Vignettes of women in the world of fiction
Had Prince Charming not arrived braving the thick forests and dangerous creatures to kiss Sleeping Beauty and break her curse, would she continue to sleep and keep waiting for a knight in a shining armour to wake her up? Or would she get bored eventually, wake up on her own, nurse her wound caused by the needle on the spindle, explore her sexuality, have loads of great sex but decides to stay single and go on with her life? Or had the Prince Charming cheated on Cinderella with her step-sister, would she forgive him, take him back and resume her royal journey or divorce him, pursue her culinary career, become a well-known baker and start her own venture only to meet another man who loves her with all his heart? Or did it bode well for Catherine Alexander Douglas from The Other Side of Midnight when she left her career and friends back in America to go to Greece with a man named Larry Douglas, she fell heads-over-heels in love with only to get her heart broken and attempted to be murdered by her own husband who fell for another woman? Or was it necessary for Carrie Bradshaw of Sex & the City to be needy and in search of true love all the time and leave her career to go to Paris with a man who hardly acknowledged her when she could have broadened her horizons as a writer and become an editor or a best-selling author? Or the smart Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice whose life along with her sisters revolved solely around finding the perfect man. All we see are women who left behind everything and make that ‘ultimate sacrifice’ to go after that one goal- Becoming a wife! Somewhere deep inside, do women love to be rescued? Does it give them a sense of completeness to be a damsel in distress? Do they love being swept off their feet by their ‘Prince Charming’?
This is a question that has bothered me since a long time.
Fiction, a word loved and despised by many, has always intrigued me with its varied and creative portrayal of women. Most of its portrayals revolve around the domestication of quintessentially lovely women with ‘holier-than-thou’ nature. That is a stream of thinking that has been widely accepted. What is it about this thing that clicks with the readers or the viewers? On one hand, big talks on women-centric subjects are done whereas on the other, stereotypes continue to spread and patriarchy is mushrooming. Fairy tales have always been an important part of childhood that have had a long lasting impact on an individual. They often condition kids or even young adults to think in a certain way. Such fiction stories often spread the stereotypes in a non-deliberate manner.
It has been established form childhood that Barbie dolls are for girls while superhero action figures are for boys. In an episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Ross condemns his baby boy playing with a Barbie although he himself being an educated man living in the plush New York City. This sentiment can be echoed in the movie, She’s the Man when Viola, a football enthusiast has to disguise herself as a boy to get into the football team while her brother secretly visits a music school to avoid conflict with his father. Other element of fiction is that the tales subtly warn young girls that by behaving in a ‘non-girly’ way and venturing out of their comfort zone, they invite trouble. Like in Little Red Riding Hood, a confident, fearless girl who is comfortable travelling alone in the woods to visit her granny. Since, she is alone and oblivious of the evil wolf, trouble befalls her. Similarly, in Tangled, she crosses the border that a girl is not supposed to cross and runs away from the shackles. It is her singing and her care-free attitude that attracts the prince and earns the wrath of the evil queen. Had Aurora listened to her father and not ventured out of the castle, she would not have been pricked by the cursed needle. Secondly, they are rescued all the time like Cinderella by the Prince from the evil stepmother’s clutches, Snow-White by the Dwarves and then the Prince from her evil queen’s curse.
Women are shown to be extremely passive in nature. The characters or princesses are epitome of good looks, virtuousness, simplicity and elegance. They have attached typical attributes of self-sacrifice, submissiveness and meekness to the ‘good women’. Apart from that, they face all the negative characters and emerge as the winners in the end. Fairy tales device ways where the society subtly oppress and silence women and often, such stories spread an unrealistic notion among the individuals. The stepmothers are shown to be negative characters and epitome of vain, pride, selfishness, jealousy and hatred. Even the ambitious, strong women had a shade of grey in them. Cinderella’s and Snow-White’s step-moms or Ursula from Little mermaid are the perfect examples of evil stepmothers. All the stories culminate into a happy ending. Do happy endings make everyone have a sense of satisfaction? Who knows if Elizabeth and Darcy lived happily ever after? Or how do we know that Ross and Rachel from FRIENDS did not break-up again because Ross screwed a girl while ‘they were on a break’? Even the most feminist of series sometimes show a typical ‘happily-ever-after’ endings which portray the mass preference of public. Real life is not as hunky dory as it is shown in the fictional world. Several scholars have taken objection on issues regarding the portrayal of unrealistic things shown in fiction.
