You Can Make A Difference Now (YCMADN): Portraying Women Onscreen

Posted on 2011 November 04


Films and television shows are influential in shaping attitudes towards violence against women.

IT probably does not bode too well for women that the world’s biggest producer of films - Indian cinema - doesn’t think too much of them. Women are generally portrayed as victims, or the weaker sex. Most Indian films, especially those from the South, show women getting beaten, raped, humiliated and controlled by men (besides the villain, the perpetrator can be the father, brother or husband).

Although practices like suttee (where the widows immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) have been outlawed for almost two centuries now, and India is home to strong women like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, popular films still haven’t moved on from perceiving women as second class citizens. Men are the heroes, and women subservient or dependent on them.

Fight or flight: Provoked starring Aishwarya Rai and Naveen Andrews, depicts the true story of housewife Kiranjit Ahluwalia who killed her husband after suffering years of horrific abuse.


Even when a film does feature a strong female character, she is most likely a long-suffering wife with a drunken husband (Stri) or a young widow who leads a life full of agony because of her status (Phaniyamma).

When Bollywood actually takes time to tear itself away from its typical plots, it has successfully portrayed women in a more positive light.

Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala has a female protagonist leading women villagers against a tyrant police officer. Prakash Jha’s Mrityudandfocuses on a group of educated women fighting for their rights.

As for dealing with violence against women, the most high-profile film isProvoked, starring Aishwarya Rai. Based on a true story, it tells of a woman who ends up in prison for murdering her abusive husband.

Unfortunately these films are the exception rather than the rule.

With its huge following worldwide, there is no underestimating Indian cinema’s influence on shaping gender perceptions, and how women are seen and treated.

But the rest of the world’s filmmakers are not much more enlightened when it comes to how women are portrayed.

In local films, women are cast in the stereotypical role of either the evil stepmother or the victim. About the only film where the woman fights back is in Pontianak Sundal Malam – which shouldn’t really count as the girl is already dead and is doing the haunting from the netherworld.

Then again, films from Hollywood don’t always get it right either. Sleeping With The Enemy featuring Julia Roberts as a woman faking her own death to escape her husband opens promisingly with a candid look at a battered wife. Then it turns into one of those thrillers or as Roger Ebert says “a slasher movie in disguise, an up-market version of the old exploitation formula where the victim can run, but she can’t hide.”

The same can be said of Enough, which sees Jennifer Lopez running away from her abusive husband and then training hard so she can fight back physically.

These two films could have intended to denounce domestic abuse but that message got muddled in scripting an “exciting” plot. Television does a better job of handling female characters, as there is more scope for character and plot development.

In Law & Order: SVU and Hunter, the female protagonists are officers of the law who are sexually assaulted – we then see how that affects their lives, their jobs and their relationships with their partners – especially when their jobs put them in danger everyday.

Fringe often brings up the fact that FBI Agent Olivia Dunham grew up with an abusive stepfather; she shot him when she was a little girl to protect her mother. The haunted look she has and the seriousness that the FBI agent treats her job are the results of growing up in a violent environment.

In the first season of Veronica Mars, we learnt that she went from being the popular girl to an outcast in high school after her best friend was murdered and she was drugged and raped at a party.

Desperate Housewives and Buffy The Vampire Slayer are two more shows that tackle serious issues of violence against women, even though they are usually delivered very subtly.

This is not to say, there aren’t any films that give voices to women.

Burning Bed was based on the true story of Francine Hughes, who was accused of murdering her husband on March 9, 1977 in Dansville, Michigan. She was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, and her case created a legal precedent for how domestic violence cases were to be handled in the future.

Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise does not shove down our throats that Thelma (Geena Davis) lives in fear of her husband, or that these women lack faith in men due to their respective experiences. A road trip with her friend and some fun later, Louise (Susan Sarandon) caused a man’s death when she saved Thelma from being raped. The two girls decided to run as they assumed no one was going to believe their side of the story. Jodie Foster won the supporting actor Oscar for her role as a rape victim in The Accused. The film delved into issues surrounding rape; such as if a girl “deserves” to be raped because of how she dressed or behaved. the topic of how some people think women who dress sexily or don’t behave like a “good girl” deserve to be raped. On one of her drunken nights, Sarah Tobias is raped by multiple guys in a bar – to the cheering and chanting of other patrons. She decides to not only go after the rapists but all the bystanders.

Foster tackled a similar issue in The Brave One with the rape victim taking the law into her own hands.

Actresses like Foster must be commended for being willing to go that extra mile when portraying roles like these, which must be challenging both physically and psychologically. Similarly, Charlize Theron and Farrah Fawcett were praised for daring to “ugly up” to play the roles of Aileen Wuornos in Monster and Francine Hughes in the TV movie,Burning Bed respectively.

But what’s even more amazing is that these roles are based on real life women who’ve endured terrible abuse. Wuornos’ story ends with her confessing to murdering six men but it begins with a miserable childhood and men mistreating her, which may explain why she’s so angry and has violent tendencies towards men.

In Burning Bed, we see Hughes as a meek woman who sees no way out for her and her three children from a nightmarish life as her alcoholic husband brutally beats her and chokes her, be it in the privacy of their home or in front of guests. European films have a more direct approach when it comes to showing violence against women. Irreversible is a film that has two really violent scenes that are difficult to stomach. However, if you do watch them, you’d realise it actually argues against rape and violence, and forces the audience to address these issues. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has an utterly devastating scene in which the heroine is raped viciously. We cringe at the scene, especially when she walks out limping but with a deadly plan she’s going to put in motion. The audience finds her calm reaction to the violence committed against her both disturbing and admirable but it then becomes clear that for her it was just another crime in a string of abuse she has endured over the years. ’Besides the heroine, the film – which is based on the Swedish book titled Men Who Hate Women – shows a pattern of violence committed against women. The main character (played superbly by Noomi Rapace) exudes so much determination from her tiny body that we can but hope that we have half her strength with any problem we may face.

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