Women are eye candy. This is one of the immutable truths of commercial cinema, and a new study confirms just that: in the movies, most of them women are paid to just stand there and look pretty. The continued marginalization of women in cinema was demonstrated most clearly in the University of Southern California’s school of communication recently published study of gender roles in the top 100-grossing movies of 2009, which included Transformers 2 and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The results weren’t surprising: only a third of all the speaking characters in the movies were female; everyone else had a Y chromosome, because a woman’s attractiveness is inversely proportional to the number of words coming out of her mouth.
Not only are there fewer women to be found on the big screen, the way in they are depicted is also a problem. The study found that women were far more likely than men to wear sexy clothing or be referred to as “attractive” by another character. Unsurprisingly, the gender inequality was as stark when it came to female filmmakers — only 3.6% of the directors and 13.5% of the writers on the top-grossing films of 2009 were female. And the gender of the filmmakers does matter, because the study found that in the movies directed or written by women, almost half the characters were female, while the proportion of female characters in films made by their male counterparts was approximately 30%. This is despite estimates from the Motion Pictures Association of America that women bought more than 50% of the movie tickets sold in the world’s most lucrative media market.
The study implicitly blames female audiences for the perpetuation of the status quo, arguing that unless women start supporting female directors and screenwriters, they are unlikely to see much change in their depiction as Hot Girl or worse, Bitchy Hot Girl. But as badly as women are represented in Hollywood movies, the indignities visited upon their Indian counterparts by the Hindi film industry are far worse.
Making this argument two weeks before the release of The Dirty Picture – a biopic of South Indian star Silk Smitha — may appear to rend it moot. But that movie is the exception that proves the rule. Take this year’s highest-grossing movies so far, Ready and Bodyguard. Both are Salman Khan vehicles where the women have little to do but be romanced and rescued by the alpha male hero. Rockstar, Bollywood’s newest hit, is structured around Ranbir Kapoor’s character, while the love of his life (Nargis Fakhri) is an underwritten cipher – to the detriment of the movie. Ra.One, while mercifully shying away from a romance between a recent widow and a robot, still stripped Kareena Kapoor’s character of any agency. She, like most other female characters in Hindi film, passively accepts things happening to her, rather than driving her own destiny. Even 2010’s Rajneeti, purportedly a modern-day retelling of the Mahabharata, reduced the Draupadi character to an easily-manipulated victim. It is no surprise then that The Dirty Picture is literally being marketed as a dirty picture, with Silk Smitha’s sexuality its USP.
Still from The Dirty Picture.
While things have certainly improved from the horror decades of the 1980s and early 1990s, we are still a long way from making films with female protagonists who serve a greater purpose than ‘love interest’ or ‘mother’, who have their own raison d’etre. There is a new, less hypocritical attitude to female sexuality in Hindi cinema today, and that is an important step forward. But a more permissive attitude towards sex does not a well-written female character make. Give the woman an inner life, a personality – make her more than just a blank slate for male audiences to project their desires onto. Our movies will be better for it.