What are Reel Women made of?

When the saree clad, nail painted, hair perfectly done heroines got a little too girly for the men, the depiction of female characters on screen saw an evolution. Although the newer versions  were better than their ancestors, they eventually led to tropes further boxing women in as characters. Now I am no one to decide what is wrong and right but these tropes tend to portray women as black and white unlike their male counterparts who enjoy a wide range of shades and personalities unique to them. Which isn’t right. So, I’d like to talk about a few such tropes that we might have overdone by now. 

From the very beginning, a bad girl in a film was portrayed as someone who wouldn't adhere to the society’s definition of what a homely girl meant. Which means that she would have her hair short, not restrict herself to the confines of the house and actively pursue a career interest. In the early 80’s if a girl were to be shown as a bad girl, she’d be shown wearing pants, attending clubs for women where they'd talk about equal rights, shown wearing glasses to portray her interest in reading and literature and would be proficient in English. A feminist. Time might have passed, but a raging fear against a matriarchal society still exists in many minds. As a result, a successful, independent woman is either portrayed as such because of a male superior’s help or as an emotional antagonist who only has evil intentions. This trope is commonly called the Ice Queen, someone with a cold heart. Often career-oriented too ‘cause obviously every career-oreinted woman is asexual no?

The extreme opposite of this trope is the Damsel in Distress. The one where the woman cannot seem to fight for herself and her only purpose is to be saved by her knight in shining armour. Films where the woman is built up to be shown as a “strong” woman only to helplessly scream for the hero when in trouble. How? This defies everything I’ve learnt about equality, standing up and fighting for oneself! And if that wasn’t bad enough, wait till you come across the even more common Disposable Woman also known as the Women in Refrigerators trope. She is usually the wife, girlfriend, mother or daughter of the protagonist. Her only reason for existence is to be kidnapped, raped or murdered giving the hero a reason to seek revenge. Yes, she becomes a crucial part of the story but only as motivation for the hero’s journey with no substantial skin of her own. 

If she isn’t used as motivation for revenge and isn’t a bad girl then she has to be the eye candy. The young, attractive woman who is merely a sexual object for the male gaze. Her role doesn’t expand to anything more than a Sexy Lamp.  Kelly Sue DeConnick in her iconic sexy lamp test talks about the relevance of female characters in plot lines by saying that most of these characters can be replaced with an actual lamp and it’d make no difference to the story. This test changed the way I looked at films cause of it’s unbelievable success rate in a major chunk of content that I consume on a daily basis. The heroines in most films we watch have no role but that of an object to satisfy the male’s desire and not to forget to look exceptionally perfect all the time!

An alteration of this objectification brings us to our next trope, the Femme Fatale. The dangerous woman that you can’t but help get sexually attracted to. This woman knows that she is sexy and doesn’t shy away from showing it. But where this trope gets tricky is when these women are shown exploiting their appeal to seduce men for their benefit and have them wrapped under their fingers. Although this trope has it’s shades and needn’t necessarily be a bad thing, in many ways the trope is portrayed as a modern version of witches. Nearly always confusing and misleading the men to destruction. 

My favourite of the lot and a controversial trope is that of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This girl is made of male fantasies thus furthering their expectations of “The One”. This charming, full-of-life, bubbly, mysterious extrovert only exists to help a silent hero break and come out of his shell. She is sugar, spice and everything nice. Her character arc revolves around giving meaning to the lifeless hero and completing his life. She is an idealization of what the male character needs her to be with no own goals or complexity in her own life.

Although these tropes have been around for quite a while, their numbers on screen have seen a significant decrease. Female characters with more substance and importance have been on the rise more than ever before! Smitha from Pachaikili Muthucharam and Subbu from Aranya Kandam sure fit the Femme Fatale trope, but are beautifully portrayed to show the dark side of characters and their need to behave so. U-Turn, Game Over and Aramm have effortlessly managed to convey the point that a film doesn’t need a male protagonist to take the story ahead. The impact of female protagonists in a predominantly male field has been turning heads for a while now. We have started addressing the need for women to be independent in a man’s world and ohh so beautifully in movies like Aruvi, Magalir Mattum and Iraivi. We have a long way to go but this is progress. A realisation that we women are a little more than just a part of another man’s story. Soon we’ll know what real women are made of!


Written by

Swetha Pillai.



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