Ariktha M Koundinya and Samarth Narayanan
In Feminism: Misquoted, our first post of the ‘feminism in pop culture’ series, we spoke about where movies and series were going wrong in the portrayal of feminism. Let us now continue where we left off.
This second part talks about the correct on-screen representation of women in an otherwise male dominated world. Here, we have films and shows that test high on the Bechdel meter – Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Sex Education, The Office, Hidden Figures, and for that matter, even the controversial Gunjan Saxena movie, some of which we shall discuss in the article below.
Let us take for instance, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There are constant references to women’s rights here, especially the unequal representation of women in the workplace. The show constantly touches upon mixing up stereotypes of how men and women are perceived in our world today. This is pretty evident in the character that is Rosa Diaz, a woman who is written as a no-nonsense, highly violent, conventionally ‘hyper-masculine’ character, who has moulded herself this way. She is also a gender queer character, identifying as bisexual, and this further makes her character nuanced. This is a classic example of the negative stereotyping that we see and relate to, but what is interesting is the evolution of Rosa’s character itself that, as the show progresses, indicates these complex emotions she expresses that sort of separate her from the classic stereotype.
The show does an excellent job in talking about gender, normalising the portrayal of not only strong women, but also the portrayal of gay men. For instance – Raymond Holt, an openly gay officer, who does not appear to conform with the flashy colourful and conventionally feminine characteristics homosexuals are generalised as being inspired by. This portrayal makes clear that you can’t really distinguish gay men from other men based on perceived characteristics. Same goes with women, as there are many like Roza who simply embraces those characteristics to make her who she is and has nothing to do with stereotypes.
But the general practice is to enhance the conventional stereotypes to make the character look convincing – Sherlock Holmes for instance. In one of the episodes here, the great grand mansplaining Holmes, by a mere glance at physical characteristics, brands Moriarty as being gay, because of the way the latter wore his clothes, walked, and held his hands. Raymond Holt, on the other hand, has no revealing character traits subscribing to social convention, except of course the Pride Flag that sits on his table. The level of thought poured into ensuring there is no overdoing or overselling of a character’s sexual orientation is one reason why B99 is a must watch.
A similar example under this category is the American version of The Office, a show not only known for its incredible comic timing, but also for its firm moral opinions.
In terms of gender equality, the show portrays what is right and wrong through the character of Michael Scott, the hilariously awkward boss whose constant need of attention overshadows his crippling fear of dying alone. He is in charge of a lot of sexism on the show, though seemingly unintentional, what he himself views as ‘comedic’. This is often seen in scenes of Michael inappropriately acknowledging the receptionist Pam’s appearance. What stands out, however, is that when Michael says anything from outrageously objectifying to casually sexist, the joke is on him. His colleagues look at him with disdain for his jokes and us, the audience feel a similar tone of disapproval, hence making note of the fact that something is racist or sexist.
As Michael matures, the other characters also develop, particularly Pam, who now makes better decisions and evolves into a saleswoman, the office administrator, an artist and a mother and generally becomes a more outgoing, assertive person, less objectified and now seen for more than just her appearance.
Further on in the show, an accurate representation of the clear sexual divide is portrayed, as is commonly noticed in the workplace. This is overcome gradually with each passing season. Like with the character Jan, who is a formidable woman from corporate, feared and respected, but deteriorates due to her self-destructive tendencies and manipulative behaviour, giving her character depth and layers.
The Office does a great job with fixing the negatives with time or the mindset of the characters, whether that means giving Kelly (an energetic, materialistic customer service rep of Indian origin) a scholarship making her a minority executive rep, thus making her a better version of herself; or seeing Pam, the shy receptionist, who evolves and grows as mentioned and becomes a source of heavy admiration for Erin, the new receptionist.
In some way, seeing these people, particularly these everyday women, conquer the workplace resonates with us, the audience. What The Office does, that B99 doesn’t do as well, is that it takes the kind of locker room conversation men have all the time, and uses it in an atmosphere that makes such conversation seem ‘cringey’, which has the effect of making even the audience think twice before going out of the way to be racist or sexist.
Here is where I want to take a slight digression and talk about the British series Sherlock to show the contrast. Sherlock is a story of noble intentions, that suddenly turns into a nightmare. The Abominable Bride, for instance, was meant to focus on women’s empowerment, and everything seemed to be going really well – from Mary and Mrs. Hudson’s subtle quips at their place in society, to Molly’s character dressing up as a man to continue doing what she loves (and not obsessing over Sherlock in a wholly unhealthy way). The episode is very well written, until the last scene. The writers of the episode, liken the women characters to the Suffragette movement, which while in itself being problematic because these women were glorified for having murdered their spouses, they wear hats like the Ku Klux Klan, and then Sherlock gives a speech about how it would be very noble of him to take the fall for these women, because they are in all ways better than the men and a bunch of other stuff that turn what was perhaps a good episode, into a bungling mansplaining nightmare.
In contrast, let us look at the recently released, but controversial, Gunjan Saxena. I would like the readers to note that the movie was not a documentary on the Kargil War and it was not a commentary on the Indian Air Force. It was intended to be, and has, in my opinion, succeeded in being a wholly feminist movie, speaking of the empowerment of women, speaking of women in a meritocracy, climbing up misogynistic ladders with their own abilities alone. The original Gunjan Saxena herself has attributed certain elements within the film to creative license, and has clearly maintained that disregarding the movie’s intent and message in lieu of the portrayal of something that wasn’t even the main focus of the film, is doing the moral of the story itself a disservice. The focus paid to Gunjan‘s character, as well as the lack of mansplaining, with superb acting by both Janhvi Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathi, who did not for once go on a rant about ‘his moral high-ground of ensuring his daughter can fight it in a man’s world’ or even the brother’s character for that matter are all very well portrayed in the context of this article and what it is attempting to analyse.
Nevertheless, those are just a few of the references we recommend for good movies that actually research their portrayal, and some of them that don’t, and we would like to bring this article to an end by referring to something B99’s Rosa tells Amy in an episode, “Two steps forward and one step back is still one step forward.” And this is true for women in all spheres of our society today.
In the next (and final) part of this series, we will bring you more interesting movies that take a bigger step towards the goal of breaking the stereotypes. Stick around!
Eyra Young Voices editor, Samarth Narayanan, has co-authored this article with Ariktha M Koundinya. Ariktha is a 16 year old who believes in fairytales and is deeply frustrated by the crushing reality of human existence. She writes poetry of her madness, winding it with metaphors so as to make it look pretty. More often than not, she is found with ink stained fingers, looking up at the sky expecting it to shatter and fall to the ground like shards of broken glass. But more than a poet or an artist, Ariktha is simply a little girl, lost in Enid Blyton fantasies, who knows that magic only happens when she closes her eyes, and so she smiles in the darkness.