Some movies treat women as the eye-candies and trophies. With their blink and miss appearance, they are an ornament to the lead man of the movie. In a French film named La nuit Americaine, an aging actress was given the role of a mother whereas her contemporary, a man played lover. This discrimination has always been there. Also, there were several movies that were way ahead of their time like Antonia’s Line where the smart widow along with her daughter returns to her native village and breaks all the stereotypes by going to a bar with her daughter, getting into a sexual relationship with a farmer, allowing her lesbian daughter to have a child with a man. . In Gone with the Wind, the young Scarlette O’Hara broke many societal barriers and followed her heart. The emergence of femme fatale became a rage for its bold and sultry portrayal of women. In Indian literature, nymphs were the clever charming ladies who were portrayed in an ascetic yet sultry manner. In the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo, Esmerelda, the beautiful and ambitious gypsy girl never stops at anything and used her beauty to get things done. Although not the villain, she is the semi-antagonist with shades of grey. The slightly disturbing plot of Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita showed the young girl as femme fatale who not only had a dark life with also a tragic death. In Great Gatsby, Daisy Fay Buchanan, the intoxicating Southern belle with charms earned much ire for portrayal of her indifference to Gatsby’s true love and her selfishness. Noelle Paige from the Other Side of Midnight and is the femme fatale who made the world dance to her tunes with a vengeance. The Sands of Time by Sydney Sheldon ascetically portrayed the desires and sins, the ‘nuns’ had committed. Sister Lucy, who was on a run for murder and her ‘sexcapades’ painted the picture of a woman who was open with her sexuality and had no shame and regrets about it. Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were the quintessential graceful ladies who ruled Hollywood. Audrey Hepburn, in her performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as Holly Golightly raised many eyebrows for her controversial party-girl character. One such icon of Hollywood was Marilyn Monroe who shed all the inhibitions and went on to do some iconoc roles of femme fatale such as in The Seven-year Itch, Misfits, Niagara, Some like it hot et cetera.
Virginia Woolf had written A Room of one’ own where she imagined what it would be like if Shakespeare had a sister named Judith who is as witty and creative as him. Would she get an equal chance like he did? Or would she be married off early by her father or booed by the theatre people who frowned upon women becoming writers? This raises questions about acceptance of woman’s success? We know of several women authors who wrote under pen names to hide their identities. These also included the famous Charlotte Bronte who wrote under the name of Currer Bell or Mary Ann Evans who used George Elliot as her name. This practice has certainly lasted even now with J.K Rowling, one of the best-selling authors using the pen name Robert Galbraith. An excerpt from a Media Representation Group, after an intensive research found out that although TV dramas and fairy-tales are always thought to be viewed or read more by the women, they represent the majority’s ideology and perception of modern, western culture. Similarly, in 1975, McNeil studied a critique outline whereby they had mentioned that female characters are either lesser in number or are portrayed in a picture-perfect manner. Marriage and eventual parenthood is considered to be the primary aim of the women. Their careers are shown to be less important than the men.
The perfect example that can be cited to prove this theory is that of Desperate Housewives where the protagonists are prim and proper throughout the show. The portrayal of Bree Van De Kamp as the picture perfect housewife shows that how a woman should bake pies and wonderful food, be dedicated to her household chores and be a religious lady of the suburbs. Also, the way she coped with her first husband’s demand for divorce by pretending nothing had happened shows how a woman is scared to be single and face the ‘so-called’ society. Whereas, Edie Britt, their neighbourhood promiscuous party-girl is frowned upon and considered as the ‘bad influence’. The one thing about the show that touched women across the world is how the housewives lived their lives in suburbs at different stages with common problems that women face at some point of their lives. The show’s title track has many oil-paintings and other famous works by painters such as Adam & Eve, Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Campbell’s soup can that are used to portray stereotypical women and their hidden powers. Some shows do try to break stereotypes and come up with novel ideas of showing women in different light. Sex and the City is a show that painted a glamorous picture of four beautiful women living on the island of Manhattan and living life on their own terms. The show instantly became a hit with millions as they gave a new angle to singlehood and relationships. Samantha Jones, the confident, sexy Public Relations Agent is shown to be a Trysexual (She’ll try anything once) and extremely successful in a male-dominated world. She is one strong women who loved men but not more than herself that made her break up with her long-term boyfriend. Whereas Carrie Bradshaw is shown to be a needy girl who screws up her life by picking up wrong men and leaving the right ones! Charlotte York’s portrayal of a successful art-dealer who is truly, deeply and madly in love with the idea of true love and marriage leaves her job when she gets married. The last one being Miranda Hobbes whose practical approach sometimes saves her or gets her into conflict. However, there were some disappointing instances about the show where it showed that attaining a soul-mate was the most important thing in life. Often, the show objectified the women and made them chase men. Such shows or movies have received both bouquets and brickbats. However, with time, the perception of the audience becomes more liberal. In an iconic movie, It Happened One Night, the actress lifting up her skirt and waving her toned leg to get a lift from vehicles passing by received several shocked reactions whereas now the same scene will provide a comic-witty relief to the plotline.
