Artwork by Arisha – @sitaradoodles on Instagram
By Bassama Tanvir
It all began with SRK. I was a crazy child who was influenced by movies, music and books to a harmful extent. Whatever SRK said was etched on my heart. I told my best friend in kindergarten: pyaar dosti hai and when I was shifting to another city, I told the same best friend (who is not even my friend anymore): kabhi alvida na kahna.
This was the extent to which I was influenced by pop culture of my time. So it would be very wrong to say that pop culture has no impact on the audience (“Take it as a story”). We become consumers of the narrative being presented to us on our screens. Knowingly and unknowingly, our minds are shaped by the ideas being sold to us on screen. As a woman who happens to be a feminist, when I grew up and looked at all the movies I watched growing up, critically, there were several sexist elements in all of these movies. We can easily find the pre-conceived gender roles formulated for us by this patriarchal system.
Take Bridget Jones, for example. Many women, including myself, feel attached to her because all of us just want to get through the day without feeling like an idiot (“Look, are you and Cosmo in on this together? Because every time I see you, you seem to go out of your way to make me feel like a ‘complete’ idiot. And you really needn’t bother: I already feel like an idiot most of the time anyway – with or without the fireman’s pole”).
Bridget Jones is an independent woman in her 30’s who still feels unaccomplished just because she doesn’t have a boyfriend. She can fend for herself but she underestimates herself because she doesn’t have a man. She is constantly seen shaming herself for not fitting in the normalised beauty standards set by the consumer-oriented capitalist world she lives in. At the end, she finds a handsome man and everything magically feels right. I wonder if she was even in love with any of the beautiful men in the movie or she just settled for one because she had this notion in her head that she will always be incomplete without a man.
Cher Horowitz from Clueless is a headstrong girl who knows what she wants and never asks for anyone’s approval. The only time she ever doubts herself is when Josh makes her doubt.
Annie Reed from Sleepless in Seattle not only sabotages her own engagement but goes out of her way to stalk Sam Baldwin. Why? Because she falls for the idea of love being sold on a radio show. Now, I know if she doesn’t feel happy in her engagement, she should break it off. But is it okay to stalk a person just because you’re in love (and it’s not even properly shown if she is in love with Sam) with them? In You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox destroys Kathleen Kelly’s business despite knowing that she is the woman he loves. And what does Kathleen do in return? She kisses him and thereby reinforces the idea that no matter how wrong a man is, a woman should forgive him instead of holding him accountable.
An Oscar-winning actress is standing front of a bland man asking him to love her because she will be destroyed if she has no man in her life.
There are hundreds of Sallys and Juliannes we find in movies who keep telling us that boys and girls can never be friends (“There’s always something going on”).
Edward Lewis is so incompetent when it comes to relationships that he actually hires Vivian Ward to be at his beck and call in Pretty Woman. The worst part isn’t this but the fact that we still love him.
A woman is mostly portrayed so desperate in romantic comedies that it’s insulting. It’s always a man who is saving a woman because she is so stupid to do it on her own. Even when Rebecca Bloomwood is selling her clothes to pay off her debt, it’s Luke Brandon who indirectly pays the large sum (Confessions Of A Shopaholic).
In all of these movies, there is a competition shown between women because they are fighting over the same man (“Who will win him?”). It’s not even this. In The Devil Wears Prada, instead of admiring the genius of Miranda Priestly, Andrea Sachs is shown hating her. Yes, Miranda gives her a hard time and by the end, it is resolved peacefully. But most of the time, it feels like women can’t ever be friends. This is especially a recurring theme in high school movies, girl against girl. Cady Heron vs. Regina George (Mean Girls) or Gabriella Montez vs. Sharpay Evans (High School Musical) are the best examples for this.
Another recurring theme in high school movies is betting or paying a boy to woo a girl. The girl is usually some unpopular girl. She is either too shy like Laney Boggs in She’s All That or unruly like Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You. When these girls finally find out the truth about the boys, there is only a momentary anger. When that boy tells her that she’s different and he actually loves her despite wronging her or making her feel insecure, she forgives him.
Despite its shortcomings, rom-coms have still given women a better screen time but if we shift our focus to male-centric movies, we will find that women are literally dumped in the background or are only there to facilitate men.
The Godfather is cis-het men’s favourite. Vito Corleone, in his fury, tells Johnny Fontane to act like a man and stop crying like a woman when he is discussing his career problems. Fight Club is a stupid movie about a White man feeling emasculated. Marla Singer is just there to fulfil that man’s sexual needs. All Quentin Tarantino movies are mostly about fighting men. Lonely and lovelorn Mr Gatsby should have moved on but he keeps on pining for his Daisy Buchanan and ends up losing his life for her. This movie is loved by men because it portrays Daisy as the classic evil woman men have in their minds when a woman outshines them or leaves them. Of course, Daisy did falsely accuse him and that’s another discussion.
Most of the superhero movies have a woman named Pepper only to facilitate very very important men.
There are so many more movies that can be discussed but it will become difficult to do so in one article. Even the movies I mentioned deserve separate articles for in-depth discussion but I’ll leave it here. What is clear from these examples is that women are placed in one-dimensional boxes. Women are shown unhappy or unsatisfied when they are not dating a man. No matter how successful a woman is in any movie, she still has to play the role of a caregiver. All the problematic actions of (usually) a man are justified by showing the other side of the story. Like in Say Anything, Lloyd Dobler still goes against Diane Court’s wishes and comes to her lawn to play a song. She has told him to not meet her and that should have been the end of it. But his actions are justified by showing how restless Diane is without him so that when he plays the song on a boombox in her lawn, it feels beautiful and natural.
These movies have shaped our minds to such an extent that despite finding all the problematic tropes, I still rewatch these movies. I still find myself pining for my prince charming (though that craving has decreased to a great level).
What we forget is that these movies were made mostly by men. Now times are changing and we are seeing changes in movies and have much nuanced movies like Booksmart. But there is still a lot of work to be done. There is a need to feature more non-White protagonists like in Crazy Rich Asians or Always Be My Maybe and we also need some nuanced homosexual representation. Women should be creating more movies to help change the narratives and ill-conceived notions in our heads so that another generation isn’t ruined.
Bassama Tanvir is a medical student based in Lahore. She is currently working on her debut novel. You can email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org Her Instagram is: @btnvir