By Aadya Sinha
Edited by Shambhavi Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist
“As far as I’m concerned, as long as men look at me that way, I’m earning my keep.”
This quote, taken from an episode of ‘Mad Men’ is neither out of place today, nor are the semantics that colour it, dated. Now, ‘Mad Men’ is a period drama situated in the 1920s. It is meant to highlight the sexism, amongst other features, of the advertising world in America and yet, it seems to capture the reigning sentiment regarding women in tinsel town. With the cat calls that shorten the shelf life of an actress in the way of her dress, cinema continues to provide a mirror for us as a society.
The film industry has often been described as a nightmare for women. Issues such as the pay-gap, casting couch, objectification and type casting continue to plague the women of cinema. The industry, like most producing units, is driven by demand generated from the consumer. This further acts as an evidence of the morose reality; odds are that what we see on screen, vulgar as it might be in its representation of the female form, is what majority of the people sitting in the hall want to see. Even as the charge per film increase for female actors in Bollywood and their western counterparts, the quality of their roles continues to deteriorate. This condition is further contingent to the noticeable failure of ‘women-centric’ movies to enter the realm of mainstream cinema. While we might have a ‘Mardaani’ or a ‘Queen’ once in a while, it is a not much of an improvement from the occasional ‘Mother India’ in the past. Apart from the apparent reasons for objectification and ill-treatment of women in the society, the problem is not limited to the industry itself.
Explaining the gross under-representation of strong female characters, a study conducted by Martha Lauzen indicates, “More than one out of five films released in 2012 employed no women directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, or editors.” That’s an average of 120 out of 600 movies annually released in Hollywood, and one can scarcely imagine the situation in Bollywood.
However, the root of this problem does not just lie in the scarcity of female directors, producers and script-writers; it stretches to the power-relations between consumers. As director Nancy Meyers observed, “Women will go to movies about men, yet men may not go to movies about women…So as long as that theory prevails, I suppose no one feels the need to change the status quo.” Ultimately, while we can blame a lack of choice for watching ‘Kick’ or ‘What Happens in Vegas’, the fact remains that we as a society do not demand any better. In a stark expression of the same, a marketing executive put it out there, “In development meetings, there’s a tacit agreement that a male ‘no’ carries more weight than a female ‘yes.’ Why should studios risk selling guys on a chick flick on femininity when they can rely on guys selling their girlfriends on Transformers?” With such ideas dominating production meetings, the end result comes as no surprise.
A by-product of this ideology is seen in the stigmatization of older female actors. While a woman of forty is continuously referred to as a star of ‘yesteryears’, and is not so subtly forced into ‘retirement’, men transform into ‘seasoned stars’. It is due to the same reasons due to which Amitabh Bachchan could romance a 20 year old on touching 60s, while Rekha’s attempt at the same was called ‘tasteless’. Another example of the same is the ‘vamp culture’. Arguably, brought out best by Hitchcock’s ‘femme fatale’ this Lady McBeth-esque character, with her pigheadedness (conviction) and selfishness (ambition) invariably provides an ideal foil for the ‘good-girl’ female lead.
The pedestal that the industry is put on often leads to people mimicking what is shown, not realising that it comes from them. Thus starts a vicious cycle, which validates objectionable ideas. Stereotypes turn into type-casting, which once again reinforce stereotypes. The woman, depicted as a woman thus remains a woman.
As a reflection of society, cinema continues to remind us that while changes have taken place there is still a long way to go. For as long as we continue to see things through the same ‘pinhole’, the wideness of the camera lens ceases to matter. While the era depicted by Mad Men safely rests in the folds of history, the ceiling that confines women remains. While not as evident, this new glittery mixture of glass and celluloid is more dangerous.
Aadya is your textbook bibliophile, as redundant as that statement sounds out loud. She finds solace in all that is and all that can be written. She is also utterly obsessed with politics, as a’pol’ing as it might get.