Ariktha M Koundinya and Samarth Narayanan
In the last two sections of this series, we explored two forms of portrayal, essentially what was the ideal form of portrayal in Feminism: Getting it Right, and then the wrong one in Feminism: Misquoted. In this third and final section, we try to cover movies that exceed general stereotypes, and treat masculinity and femininity as strengths and forms of portrayal that do not depend on existing notions.
This kind of portrayal was seen in a lot of movies and TV shows, but surprisingly, quite a few of the examples we are going to refer to in this article were from the 1980s and 1990s – well before our time, which is saying something. Some of these movies are Kill Bill, Alien, Khuda Gawah, and some of the later examples we will be referring to are The Intern, Gotham, Fantastic Beasts, etc.
We are also intending to throw some light on how this section can be an important source for the portrayal of masculinity as well, in a unique and non-toxic way. Look for this towards the end of the article.
In this category, let’s start with Khuda Gawah. There are a couple of reasons why the movie fits perfectly into the category. For one, it doesn’t attach a gender based nuance to any of the characters, except from the basic references to a woman and a man. The movie, which is quite old, stars Amitabh Bachhan and Sridevi, the latter appears in the movie in a double role, playing both the mother and the daughter. There are a couple of interesting sequences in the movie go against gender defined conventions. Take for instance, the convention that says a woman can’t fend for herself, and needs the man to come up and take a stand for her. Movies today that label themselves as feminist (a lot of action based movies come to mind), while showing their protagonists fighting big action sequences and walking into a room guns blazing, do a great deal to ensure the audience recognises that very fact. The audience needs to say to themselves ‘Hey, this is a woman, and she’s fighting with guns,’ and this involves a lot of hyperbole and drama that filmmakers resort to in order to establish that fact. But Sridevi’s character in this particular movie, with effortless ease, just as any other male hero would, drives cars around racetracks, picks up weapons and goes out fighting, and it doesn’t seem like her character is breaking any kind of convention at all in emboldening herself in the way she does. You don’t think she’s a woman, or a manly woman – she’s simply a character doing what needs to be done.
Kill Bill, one of Quentin Tarantino’s most brilliant contributions to cinema, plays along the same lines. There’s a LOT of action, swordplay, bloodshed as you would expect any classic Tarantino to have, and it is not a big deal that there’s a lot of women characters doing the swordplay.
The primary difference we are trying to highlight is that it shouldn’t be a big deal that a woman is fighting a fight scene. We’ve noticed this in epics like Lord of the Rings, where Eowyn of Rohan, constantly keeps being forced by her father to stay back and not go to war, and eventually she dresses up as a male and ends up saving her father’s life. While this portrays a character breaking through a patriarchal chain, what we’d like to say is that the only way someone in real life can do this, is when we normalise women doing this, and this automatically achieves what any feminist movie would hope to achieve. That being said, let’s take a look at Alien.
Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, based off of a story by Dan O’Bannon, is a science-fiction horror film of 1979. What makes Alien so horrifying is that it deals with the art of sexual terror. The Xenomorph, the female extraterrestrial antagonist is an alien that breeds by means of forceful impregnation of her victims. The scenes are graphic and violent as it deals with violent visuals of penetration.
The protagonist is Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, the captain of a predominantly male crew that never questions her authority and respects her for the person she is, regardless of her gender. The Xenomorph having invaded their spaceship, the captain finds her crew members’ lives in her hands. The sequel deals with a similar tone of threat, only this time, Ripley finds herself attached to one of the survivors from a previous alien invasion – a little girl, Newt, that she develops maternal feelings for. This is where Alien branches and stands out from other movies or even real life situations where motherhood and femininity are treated as weaknesses. Alien uses that femininity and motherhood, and plays that to its strengths. The final face off is between Ellen Ripley and the Xenomorph, whose weakness, like any other mother, is the harming of her children. Ripley recognises this and, mother against mother, Newt in one arm, flame-thrower in another, destroys the alien’s eggs, leaving the Xenomorph in agony of her lost children. Two warriors, one on the side of humanity and one, extraterrestrial, using their maternal instincts as strengths, ultimately leaving the win for the Homo Sapiens.
On that note, it would be apt to move out of the past and into this millennium, where we’d like to put our point across by referring to The Intern, and Gotham.
Firstly, the latter. Gotham is another tale, resplendent with an array of female characters, all of whom are strong in their own unique ways. While it becomes apparent with the watching of the show that this is one of the more well researched portrayals of DC, there is absolute gender fluidity. The super righteous male cop, James Gordon, while definitely based off of conventional male characteristics, is never written to be exactly that. He’s just another character in just another story. Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and her relationship to Bruce Wayne, is exactly as non-gender specific as the comics. While Poison Ivy might be the only character to use her sex to get what she wants, the fact that she is the exception only makes her a unique component of that world. Fish Mooney, Lee Thompkins, Tabitha Galavan, Firefly, Sofia Falcone and of course, Barbara Kean are all uniquely different, and their sex is never intended to put them at a disadvantage. In this midst, there are an array of stories all based against empowerment and feminism, but not necessarily gender specific. Take Sofia Falcone for instance, one of two kids (the other a male) kept away from the mafia world their father Carmine inhabited, where she decides to don her father’s mantle because she wants to prove herself, but not because she’s a persecuted woman. She simply wants to make a point, that she’s got a place in organised crime, and her father wasn’t letting her (nor her brother) be a part of it.
Coming to Barbara Kean. From the doting wife to psychopathic murderer, to an arms dealer/mafia boss, to the leader of a previously male dominated League of Shadows, to running a women only club called The Sirens, and finally, to a mother exhibiting all the maternal instincts to protect the child in her womb (and later becoming a real estate agent), Barbara Kean has done it all, and not for a single moment is it made apparent that she’s doing all these things being a woman. Her love for James Gordon is simply the pure kind of Love, rather than that of the mad woman who’d do anything to get the man she wants. Barbara simply does what she wants to, and nobody can tell her otherwise. And that’s exactly why her character is powerful.
Similarly, ‘The Intern’. Conventionally, a woman who grows to run and manage her own business or corporation, is made to seem as if she’s been through a lot of systemic backlash to get there. But this isn’t the case with Jules. She has definitely been through all that someone goes through starting, setting up, and building a successful business, but she does it independent of the fact that she is a woman in a male dominated word. And her being a woman, while a definitely important point, is never the focus of the story itself, and this is why we think The Intern belongs in this Part 3 of our series, rather than Part 2.
On the other side of the coin, female characters aren’t the only ones that need a change in portrayal. Male characters are also heavily stereotyped in mainstream media. The usual male protagonist is a strong, serious character that never lets his emotions get in the way and stops at nothing to get what he wants; no matter how toxic or unhealthy, the good guy is always the good guy.
A non-stereotypical approach was taken with the writing of the character Newt Scamander in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, a 2016 film directed by David Yates based in the Harry Potter fictional universe. Newt, the male protagonist, has an unlikely set of characteristics. His masculinity is different from the typical male lead and is, in its own way, his strength. This shy, introspective, emotive introvert empathizes with endangered creatures and tries his best to protect and care for them. His confidence is a positive characteristic, measured up against his otherwise subdued nature.
It is unfortunate to note that most critics who reviewed the movie had opinions that weren’t up to the mark, with the New York Post saying that ‘he wasn’t an engaging lead‘ and MTV’s opinion of Newt ‘lacking depth‘. An overwhelming number of reviews disliked the character’s unique choice of masculine portrayal, branding it as eccentric and uninspired. This is the sad state of affairs in a world where stereotypical and sexist characters like Charlie Harper of Two and a Half Men are lauded and seated on a high pedestal, and Newt-like portrayals are given a back seat.
We believe this is a good place to segue into something we haven’t brought up across the past two articles. The unfortunate truth lies in the fact that we, as an audience are not yet ready to accept this introduction of gender positive characters. Ultimately filmmakers, directors and producers cater to the masses and it’s only provided the masses desire the change, that change will occur. We as an audience hold a significant role in storytelling, the way a story is told and the kind of stories to make movies out of. The system is broken, but it isn’t just the system to blame for it’s us that control it.
And on that note, we come to the end of the third article, and with it, the series. We hope we’ve managed to do justice to the portrayal of not just feminism, but the various factors of political correctness that need to be regarded when anyone is making any kind of art for mass distribution. We hope you like the series, hit us up if you’d like to continue the conversation!
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.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*