was conscious — the notion that abortion is a crime, reflects poorly on its editorial policies. Sony falls into the same trap.

Pratigya, an organisation dedicated to gender equality and safe abortion, caught on to this, sent a letter to both companies detailing the legal and ethical intrusions made by the advertorial. Of the five allegations made, salient points include a potential contempt of court (acting against a precedent set by the Supreme Court), and a breach of the MTP act which guarantees confidentiality to women wishing to terminate their pregnancy. The letter is not available to the public, but it’s clear gender rights groups are troubled, something emphasised by the presence of six signatories to the letter.

If the advertorial was problematic, then the episode itself breaks all bounds in ethical and social contracts. The best place to start is the episode’s title, “Emotion or Practicality”. The episode doesn’t take long to establish that to bear the child would be to act on emotion, and the practical approach would be to “spare the child and the parents the pain of living a life of inadequacies”. As a scripted and filmed version of story runs on a large screen, various members of the audience speak on the matter, relying primarily on anecdotal evidence.

At this point, the showrunners backstage place melodramatic music on a loop timed to perfection with the stories of the grieving people. The audience itself comes across as excessively insincere, as each speaker breaks down into tears for a moment but recovers almost immediately.

It’s likely the show’s writers told themselves that being straightforward is too mainstream. Instead, go back and forth between emotions before giving a moral—because this is precisely what the episode does. For the first half, we follow Neha and her family through all that has happened, essentially verbatim. She decides to keep the baby. Once we reach the “speculative” part of the show things begin to spiral.

Neha chooses to keep the child, something which very deeply perturbs her husband. On the child’s fourth birthday, Rahul wallows in self-pity as he realises no one wants to be friends with his son. By the time the couple has a second child born without disabilities, Rahul is so tired of their first that he essentially ignores him. We are shown scenes of Neha working entirely on her own to raise the child and the relentless hardships that she undergoes to be a good mother. The message is clear: the parents will suffer, and the inevitable consequence will be that of depositing the child into a “special care centre”. Not aborting the child, apparently, was a mistake.

Sony TV goes from characterising abortion as murder to suggesting not doing it would result in a life of tragedy for the whole family. It also shows images of a hapless special needs child wreaking havoc on a family. If their intention was to ostracise such individuals any more than they already are, they succeeded.

Besides all the implications this will have on perceptions on abortion, chief among them being that women would hesitate to do so, the image that special needs children cannot survive in this world stands out. Through an advertorial and an equally myopic show, Sony — and the Times Group — has publicised a multitude of stereotypes against women, condoned ideologies in favour of conservatism, and thrown special needs children under the bus.

 

This article was first published in Newslaundry