With the passage of time, fiction stories have undergone a sea-change. It is the constant endeavour of the writer to bring forward the quintessential modern woman who can do it all. Even in fairy tales, there are princesses who have broken the “stereotypical princess” image who wants to marry a prince and live happily ever after. Passive characters like Snow- White, Aurora etc. are replaced by Mulan, Tiana, Jasmine or Elsa who are independent, venture out of their comfort zones and have dreams of making it big. Fairy tales are beginning to take into account the change happening in society, its values and norms. They are being more evolved and modern. The roles of women are already changing in today’s culture. Disney fairy tales films like Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid portray the females in a more positive and powerful light. They have the power to dream and believe in the beauty of it. They are go-getters who do not stop at mere obstacles but go on to chase their dreams. They take the tragedies with gusto, shed a tear or two and rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
In Disney’s Frozen, the common perception of a happily-ever-after is broken when Ana is betrayed by the scheming Prince Hans making her the first ever Disney princess to have two loves. Even Elsa is shown to be a queen ruling the kingdom sans a King. In its sequel, it is also speculated whether Elsa is a lesbian making it the first-ever children’s film where the protagonist is a homosexual. The winds of change are seen blowing in the fiction world. Emphasis is laid on women and the independence surrounding them. Like how Mulan, the Chinese Princess went to fight for her country and was admired for her disobedience, how Jasmine chose to leave behind the comfortable life to see the world with a commoner she just met, Rapunzel sang loudly and fled from the castle she was locked in or how Tiana from The Princess and the Frog went on to become a restaurateur. How Princess Merida from Disney’s Brave fought for conservation of her forest family without a prince in sight.
As opposed to the conventional Sleeping Beauty story, the movie Maleficent shows the other vulnerable side of the evil witch which is way more sentimental and realistic where she is shown to be a kind fairy who is in love with Aurora’s father. It is his betrayal and cruelty towards her that drives her to curse the poor Aurora. As the events unfold, it is not the Prince’s kiss but hers that breaks the curse. As for the television, the shows are experimenting with various ideas. She pursued men when she felt attracted towards them despite being widowed. Similarly, TV series are coming in terms of strong women having it all. In a popular legal drama SUITS, Jessica Pearson is epitome of success, independence and in league of strong women who are capable of handling a leading law firm. Bernadette and Penny from The Big Bang Theory make more money than their respective husbands who are perfectly fine with it. Game of Thrones has Denerys Targaryn who is the personification of feminism and power despite being raised in a patriarchal society. She is a strong, driven young ruler with a sense of justice and wit. Closer home, Rabindranath Tagore’s literature has always placed women in the centre and often as independent, strong, charming yet ambitious belles. Similarly, Ramayana’s portrayal of Sita could be interpreted as that of a typical sweet-natured beautiful, sacrificing woman who was still strong when she left her home with two kids and raised them in a forest.
Is it true that after a certain period of time, men prefer submissive women to settle with, the similar kind of women who shut their mouths and play by the rules? When Tracy Whiteney was falsely convicted of a murder in If Tomorrow Comes, her fiancé, the love of her life ruthlessly dumps her without even giving her a chance to explain. Are men willing to risk their relationships and great chances in love just for the sake of their reputation? Men like Hubbell from The Way We Were ended the relationship with fierce Katies who have their own voices and dreams just because it got hard to handle! Most of the time, fiction portrays strong, independent women as the single ones. After such varied portrayals and the different responses that were garnered for the same, I could not help but wonder, are men intimidated by successful women? Do they prefer their women to be somewhat a little inferior and domesticated? Would they mind having a domesticated wife who has dedicated her life to childbirth, cooking and laundry? The silent fight that every girl, be it a fictional character of a TV story or a fairy tale fights just hits the hammer on the right nail. Jane Eyre, Katie Morosky, Samantha Jones, Tiana, Merida, Mulan, Draupadi, Sita all had this mystic charm about them in a traditional yet contemporary way. The souls of such characters were like an open book which give all the thinkers food for thought. The multi-tasking abilities of women were always a matter of wonder. A lady surely knows to drink margaritas, write superb literature, have a great love life, tame kids, shop, travel, pay taxes and even cook in stilletos.