The Drum Awards for Marketing APAC

-d -h -min -sec

Creative Brand Purpose International Women's Day

International Women’s Day: How are popular Indian attitudes on gender shifting?

By Amit Bapna |

March 8, 2023 | 16 min read

As another International Women’s Day passes, we speak to a bunch of women professional s on evolving pop culture attitudes on gender.

Emerging trends in gender portrayal in Indian popular culture

How are attitidudes in Indian pop culture changing?

India's popular culture is a deeply influential driver of change. Advertising, movies, music and books – have the power to change mindsets, make or break stereotypes, and create culture.

The Drum asked women from across the spectrum of marketing, advertising, media and literature for their reflections on the nation’s progress driving gender equality.

Devika Seth Bulchandani, global CEO of Ogilvy

We have seen progress when it comes to diversity and inclusion across our industry, both in terms of the work we produce and the people who are behind that work. In one way, I am a living example of that progress - as a global advertising agency CEO who is a woman, a person of colour, and an immigrant. I know that when we have greater representation on our teams we do better work – work that pushes business forward, work that pushes society forward.

A recent report from Ogilvy Consulting highlighted the fact that women claim 32% of the world’s financial resources and are adding $5 trillion to the global wealth pool annually—outpacing the market as a whole. By 2024, women will control some $97 trillion worldwide. Imagine the implications this will have on the spending power of women.

I am optimistic that we will see greater diversity in advertising and marketing content because clients are demanding it. Clients understand it is not only the right thing to do but it is also good business.

Similarly, a recent study by WPP in the UK revealed that brands stand to miss out on a cumulative disposable income of up to £727 billion by the end of 2023 unless they invest in ways to connect meaningfully with minority ethnic consumers.

It is easy to document the history of the women’s movement by looking at how women are portrayed in advertising through the years. Today you’ll see both men and women in ads that sell products related to cleaning, cooking, and parenting – as recently as several years ago, most of those ads would have only featured women based on a dated, traditional mindset. We’re also seeing more authentic representations of what a modern family looks like in ads – more same-sex couples, and more mixed-race couples. But there’s a lot more work to be done.

We as marketers need to hold ourselves accountable for doing that work to push us toward equity. It’s been said advertising is the mirror of society, but today we in the industry have the means and the platform to not just simply mirror society but use our creativity to advance it in crucial ways.

Within India, one area where I see an encouraging sign of inclusivity in culture is the growing breadth of movies and television shows featuring LGBTQ+ representation in the last decade spurred on by the decriminalization of same-sex relationships in 2018 in the country. But here again, there’s more work to be done by the industry to portray members of the LGBTQ+ community in a way that is not stereotypical and in a way that normalizes it.

Zeenah Vilcassim, marketing director, Bacardi India

It is good to see how far we have come on the issues around gender and diversity. In 2022, we saw the UN’s ‘He for She’ campaign which showed how more men were interested in women’s issues, a powerful shift towards creating a bold, visible and united force for gender equality. Social media has also evolved greatly and has over time proven to be a powerful mechanism in spotlighting dialogues on diversity, galvanizing action across the globe and building effective advocacy to fuel change for marginalized communities. That said, there is always more that can be done for the inclusion of women in the cultural zeitgeist.

True impact comes from more representation of marginalized communities across all functions and levels. I would like to see creators and marketers build more opportunities for representation through purposeful initiatives, insightful campaigns and content that underscores the power diversity of thought can bring across the board.

Consistently building a culture of open and honest conversations without ego encourages people to be an ally to each other and understand their role in shaping a truly powerful culture of genuine diversity of thought. This will truly encourage the gamut of creators and marketers to be champions for change and foster a culture where everyone can thrive.

Pallavi Chakravarti, founder and chief creative officer, Fundamental

Diversity and gender portrayal in cinema and diversity is a mixed bag. For every arthouse piece where actresses abandon make-up, there’s an item number where they abandon their clothes. Unless objectification stops at the mainstream level, I don’t think we’ve made any real strides in that regard. OTT too has given us much to chew on, namely the barrage of women-led content. From the uber-liberated quartet in ‘4 More Shots Please’ to the gripping ‘Delhi Crime’, we’ve seen women who are cussing, fighting, raving, baring it all and generally taking the world by its b***s. Things they weren’t doing in pop culture, ever.

