I rue the day my mother discovered WhatsApp. I went from being impatient while teaching her to hold a smartphone to being disgruntled by the onslaught of her video calls. She browses YouTube, sources high-definition pictures of holiday destinations and unfailingly forwards all my work to the dreaded extended family. But why was I surprised that a 57-year-old woman has befriended technology better than I have?
I was in the grip of the ageist thinking that middle-aged and older women are incapable of technological prowess. It would certainly fall in line with Indian ads that have stuck older women in hopelessly stereotypical roles. If these ads were to believed, older women were smart with housework and the beta sweater pehen lo kind of nurturing, but not with much else. Meanwhile, my mother and other older women I knew seemed to carry on with their lives that were never reflected in these ads.
Older women in ads used to be invisible. In every kitchen appliance ad, from pressure cookers to mixers, the older mother/saasu ma was only around to add texture to the younger people’s narratives. She was like the standard phalanx of ‘cute old lady’ extras in Mani Ratnam songs. Or they were the domineering mothers-in-law who typically gave hell to the women in the family, like in most Everest masala ads.
But then I saw actor Revathi in an Axis Bank ad in September. In the ad, she drove a car with her to-be-married son (played by Vikrant Massey). She urged Massey to move out after his wedding for the comfort of her daughter-in-law. I don’t know who was more shocked, Massey or me. Revathi smiled in an understanding, cool mom sort of way and ruffled his hair.
My shock wasn’t at the suggestion but at the image of an older woman in an Indian ad casually taking the wheel and just as casually asking her adult son to move out. Massey did not speak for her. She thought and spoke for herself. Then there is Bournvita’s ‘Exam Ki Taiyari’ ad which shows a middle-aged school principal instructing parents to not pressure their children during exams. She says exams aren’t the end of life as they know it. It argues that every middle-aged woman does not equate success with top rank or a big bank balance.
Newer ads also reflect older women’s interests beyond family and Society with a capital S. To the woman in the ad for Britannia Good Day Wonderfull biscuits, success is a pair of dentures. She puts on the dentures that her granddaughter (played by Deepika Padukone) gifts her and admires her reflection in the mirror. She preens and sets her short, white, pixie hair. She throws herself a dazzling smile. In a culture where only Zohra Jabeen has been told that she is still haseen and even she has to be told by someone else, this grandmother knows it and needs no validation from Padukone. And that’s success.
I, for one, am grateful just to see older women in fun ads. Every now and then, these new characters are there to make a point about how the world has changed. Take, for example, Ariel’s ‘Share the Load’ campaign from 2015. In one of its ads, an older woman is telling her friend how proud she is that her daughter-in-law earns more than her son. Right on cue, her beta appears, asking why his wife hasn’t washed his t-shirt. The women roll their eyes, united in their disgust at male entitlement.
Perhaps the point of these ads is not to indicate that the world has changed but that older Indian women are wondering why the world hasn’t changed enough yet. A woman praising her daughter-in-law for earning more than her son may be reflective of some older women’s wishful thinking.
Lalitha Vaidyanathan, a senior advertising consultant based in Hyderabad, believes that while some older women missed the window to financial autonomy, the ones who didn’t have gained a lot of confidence. “They’re aware of how they can retain their financial autonomy these days,” she says. “It’s easy to assume that women who’ve never worked in an office will know nothing about confidence. But if examples from ads and real life are anything to go by, many women have a strong will to learn.”
But how did advertisers notice this shift? It may have started with the personal care and toiletry brand Dove, according to Manav Parekh, who leads Digital Creative Communications for Hotstar Creative Communications in Mumbai. He says, “Dove changed the narrative in 2013 with campaigns like ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ and ‘Real Beauty’ which have middle-aged to older women being confident with their bodies. For the first time, it suggested that they have an identity beyond family.”
This ad introduced the Indian audience to the idea of beauty as an active thought in older women. Sejal Khurana, a freelance ad filmmaker, believes that Dove’s ads told both the audience and older women that it’s okay to want to dress up at 18 and 80. She says, “My 65-year-old mother would never bother to dress up too much, even to weddings. But for the past four years or so, she buys the same products as I do. She uses my make-up. It’s wonderful.”
Wanting to feel beautiful is only one marker of the New Older Woman’s identity. Another is her sense that it is time to stop thinking about other people’s expectations. Ask the paati in Vodafone’s Supernet 4G ads, if you will. She travels around with her husband, makes video calls and has firang friends, and parasails. In real life, the Vodafone woman is Shanta Dhananjayan, a Bharatanatyam dancer and a Padma Bhushan awardee. According to a news report, Shanta and her husband decided to do the advertisement because of its different treatment of older people. To her, it sounded like a ton of fun.
Parekh agrees, “Young executives in agencies want to apply progressive perspectives. Ideologically, the consumer perspective has become more important than brand perspective. Earlier, ad-makers would centre what a brand stands for to a social construct. Now, they tie a social construct to a brand. An ideological shift certainly changes the way people are portrayed as with older women in ads.”
You can look for sociological reasons specific to the last few years but isn’t it universal that women do become more confident as they grow older? According to Vaidyanathan, “This confidence simply comes from acceptance of themselves and not just age. With technology, a lot of older women have come to a late realisation that they play a larger role in society and not just in their homes. This brings a sense of identity. If not, it at least brings the need to develop one,” she says.
As Snighda Manickavel writes in a wonderful piece for The Hindu Business Line about her mother, her mother’s friends and their relationship with mobile phones, “I heard (these) women’s voices all around me, talking to the people they loved, the people they put up with. Their voices were tinged with love and annoyance, sleep and regret. I thought of all of us moving forward, steadily, towards lives that we never thought we would lead. The wind in our hair, phones in our hands, we are all unstoppable.”
Unstoppable or not, it’s not just about how these older women appear in ads. It’s also about how they are in real life. Their introductions no longer read ‘amma’ and ‘dadi’. They are and always have been the Hemas, Rekhas, Jayas aur Sushmas of their own lives. And sabki pasand is themselves, not Nirma.
Shruti Sunderraman writes for The Ladies Finger (TLF), a leading online women’s magazine. Visit the website here.