Culture, in society, evolves as a result of the interaction between groups and individuals. Culture determines and influences how we think about the world, how we see it. Therefore, how we perceive and treat women is also determined by society.
History is full of examples where women have been treated mostly as “flower pots” – ornamental and delicate, pleasing-to-look-at objects. Just take a look at this advertisement. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then such ads tell us all we need to know about the sexism of a particular era. In an ad for Mr Leggs dress pants, a woman’s head is attached to a tiger-skin rug. The woman here is a representation of an independent, powerful lady. A man, dressed as though he works in a big corporate, triumphantly places his shoe on the woman’s head. The headline? “It’s nice to have a girl around the house.” And the copy says: “Though she was a tiger lady, our hero didn’t have to fire a shot to floor her. After one look at his Mr Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her. That noble styling sure soothes the savage heart!”
This advert speaks for itself, and the way society was (and still is, to a large extent). This one is a particularly harsh depiction of the subjugation of women, but overall, the depiction is of a weak individual, who needs the strong, powerful man to take care of her.
Indians are not far behind. Let us take the films of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna and even Salman Khan. The central character is always the angry young man that saves his sister or a female family member from a dire situation where her honour is at stake. The female character had (or still has) a dress code which makes them sanskari and is from a well-off family, who quietly goes along with the will of her male family members.
Remember the movie “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge” where the girl (Simran) just gave up all her dreams of marrying the boy (Raj) because her bauji forbade the match? To a large extent, this movie is not just a love story, but again a reflection of our society and how we perceive women.
But today, we’re starting to see a shift in the portrayal of women. There are women-centric movies, and movies that show strong, independent women taking care of themselves.
The question that I’m asking is, is it a change in society’s perceptions that is being reflected in the media, or has the media contributed to the shift in how we perceive women? There is a strong case to be made for both, because if we look at the fact that we still haven’t fully been able to move away from the weak, damsel-in-distress image of women, then clearly the media is catering to an existing demand.
Change must come from within and perhaps that was the reason for creating the character Wonder Woman, who is today considered the epitome of girl power. But the part of the story that is lesser known is that when the character was launched in its early stage, the story was all about showcasing the superhero as a character who could be tied up easily and could not do things just on her own. As mentioned by Lauren Davis in her articles, the original Wonder Woman comic was actually filled with bondage, submission, and domination – and even spanking games. This female character perhaps made her niche in the market full of male dominated superheroes, but even then the creator had to add some bit of sexual connotations and give her the look of a dominatrix, to make her popular. Today, the latest trailer for “Wonder Woman” depicts her as a powerful force, fighting evil. Her cameo in “Batman versus Superman” even shows her being far superior to both the main characters, and the key to winning the final battle. And now, one can easily spot many women superheroes – the latest one in the list is Miss Marvel (Kamala Khan) who also happens to be the first Muslim character introduced by Marvel Comics.
Let’s take another example. Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic, whose story revolves around Draupadi and two branches of a family that are feuding. Even though the central themes of the epic are karma and dharma and the nuances of morality, it is also at its heart the story of a woman. The original text narrates the story from a man’s point of view and is very patriarchal in nature. A different perspective from Draupadi’s point of view is presented, for instance, in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book “The Palace of Illusions” or the legendary theatre guru Shaoli Mitra’s “Nathabati Anathabat”. One will realise that there was another angle as well, a story from the central character’s viewpoint, which talks about how she felt during the course of Mahabharata. The reason this depiction has come about and done so well is the same as the re-imagination of Wonder Woman.
Some recent movies like “Pink” and “Queen” push the boundaries of how our society looks at women – especially single women. Of course, just movies are not enough — we remained a patriarchal society: never mind “Mother India”.