One can argue that some of it is overdone, unnecessary and in poor taste, but guess what, so are a lot of shows with men in the lead, doing pretty much the same things. So while the jury’s still out on how much of this content is good content, it’s a good thing [in my opinion] that at least it’s out there somewhere.

There is a need to portray real women in everyday work, not only in Women’s Day work or in ‘special projects’ alone. This is the dream, at the very least - one that marketers can turn into reality with continued efforts. Let’s not shy away from showing a plus-sized woman or a dusky woman or a woman with less-than-perfect hair in the content we create. Currently, I know many of us try to do this but aren’t successful 80% of the time.

Anisha Iyer, chief executive officer, OMD India

While a lot has been done across pop culture from a progressive lens, at the same time, the regressive portrayals of gender and diversity have not taken a backseat. We’ve come a long way to celebrate diversity in entertainment - themes that celebrate and normalize the LGBTQIA+ spectrum or those that celebrate careers for women, among others. However, stereotypical norms showing women predominantly cooking in the kitchen or shopping for groceries or taking care of households continue unabated across entertainment. Why do soap dramas even today capitalize on the misery that is celebrated through disparity in gender and diversity? It’s a clear sign of the fact that there’s a lot to be done when it comes to reducing the regressive content being paraded, out there.

Today, we operate at the intersectionality of data and creativity. I believe this situation in itself presents a strong opportunity to agencies, marketers and brands alike when it comes to being more proactive and thoughtful in one’s approach to curating the overarching strategy and content.

A lot can be done right at the stage when a brief comes in. If we see enough trends to signal that purchase patterns or preferences are no longer gender-skewed today, then we should see no reason why the communication shouldn’t take this approach while speaking to its consumers. Only then will we see the industry do away with preconceived notions like banks targeting men, groceries targeted largely at women or auto brands considering women as a secondary demographic. As we work towards achieving greater pay parity today, it’s only logical that similar parity must be achieved across nuances of pop culture too. Every bit of progress, no matter how small, counts and reorienting the approach to communicating in line with today’s shifting consumer patterns is a need of the hour.

The OTT medium is a great example of championing and producing content that is both progressive and a true reflection of the sign of the times we live in. Single parents, separations, broken homes, people from beyond the heterosexual norm - all of these are situations we aren’t unfamiliar with across society today and are aptly portrayed on OTT. However, this universe is still a small fraction of the entertainment realm today, not mainstream and the majority of people watching this nature of content are like-minded in their outlook and perspectives.

The day mainstream entertainment decides to be more inclusive and offers more screen time to storytelling that is not feeding into stereotypical tropes of the past is when one can truly claim that evolution in content is changing to fit the change in cultural narratives.

Vasuta Agarwal, chief business officer, consumer platform advertising, InMobi

What we need from brands and content creators today is the portrayal of real day-to-day issues that strike a chord and go beyond mere portrayal to drive grassroots impact. Initiatives such as Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’, Dove’s Beauty Test, and creators/ influencers talking about Period Leaves across the country are some great examples of contemporary conversations.

While it is important to raise our voice against discrimination and injustice, brands and content creators need to move beyond the one-time IWD ad about inner beauty or the one-week campaign against body shaming to a sustainable and long-lasting conversation that delves into the present and future of women who are beating the odds. It’s tiring to constantly be exposed to cringe-worthy commercials and supposedly moving movies to thoughtless, sensational programs. The day we stop being in awe of such one-time attempts, we will lay the first step towards normalization.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author and professor of writing at the University of Houston

In recent years there has been a push to diversify gender portrayal in popular culture in India, but a lot more needs to be done.

Serious literature and film in India have long addressed inequity in the portrayal of women (from the time of Tagore and Satyajit Ray to more recent films and literature). But their popular counterparts have been a different matter.

