We Need To Talk About This Sexist Tactic Bollywood Uses So Often

Ah, Bollywood and its contentious relationship with women!

There’s a lot that Bollywood films get wrong in their portrayal of female characters—whether it be blatant sexual objectification to mansplaining women’s issues to excluding female narratives altogether—but one particular trope that doesn’t get talked about much is that of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

A Manic Pixie Dream Girl? What’s That?

Originally coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005 (while describing Kirsten Dunst’s character in the film ‘Elizabethtown’), the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” has become a well-known and much talked about pop culture trope internationally. According to Rabin, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (or MPDG for short) is a stock female (fictional) character who is supposed to be “stunningly attractive, high on life, full of quirks and idiosyncrasies, and who exists solely for the purpose of the hero’s self-actualization”. Basically, she’s the product of a writer’s heavily idealized wish fulfillment—someone who doesn’t have a backstory or history, who often doesn’t even have complexity in her characterization, but most appallingly, a character who cannot stand on her own when you take the man out of the equation. In Hollywood, this trope has been hotly debated and criticized in the media, but what many have failed to notice is that MPDGs have been populating our screens for decades, even in Indian cinema.

Women who exist in films merely as the love interest of the hero, who exist to advance the hero’s character arc rather than have one of their own; who are so stunning and “perfect” that their characters lack credible flaws or human traits—we’ve seen them all.

six-bollywood-heroines-you-probably-didnt-know-were-manic-pixie-dream-girls

The Desi Manic Pixie

Remember Kareena Kapoor in “3 Idiots”? She had truly stood out in a film largely populated by male characters and set in an exclusively male engineering college because of her quirkiness and spunkiness. But once you really stopped to think about how much you actually knew about the character beyond her relationships with men, you would be stumped. Not only did she seem ‘perfect’, but her presence in the film seemed more like a plot device—thrown in to create conflict between the hero (Aamir Khan) and the chief antagonist (here Boman Irani’s character). If one re-evaluates and delves further into many popular female characters (especially from the so-called ‘romantic comedies’ in Bollywood) many such instances will crop up. 

Filmmaker Imtiaz Ali is a serial offender when it comes to this trope, and in multiple films of his, the female characters have turned out to be overtly ‘quirky’, ‘idealized’ and exist solely for the self-awareness or coming-of-age of the man. Take Rockstar for example, where the woman exists literally so that the she can break the hero’s heart and then help him realize his potential as an artist. Tamasha, again, follows the similar formula—and the most important function that Deepika Padukone’s character has is to help Ranbir Kapoor realize that he’s ‘special’ and inspire him to get out of his dead-end corporate job. It’s important to note that in both these movies, we are never told anything about the women’s professional lives or careers (Deepika is supposed to be a successful career woman in Tamasha, but what she actually does for a living is never mentioned), but the respective hero’s professional struggle forms the focus. However, the quirkiest female character that Ali has created till date is his most popular one—Geet (Kareena Kapoor) from Jab We Met. Now, Geet is a character that always has me confused. In so many ways, she seems like the desi manic pixie incarnate—quirky, whimsical, beautiful, brings forth the self-actualization of the hero; but she’s got at least some degree of complexity (which his other women characters lack). Of course, even though she is given a history,  it is also linked to another man.

Why Is This Trope (And The Term) So Harmful?

All of it may sound very innocuous, and one might think, ‘what’s wrong in having a quirky woman? Or having a woman helping a man out?’; but even though this cliché might not be as brutal or as directly offensive as the ‘item number’ or ‘male-dominated film’, it’s no less sexist. It’s disturbing how frequent this stock character is in our popular culture, and how this often leads to both men and women forming harmful notions of what an ‘ideal’ woman should be like.

Not only does it set a ridiculous and incorrect standard for femininity, the trope also establishes that a man cannot learn to love a woman whose life does not revolve around catalyzing his male transformation.

But even though the clichés that Nathan Rabin had originally pointed out were legitimately harmful, and continue to be harmful, the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ itself has run into trouble in recent times. In 2014, Rabin himself had written a long apology for having coined the term, because he felt that instead of creating awareness of the “lack of independent goals in female characters”, the concept had instead accidentally ended up suggesting that ALL quirky and fun women automatically merited this trope.

It’s not hard for writers (even male writers) to write women who can have their independent contribution to a film’s plot without male influence; and there have been multiple movies made in recent times  (like Queen, Piku, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and so on) where that has been made possible. Hence, to have MPDGs populate our screens seems like lazy writing. But you can actually do it, Bollywood – you can actually write love stories between men and women without turning the woman into a walking stereotype.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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