TV Promotes Education, Escape, and Empowerment?

For many in America, the responsibility of television is to entertain. With the onset of reality TV and popular celebrity gossip some feel television’s ultimate mission to educate has been lost. However, in many developing nations such as India and Brazil television’s purpose to educate has been accomplished through an increase in villages’ access and specific content exposing rural women to modern ideas of independent, successful women. And for one immigrant young woman, who migrated from Guyana to America, the television has been an outlet to break out of confined traditions leading into a world of achieving the impossible.

Martha Karran, a second year student at Queens College studying Psychology, emigrated from her native Guyana in 1996 when she was just three years old. Television helped Karran develop knowledge of diverse cultures and acted as a vehicle for escape from the confines of her home. Without a clear memory of her homeland, Karran grew up in New York City and remembers learning many American customs through television. The television gave her a “broad range of knowledge of other cultures.” This knowledge helped facilitate the process of adapting into her new school system and associating with the diverse children she met. However Karran also mentioned that “The television helped me break out of confined traditions” while coming from a strict household. The television functioned as a form of escape for Karran while spending much time at home as a young girl.

Karran illustrated her own experience of content empowerment similar to the depiction of free, modern women on television shows in rural villages. Karran explained the reason she enjoyed watching episodes of one particular show “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”

“Some Girls Lead a Magical Life”

(a series featuring a teenage girl with the possession of magical powers) She stated “As a child, I was fascinated by the magic. But when you realize it’s a female character, you think maybe I can do this too.” The change in attitude has led Karran to believe in achieving the impossible and reaching for her own success. She has now achieved a high morale in her college and was recently named a Jeannete K. Watson Fellowship finalist.

In rural Indian villages, the growth of television access has been on a constant increase since the 1980s. According to a survey from the National Readership Council of 2006, 112 million households in India own a television and “In the span of just ten to fifteen years since it first became available, cable or satellite penetration has reached an astonishing 60 percent in states such as Tamil Nadu, even though the average income is below the World Bank poverty line of two dollars per person per day.” All in all the growth of cable and satellite television has been on the rise in developing nations like India, but how does this increase in television access help to educate and empower women?

Researchers, Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago, propose that “Introducing cable television is equivalent to roughly five years of female education.” Interestingly enough the increased access of television in developing nations has led to behavioral changes in women. These scholars found that “Before television arrived 62% of women in Indian villages believed it was okay for husbands to beat their wives, 55% of women wanted their next child to be a son, and two-thirds of the woman said they needed permission to visit friends.” In their study, rural Indian women gained more autonomy or freedom after being exposed to television. These women were able to leave their homes without their husband’s consent and had more input in household decisions. The preference of sons over daughters declined, the amount of births dropped, and daughters became more likely to have a school education. Even more compelling, wife-beating or domestic violence became less acceptable.

Photo courtesy of JICA.

A study by Italian economist Eliana La Ferrara showed the impact of the Brazilian television network Red Globo. The network, renowned for its soap operas with main characters being females with few children, showed that the number of births dropped among women in the new area the network reached. Women in these areas with lower socio-economic statuses had fewer births even though they were ripe in their reproductive stages.

So how does the increase in access of television lead to the education and behavioral changes of women in developing nations? The link here is content empowerment. According to Pulitzer prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristoff’s book A Half of the Sky, “With the television, new ideas infiltrated the villages. Most of the popular cable-television programs in India are soap operas set among middle-class families in the cities where women hold jobs and can come and go freely. Rural viewers come to recognize women should be treated as human beings.” The content of the shows spread the idea of a free, modern woman. While in America many question the way media portrays the ideal female, in developing nations this free, independent woman is a valuable figure of empowerment leading to changes in attitudes and behaviors.

The television, while a questionable medium at times, can be used for a much higher purpose of women empowerment. In developing nations many women are “underutilized resources” capable of adding to the nation’s economy by receiving schooling and obtaining jobs. In this case, empowerment through television content can be quite useful. While the increase in autonomy and status for women in developing nations is phenomenal, take Martha Karran for example, a young immigrant woman from Guyana. Seeing a powerful female character has helped her break out of conventional traditions, believe in the impossible, and go forth with her goals. Being an immigrant woman in America can be difficult but can lead to achieving success by breaking out of the confines of culture. So next time you look at the television, realize that its power can go much further than the plug.


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