Even today, when we look at films (including OTT), many movies/shows still portray women as desirable because of their looks. Romantic heroines are still largely light-skinned (a real irony in a country where the majority of people are fairly dark). They are still often being ‘rescued’ by the heroes from various dangerous or socially problematic situations. Several recent blockbuster films have men at the forefront of the action, with women in minor or romantic roles. Women who break gender roles often land in trouble.

In fiction, the chick-lit genre remains popular, showcasing young women whose life purpose is to find a life partner. In the action/adventure genre, men are still centre stage.

Ruchi Kher Jaggi, professor and director, Symbiosis Institute of Media & Communication

For the last 25 years, modest attempts to challenge gender images on satellite television failed and were discouraged in a legacy media system driven by TV ratings and advertising profits. These narratives lack modern Indian women. OTT content is more free-flowing. OTT services' more realistic and relatable original content attracts younger consumers who no longer find television material engaging.

In Indian OTT platforms, media and content makers want more women-centric content with different narratives. It's smart business. The positive is that complex storytelling and strong female characters exploring multiple genres and characterisation are redefining the Indian web-series space.

One thing that creators need to be careful of is that to challenge stereotypes, the content does not indulge in reverse stereotyping.

Nimisha Pandey, chief content officer, Zee5

Content creators across the world have the responsibility to be the change maker and we must not shy away from it. The content creators must not hide behind the trends that have worked, data, proven paths and continue making sexist content. We need to be brave enough to question the stereotypes and conventional portrayal of genders, only then can content play its role in shaping an equal society.

We need to make real women characters and not put them on a pedestal. It not only makes for a boring narrative but also sets women up for failure. Stories need to show women to be imperfect yet inspirational.

OTT for sure has played a great part in the evolution. It is a delight to see so many women in uniform - and to those who are saying isn’t that an overdose, my question would be: - it wasn’t seen as an overdose when there were only men playing that part. It’s phenomenal what OTT has done for women’s representation on screen.

Whether it is the women's talent making the content or the themes that we being spoken about. We surely have a long way to go but it’s assuring to see content led by women protagonists becoming a success. It was high time women stopped playing a part in the hero’s journey and spoke about their own. She is not only a muse but also an artist.

Conversations are resulting in change and they have to continue. After all, we are challenging years of conditioning.

Kopal Naithani, director Superfly Films

We have seen more women-driven scripts, more movies and OTTs that give a prominent role to women’s characters. Having said that, I feel that we still have a long way to go in terms of portrayal.

We need to break women out of straitjackets of what they ‘should be like’. A large chunk of content still hasn’t evolved beyond the sister-wife-daughter-in-law model. Yes, there are exceptions but they are that – exceptions. Female-driven narratives are still evolving, it’s still a pretty recent phenomenon, but it’s a good thing. There is definitely a great attempt at it, some are getting it right, and others may be not so much but it’s the effort that matters.

We are seeing many more stories with women in the lead, but one needs to take care that they should not become imitations of their male counterparts instead of leads in their own skin. This is particularly so when we show women in positions of power such as cops or bosses, they tend to feel like female versions of male protagonists.

One trend that needs to be looked at is when we tell female-led stories, there is also a tendency to look at how the West portrays women and follow from that. But the fact of the matter remains that those portrayals do not necessarily work in the Indian context. We tend to work with those two ends of the spectrum but we need to find our own identity.

Literature has always had women in strong roles and has had strong female voices. Indian culture has had a plethora of strong, wise women – in texts as well as real life – who have held their ground even while being within a patriarchal system.

Speaking as an advertising director, I can say that most of the content in our industry has focused on an unreal image of women, in the sense that they are typically portrayed as epitomes of perfection, which ends up placing an even higher burden on them. That needs to change, and we need to start showing more women as normal, fallible human beings. She cites the recent portrayal of ‘women’ versus ‘superwomen’ in the Tanishq Women’s day which she has directed. We decided to let our character be more human, someone who gets tired, someone who needs to take a breather, some prone to failure, open to defeat, someone just like you and me.

Creative Brand Purpose International Women's Day

More from Creative

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +