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Posted by Shaileja Verma

In the entertainment industry, content may be the King, but the ‘audience’ is the Queen. Media that is mass, as well as on-demand, has provided this Queen with an abundance of content. For instance, those with a Netflix subscription (and their lucky friends) have access to a vast array of ‘cinema’ options. Each movie, whether screened in a theatre or streamed through a device, attempts to ensure that its script, direction, cinematography, sound, and most importantly, its characters, strike a chord with an audience. The completely immersive experience of cinema, free from all distraction (heaven forbid you use your phone), makes it easier to strike this chord.

In the information age, given the far-flung reach of cinema, the manner in which movies employ characterisations may affect how an audience perceives certain social and cultural realities. Controlling what an audience will take away from a movie is impossible, yet understanding how they may choose to assimilate the ‘lessons’ learnt during the course of those one-twenty minutes (or, a dreary three hours) imparts insight into why women continue to be represented in movies the way they are. 

Do Movies ‘Blow’ the Mind?

Psychology has been used to understand the manner in which an audience identifies with the experiences a movie provides. The Social Cognitive Theory, inter alia, suggests that people alter their expectations for real-world situations by observing what is presented through the media. Interestingly, it has been noted that people perhaps look at reel-life relationships for insights into what to expect from real-life relationships. An application of the Social Cognitive Theory is then telling of the possibility of these expectations being magnified by hyper-traditional or role-divisional characterisations, which consequently function as justifications for fostering the same in actuality (case in point – the reason behind the uproar over Kabir Singh).

In the information age, given the far-flung reach of cinema, the manner in which movies employ characterisations may affect how an audience perceives certain social and cultural realities. Controlling what an audience will take away from a movie is impossible, yet understanding how they may choose to assimilate the ‘lessons’ learnt during the course of those one-twenty minutes (or, a dreary three hours) imparts insight into why women continue to be represented in movies the way they are. 

Similarly, the Cultivation Theory proposes that the media has the power and potential to shape or ‘cultivate’ a person’s opinion of reality. When a viewer is exposed to a continuous flow of specific cultural messages, then systematically, these messages become part of one’s life (case in point – the classic eve-teasing trope that normalised street harassment). Movies are escape rooms to the world of entertainment, open to all. So, narratives which repeatedly portray characters in gender stereotypes can passively reinforce the general public’s outlook to be in tune with such portrayals. 

We also have the Feminist Film Theory which emerged to understand how and why cinema has become a medium to represent and reproduce ‘myths’ about women and femininity, and men and masculinity. It aimed at theorising sexist depictions of women in classical cinema and understanding the underlying structures behind the same.  

Psychoanalysis was the Feminist Film Theory’s predominant approach in the 1980s. Laura Mulvey, in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, borrowed Sigmund Freud’s notion of scopophilia –  the pleasure of seeing, to explain why cinema has become the way it is. She used the concepts of voyeurism and narcissism to explain the same. With regard to the former, cinema has created the spectacle of a female character being the object of desire for a male character, thus cementing the notion that voyeurism is a male prerogative. With regard to the latter, cinema has helped the audience self-identify with a ‘powerful’ male character – in stark contrast to a female character, who is either objectified or portrayed as passive. This is representative of cinema which has historically tailored itself to suit the male-gaze (case in point – the quintessential Indian ‘item’ song).

Some Unfriendly Facts & Figures

A 2018 study examined diversity and inclusivity in popular movies. It found that from across a hundred top-grossing English movies of 2017, out of a total of 4,454 speaking characters, women only comprised 31.8% of the same. Furthermore, only nineteen of these hundred movies had ‘gender-balanced’ storylines which filled 45% to 54.9% of their speaking roles with female characters. 

We also have the Feminist Film Theory which emerged to understand how and why cinema has become a medium to represent and reproduce ‘myths’ about women and femininity, and men and masculinity. It aimed at theorising sexist depictions of women in classical cinema and understanding the underlying structures behind the same.  

Another study which sampled movies from eleven countries (including India) concluded that the over-sexualisation of female characters has become an across-the-board standard. With this standard in place, female characters comprised a paltry 22.5% in their representation as working women. In Indian cinema, 34.1% female characters were found to be in ‘sexy attire’, 35% of them were shown with an element of nudity and only 15.6% female characters were represented as working women. 

An Indian study which analysed gender stereotypes in four-thousand Bollywood movies from 1970-2017 also found several on-screen gaps. Male characters have been consistently mentioned around thirty times per Wikipedia plot, as opposed to female characters, who are mentioned around fifteen times. While analysing movie poster and plot mentions, it found that 80% of movie plots have more male character mentions, but surprisingly (or not), more than 50% of movie posters would feature its female characters. Even descriptions of male characters would range from strong to honest to successful, whereas, those of female characters would range from attractive to beautiful to widowed.  

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Juggling Between Clichés & Reality 

Presently, there is a dearth of empirical research on the social impact of cinema. However, when movies tend to (a) sexualise their female characters, (b) deny them representation as characters with professional ambition, and/or (c) deprive them of meaningful roles, it becomes highly probable that the way women are treated in real-life correspondingly changes. The Social Cognitive Theory and the Cultivation Theory address exactly this. Moreover, this probability gets compounded by the fact that we still live in a society where everyday sexism and misogyny are entrenched and pervasive. The constant cinematic churn of watching men sail through a storyline as models of machismo, whilst simultaneously watching women drift by as marginal or decorative characters tends to normalise rigid gender roles.   

As regards the Feminist Film Theory, its older frameworks don’t necessarily hold true for ‘modern’ cinema where gender-specific characterisations are becoming less formulaic. Within Bollywood itself, movies like Queen, Pink, Parched, Angry Indian Goddesses, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Raazi, etc. have had strong female characters and some exceptional women directors, each of whom have led these movies to receive their respective bouquets. The brickbats, however, still remain to be hurled at movies that continue to follow ‘convention’ and typecast their female characters.

Cinema is a mirror which reflects the zeitgeist of societal roles, beliefs and practices at a given point in time. It also has the potential to effect change in these roles, beliefs, practices, and the gendered power structures that follow – this is the consequence of cinema. A culture of male chauvinism has existed for far too long and although cinema’s discourse on gender representation is changing, this change is only gradual. The entertainment industry, the entertainers and the entertained still have a long way to go in mutually enabling a ‘re-characterisation’ of our current socio-cultural milieu, because why must our Sheila always be jawaan, our Munni always be badnaam and our Chameli always be chikni?

Also read: 4 Women-Led Sitcoms To Binge Watch If You Are Feeling Low During Quarantine

Two caveats: (1) The terms ‘cinema’, ‘movie’ and ‘audience’ have been used loosely. They don’t limit themselves to theatrical releases and the traditional spectators therein but also include entertainment media available on the television and the internet for the modern spectator’s viewing. (2) The problem of sexism exists in regional ‘cinema’ as well. For example, Kollywood is another industry which has been largely sexist in its representation of women (with some heartening exceptions in its kitty).


 Shaileja is a graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She is currently working as a law clerk at the Supreme Court of India. You can find her on Twitter.

Featured Image Source: News Nation English

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