In a World of Sexist Cinema, How Do You Watch Films as a Feminist?
How many action films can you think of where a man asks a woman what to do, and the woman rattles off battle plans?
It’s a hard world for us cine-going feminists. Because, you see, once the ball drops, things are never quite the same again.
What’s the ball, you ask? Every subliminal and non-subliminal, overt and covert nuance and knowledge of feminism you’ve ever picked up in all your years till you’ve reached this point. This exact point in your life, when you can no longer go through five minutes of a movie with your boyfriend without screaming, “He’s not letting her speak. What kind of mansplaining BS have you picked for us tonight?”
Needless to say, fellow feminists, it is a hard, hard world.
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Things Fellow Feminists Will Notice...
Here are some things you will start to notice in anything that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (a test that asks whether there are at least two women in the film who speak to each other about something other than a man) –
1. The men speak more than the women. Sometimes, if the woman gets a word in, another man in the group – or the man she is addressing – talks over her. Remember Happy New Year when Shah Rukh Khan’s character seems to take exquisite pleasure in chiding Deepika’s character as though she were a five-year-old infant?
2. Mansplaining is a thing even in cinema. Have you noticed how most of the “But, hum wahan jayenge kaise?” queries are asked with complete naïveté by the woman, while the man peremptorily explains? Can you think of too many mixed groups where the man asks the woman the best way to take someone down, and the woman rattles off battle plans? I know I can’t. Think recent ‘action’ movies a la Baaghi, Baby, Bang Bang.
3. If you do happen to watch an extremely well-made, artistically created film that everyone’s applauding and you try to point out how the women in it had no agency, why is (almost) everyone constantly pointing out its “realism” and “authenticity”? I could drop a nickel into the feminist ocean for every time a woke bro has shrugged his shoulders at me and said, “she was oppressed/hushed/shushed so people know what not to do”. Er, are you kidding me?
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like good feminist cinema isn’t made every once in a while. But they’re so few and far between, that you can barely get your drumroll going before it’s all over. I remember watching Wonder Woman with a male friend and pointing out everything I loved about it and why it was the first true-blue feminist superhero movie I’d ever seen.
“There are no booty shots, no cameras panning across Wonder Woman’s chest, no uncomfortable lingering-too-long on her glutes,” I exulted, and I think he understood. As a woman viewer, I told him, it was a victory for cinema. He understood. “So, it’s like every other fight movie ever, except with a woman,” he acquiesced. “Exactly.”
The Problem With So-Called ‘Realistic’, Misogynist Cinema
“Realistic” filmmaking a la the Anurag Kashyap/Quentin Tarantino school of cinema worries me, because of just that authenticity argument I made before. “How do you show how ill-treated women are, if you don’t show the world how ill-treated they are?” is an obvious question. I physically cringe during scenes of women characters being splayed across the face with a resounding slap because she ‘crossed a line’, or when an obscene word is thrown her way to make sure she knows her place.
Alright, you’ll tell me, fair enough – she shouldn’t be mistreated that way, but audiences already know that. How? Can you really guarantee that every single viewer watching a particularly unbridled scene of violence or misogyny against women instinctively knows it’s not okay? Across our cities, towns, races, regions?
Let’s go with your argument for a minute – that it was important for the ugliness to be shown so that people knew what domestic violence/casual sexism/Bollywood-esque stalking looked like. Great. It must then, stand to reason that the perpetrator of that violence/sexism/stalking be shown punished at the end of the narrative. But is he, really?
The Varun Dhawans of the world (in gems like Main Tera Hero) – much like the Salman Khans and Akshay Kumars (Holiday, anyone?) who have a few years on him – have been running off with the giggling, squawking maiden anyway. And husbands telling their wives to shush are rarely set straight by a third party who pops in to say, “Show some respect, you d***!”
A movie like English Vinglish is a rarity where the wife shows up a know-it-all husband with her own acumen at the end – and you, at least, feel like she has deigned to love him like before, even though she need not have. An outright film of violence like the Aishwarya Rai-starrer Provoked, too, was black-and-white in its unflinching punishment of the wife-beating husband – in this case, Naveen Andrews.
So yes, those are victories. And they are heartening ones. But how often do films reach that kind of retribution for its women characters? How often do they walk out, in the narrative, feeling like even the tiniest wrong against them has been righted?
How often do you and I, fellow feminist, walk out without that tiny, gnawing sensation in the pit of the stomach which tells you, “That movie was nice, but I wish they’d been fairer”?
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