Updated: Jun 17
Today, media plays a pivotal role in building the perceptions surrounding societal norms and values. Its representation of toxic stereotypes has led to an amalgamation of toxic norms in our society. A majority of TV viewers in our country are fans of desi Pakistani drama serials, which have often been known to glamorize the toxic traits of our society and are now being called out on it. But the important question that often remains unaddressed is that 'why the glamour of an elitist class and lifestyle is stereotyped as liberating from culture, religion, and societal norms?
Let me present a typical drama scene for you. Your main character lives in a poor house in Hyderabad. She wakes up early every morning to help her parents and siblings and then has to catch a bus to Karachi to get to her job on time. On the other hand, we have our second character who wakes up in her house in Clifton, goes out for a morning jog, comes home to her parents reading newspapers on the breakfast table, while she plans on starting her day.
How did you, as a viewer, imagine the attire of both these characters?
In my mind, the former character was wearing modest shalwar kameez and had her head covered as she boarded the bus, while the latter was wearing her yoga pants and a hoodie, her hair tied in a sweaty ponytail as she took the earphones out from her ears.
Our media has created stereotypes to portray different classes of our society in a specific way, something which is most obvious when two different classes are shown in comparison. The elite is portrayed as a group distant from culture and religion. Traditional boundaries of culture, norms and religious values do not seem to hold sway in their lives. The middle class is shown to be ‘stuck’ under the burden of upholding these values. Both of these concepts, I would like to argue, are inaccurately represented, are far from reality, and tend to portray our culture, norms, and values as regressive and something to be ‘ashamed’ about. In our dramas, the idea that is sold ahead is that the elite lifestyle is something more ‘westernized, liberal, and modern’, unapproachable for the masses. This representation is away from reality where cultural and religious values are upheld by elite households, and western modern values are likewise followed by middle-class households.
We come across people who belong to various spectrums of religion and culture irrespective of their class or financial status. The recent drama Chupke Chupke was refreshing to see as it deviated from the typical representation of middle-class families and showed a variety of personalities and characters. However, often when this class is present in comparison with the elite, their representation changes as well in order to draw a bigger contrast. Instead of getting an accurate image, this class then becomes the culture-bound, conservative, and religious group amongst the two.
The prime examples in this regard are the hit dramas over the years like Hamsafar, Zindagi Gulzaar Hai, Sabaat, Man Mayal, and many more where the elite family’s ‘modernism’ and the relatively poorer family’s ‘conservativeness' is not only stereotyped but is shown as an obligation. In all these dramas, it’s the same liberal rich family and the same cultural/religious poorer family. It’s the same stereotyped lifestyles that have been tightly knit together with the financial status of the families. An example of this is the drama Shanakht, where a girl belonging to an elite family is chastened and shamed for being religious in an upper social class and circle like theirs. Again, where did the representation of the cultural and religious elite families existing in our society go?
Another example of the harmful representation of elite liberation is the recent viral web series Midsummer Chaos- a five-part series made to give an accurate representation to Pakistani teenagers, which again, under the blanket of liberation, normalises the lifestyle of a small minority of teenagers in Pakistan and sells as the lifestyle of the majority.
The question of why the elite is presented this way still stands. Why are these stereotypes so blatantly being fed into our society?
Part of the answer is because it sells amongst the masses. This is something that a majority of our people have been watching for a long time and continue to watch and like. No one speaks up against it and, as a result, people believe in the distorted image and problematic portrayals presented to us through these stereotypes upheld in our dramas.
Elitism is glamourized as an ideal that most of our people don't have the resources to conform to. People often desire that which they don’t have and which is often out of their reach. In this case, they watch something which is a representation of their wants and desires because the whole lifestyle is advertised as something only the rich can afford. This is different from what people are actually living with. These advertisements have reached to the point that in the presence of an elitist stereotype, the representation of lower classes automatically changes to another toxic conventional image in order to widen the gap between the social classes.
If accurate representation had been given, families belonging from all social classes wouldn't be stereotypically divided into two categories. If accurate representation is given, people would lose interest and the idea wouldn’t appeal to the viewers. Most of our drama plots and storylines thrive off of countless toxic tropes regardless of their effects on the mentality of our already flawed society.
The issue that needs to be addressed is why the writers, directors, and producers consider it fine to promote all these toxic and inaccurate tropes and then claim their work to be an accurate representation of the society? And why do people still not hold them accountable and instead just continue absorbing the same old inaccuracy and deceptive and harmful representation? I think we’ve progressed enough to know that there are actually so many more important, but overlooked, social issues to highlight and work on instead of focusing on just drawing a differential line between two social classes for a typical storyline to work. It’s high time that our drama industry focus more on the vital issues and contribute in raising awareness, initiating change, and furthering the cause of making our society more tolerant, empathetic, and aware.
Zainab Waseem is an in-house writer at Perspective.