Updated: Jan 15
Before you start, let me ask you a question - if I tell you to write a script for a film with the theme of love, in two minutes, what would it be about? Would it be the age-old truism, boy meets girl and they live happily ever after? If you are one for adventure, then you might add some spice to it, and make her or him or psychopath, or one of them a spy. But, how many of your scripts would involve two best friends of the same gender, or love interests of the same gender, or a sibling relationship or parent-child relationship? Aren’t they all love stories too?
Take a minute or two to reflect on it. If your story falls in the first category, don’t worry, I was guilty of it too. It is not because you don’t love your parents or your best friend, it is because you have never viewed it as love worth being as beautiful as romantic love. Film and pop culture have a lot to do with it. Media and pop culture discourses are saturated with heterosexual love stories, to the point that it is always considered the norm.
Let us go back to our childhood when we were first introduced to the ideas of love. Mine is Rapunzel and every Barbie movie that aired on Pogo. Early 2000s kids are getting nostalgic right now. All of these movies have the same core plot, Barbie falls in love with (insert typical American name), and most of us watched every movie not realizing that only Barbie’s occupations and hairstyles changed. In all of these movies, Ken or Prince Charming magically solves all of her problems.
You think as an adult; film plots will mature but not really. They metamorphose into tropes such as rich CEOs falling in love with ordinary girls, high school bad boys falling in love with innocent shy nerdy teenage girls and the list goes on. While these kinds of tropes are enmeshed well into a comedic well-directed film and make for a fun watch, one cannot ignore the skeletons it veils beneath the cotton candy love story. I myself did not realize the problem with this perpetuation until a conversation with my best friend. On the phone call, I was bawling my eyes out, for that day my sister was leaving for her post-graduate studies and I said, “It looks like I am crying over a breakup”. The only thing I was missing was mascara, and that would be the perfect shot for a breakup scene.
I have probably only seen a few films and series, with a sister relationship garnering an adequate amount of screen time, one of them is undoubtedly the TV series, “Fleabag”. To underscore why this is disheartening is that there is a lack of such a portrayal of such kind of raw, unconditional, true love stories, that we all experience that it led me to compare my state to a breakup, the only portrayal of love, we as a society have consumed.
To those who will argue that it is just a film or just a story, I would like to ask you, why then did you frantically cheer at a screen when Thor finally showed up in Infinity War? We vicariously live through these characters, we relate to them, we emotionally engage with them. Therefore, when problematic tropes are mass-marketed and churned into a gazillion films every year, it weeds into our thoughts, we begin to internalize them and unless we pay attention to them, we may not realize when they turn problematic.
Media is often utilized to propagate patriarchal beliefs. Films through their characters and plotlines indoctrinate how men and women are supposed to behave. In the words of Simone De Beauvoir, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman”. She is referring to the historical idea of women which encompasses a gamut of behaviours that supposedly belong to women and are taught and reproduced in society. Visual cinema and pop culture abet these practices, subliminally directing its audience to behave in a particular manner. Women are to be passive, the ones to be rescued and men the agents, the rescuers.
For years, audiences have seen women on screen from a male perspective. We see these male perspectives in the portrayal of female friendships in these films. Often it is women fighting over the popular boy of the school. Women are pitted against each other, to win the patriarchal heart. Even if the protagonist has a female friend, she is a secondary character, just a tag-along and morale booster to the protagonist, with no character or story development of her own. None of these films accurately portray the nuances of female relationships or their individual characters.
But, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are numerous films worth mentioning that showcase a female gaze and have broken typical stereotypes. Frances Ha, a coming-of-age film where the main lead is struggling to come to terms with her best friend moving on with her life, is a true testament to female friendships. The heartbreakingly realistic part of the film is France’s love for her best friend Sophie. Another visual treat is Lady Bird, also written by Greta Gerwig, which portrays female friendship with deft nuance once again, where she subverts the teenage trope of a girl getting the boy in the end to the girl coming of age and reconciling her relationships with her loved ones.
These independent films hardly break box office numbers for society is, unfortunately, more in love with unrealistic love stories than taking the time to see the love stories in their own life. What makes these films break stereotypes is not only that they depict the multidimensionality of female characters, but for the first time we see women as agents exercising choice. This is in contrast to the male gaze as Laura Mulvey describes it, where the woman is the object in the film to be viewed, not the one doing the viewing. "Lady bird", for instance, demonstrates this beautifully, where we see her make choices, good or bad, but they are hers alone. All of us in our lives have seen women be fierce go-getters, but unfortunately, visual cinema has a hard time illustrating such multifaceted women.
The Indian film Industry, which is well known for its romantic tropes, has not fallen short of creating rich female stories, despite its long road ahead in terms of good cinema. Satyajit Ray was one of the first filmmakers to adeptly capture the relationship between an Anglo-Indian woman and a Bengali woman in "Mahanagar". These two characters help each other to come of age, supporting one another to become better versions of themselves which symbolize true female empathy. Fast-forwarding to the present and film “Akku Leela” by Uma Vangal, documented the lives of two Dalit women who were working as sweepers without pay from 1984 to 2011. Her film served as the support for the Supreme court to rule in favour of regularising the services of these women. Cinema is not just a screen abound with emotions to tug at our heartstrings, they can be revolutionary too if we want them to be.
Finally, I’ve got a task for you. Next time you watch a movie, analyze if it passes at least one of the following three tests:
The Bechdel Test - It has three very basic ground rules. A movie should have more than one woman, who should talk to each other, about anything other than a man.
The Mako Mori Test - A film should have at least one female character, with her distinct narrative and last but not the least,
The Sexy Lamp Test - Replace the woman in the film with a sexy lamp. If the story structure remains intact, then with utter disappointment you will realize that she was nothing but an object in the film.
I would like to end this analysis with a bit of advice. We, the Gen Z, have the power to make our voices heard, so the next time you see a regressive portrayal of a woman or feel uncomfortable the way the camera contours the female lead, write a scathing review, and collectively we should pledge to make our voices heard. Lastly, to those who will wail on Valentine’s day, for they have no heterosexual romantic partner, break yourself from the magic spells of Disney and treat the love for your best friend, parents as the norm.