Gender is not destiny: Turning Indian girls and boys into allies through TV drama
In the 2018 Global Gender Gap Index, India ranks a dismal 108 out of 149 countries. The country’s 253 million adolescents are currently growing up with a deeply-rooted gender bias which disproportionately affects girls.
Marriage and motherhood is the mandate for adolescent girls in India. Most Indian parents pay dowries for daughters’ marriages. While more girls are receiving an education than ever before, this is typically done to improve their marriage prospects, rather than their career choices. The onset of adolescence for girls spells a curbing of their interaction with boys, their mobility, and use of mobile phones. It is virtually mandatory for them to do housework, while boys who cook are jeered at and pressured into pursuing careers as doctors and engineers – even if they dream otherwise.
Media is often accused of reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes. But at BBC Media Action, we know that the power of media can help create a #BalanceforBetter.
AdhaFULL lead characters: Tara, Kitty and Adrak
From December 2015 to October 2017, we partnered with UNICEF to develop a transmedia initiative. Its aim? To increase recognition of harmful gender stereotypes amongst Indian adolescents and build their confidence and competence to discuss, and take action on, the issues impacting their lives.
At the heart of the project is AdhaFULL (‘half-full’): a whodunit drama series featuring three detective teenagers – Kitty, Tara and Adrak – living in a small town somewhere in Northern India. AdhaFULL tells stories of gender inequity, identity, peer pressure, parental authority, and gender-based violence to generate important discussions amongst young Indian viewers and their parents. The show ran for 78 episodes and attracted, on average, over one million people per episode.
A scene from AdhaFULL
A show for young people, informed by young people
Audiences are at the heart of everything we do at BBC Media Action. To this end, we conducted immersive field trips to listen to adolescents talk about what mattered to them – what they enjoy, what they dream about, and what they reject. We wanted AdhaFULL to speak in their voice and from their perspective – portraying relatable, strong role models who go against their ‘destiny’ to break down the battle of the sexes. The field trips resulted in us fine-tuning our content to be true to the lived experience of the young girls and boys we met – with all its biases, aspirations and frustrations.
Breaking the force field
The central insight from these field trips was that Indian adolescents are limited by what we call a ‘force field’ of social expectations that shapes their identity, agency, autonomy and relationships. This force field acts as a barrier to what adolescents may or may not do, and while it is intended to be protective, it also serves to confine and limit. In the case of gender norms, this limiting is oppressive – for girls it can mean the end of freedom and much greater societal scrutiny of how they dress, where they go, with whom, who they talk to, and even how loudly they laugh.
So why would adolescents, or anyone for that matter, accept these limitations? What is the cost-benefit analysis that perpetuates a culture of concealing your deepest desires, compromising your hopes, and staying silent in the face of discrimination? We learned this was the price adolescents pay for social approval, familial support and economic security. Not upsetting this force field seemingly works in adolescents’ self-interest – and until and unless we could convince our audiences to break through it, we could not change the status quo.
Our aim for AdhaFULL, therefore, was to turn girls and boys into allies rather than adversaries – to promote mutual understanding and increase their confidence in challenging and owning the decisions affecting their lives.
As an example – in the show, Tara’s brother Prince, an older adolescent himself, starts out as an adversary. He feels superior, keeps distancing himself from the threesome, loudly proclaiming he does not want to get involved in their ‘trivial pursuits’. But throughout the course of the show, he comes around to becoming an ally, helping them solve the cases and even, standing up to his boorish, patriarchal father in support of his mother, sister and the AdhaFULL trio.
Moderator: “When I say AdhaFull then what comes to your mind immediately?”
Girl (Kurukshetra, small town in Northern India): “There was a girl who was fighting for her rights.”
An independent evaluation amongst 4000 adolescents and 1000 parents in India, conducted by UNICEF, showed that:
- Adolescent boys exposed to AdhaFULL showed significantly higher intent to act as allies for their sisters.
- Girls exposed to the show stated higher intent to discuss prioritising education over marriage with parents and talking to their parents about harassment.
- 65% of exposed parents showed significantly higher intent to provide equal opportunity to boys and girls than unexposed.
At BBC Media Action, we also conducted our own mixed method research evaluation that included a randomised control trial, focus groups with male and female adolescents, and in-depth interviews with parents. We discovered that:
- Both girls and boys felt Kitty, the lead female character, was an inspirational role model in her determination to continue her education, fight for her rights, and stand up for herself and her friends.
- There was strong engagement with AdhaFULL among males.
- Watching AdhaFULL had a significant positive influence on self-efficacy (attitudes and confidence) related to coming of age issues, and the rejection of traditional gender norms among young men.
Overall, both studies provide robust evidence that watching AdhaFULL had a positive impact on boys in particular – helping them to see their female peers in a new and equal light through engaging role models. It exemplifies #BalanceforBetter and demonstrates that insightful, evidence-based, carefully crafted narratives can help accelerate gender balance around the world. And that media can help shape a world where gender is not destiny.
Radharani Mitra is BBC Media Action’s Global Creative Advisor, based in Delhi, who led on the AdhaFULL project. Ragini Pasricha is Director of Content Strategy at BBC Media Action India.