Media through the ages and throughout all its manifestations, has been reflective of the societal norms, values and the prevalent culture of its time. In the words of Kamran Wajih, the marketing, planning and strategies director at the Express Media Group, “The media’s role is like that of a mirror — it only reflects what is real.”1Thus, in the light of these words and by the validation of sociological perspectives, it makes sense to say that media can be a rather remarkable tool to track and study the progress of a society.
This paper therefore, aims to look at the evolution of gender representations and the changing ideals of masculinity and femininity in the Eastern and Western ends of the cinematic world- Hollywood and Lollywood. In order to explore the transition through time, this paper refers to two films from each cinema; representing the early and modern institutions of global cinemas. Films serving reference, include Mike Nichols’ Working Girl 1988 and Gary Ross’ Hunger Games 2012 from Hollywood and Nazr-ul-Islam’s Aina 1977 and Shoaib Mansoor’s BOL 2011, from Lollywood.
Where the ‘Damsel in Distress and the Knight in shining armor’ (read: Patriarchy’s favorite child) seems to be a more than popular rhetoric today, the fact of the matter is that throughout the course of history and across global cultures and societies, gender representations have been subject to periodic change. And amidst this transition, media, in all its manifestations, has been quite a document vividly reflecting the changing ideals.
One such manifestation is film & television which when studied carefully enough, reveals lengths about the changes which the world has gone through in terms of gender and sexuality. Films released in the decades following the 1960s are of particular importance, to this paper; considering the inception of Second Wave Feminism in the United States and the movement’s eventual spread throughout the Western World and beyond.
Directed by Gary Ross and released in 1988, Working Girl- a romantic comedy, is a film often remembered as a ‘revolutionary’ work of the 80’s and the first of its kind. In a world where women were struggling for equal representation, and were more often than not represented as little more than sex objects and timid housewives across genres, Working Girl was a romantic comedy which (rather revolutionarily) showed women in an office setting. It spoke of patriarchal hierchy in the workplace, the glass ceiling and the societal perception of women in the workplace and beyond.
If one is to discern the visual metaphors of most Manhattan centric films, Working Girl, from the very first scene, greets the cinemagoers with a rather different view. The camera in the film’s opening, doesn’t pan past the city’s skyscrapers, whose strong verticals have repeatedly been described as phallic. Instead, Working Girl’s camera focuses on the Statue of Liberty, slowly rotating around the ‘Mother of Exiles’ who lifts her lamp to the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It is only after we see the statue from all sides that the camera moves beyond her, to a brief glimpse of the towers that overlook her, before closing in on the film’s bumper-haired, bangles-laden heroine, Tess McGill (Played by Melanie Griffith).
Tess, as we soon come to learn, is a dreamer, a bearer of high hopes; stuck oppressively in a sexist world. Determined as she is, Tess focuses on improving herself in an attempt to break free from her secretarial barriers and rise as an epitome of professional success. Meanwhile, her male co-workers see her as little more than a sex object and never seem to take her seriously. They treat her like a prostitute; sending her to business meetings which end up being ploys for sex with the vaguest promise of professional advancement. Her love interest doesn’t treat her any different, and is seen gifting her heaps of lingerie and never a present she “can actually wear outside of this apartment.”2 Where most would expect a woman of the time and situation to take the blows quietly and unquestionably as fate, our valiant heroine doesn’t take the matters laying down, and is fired for avenging the men who wronged her at work. Her headhunter, although exasperated, but decides to give her one last chance to maintain her employment in the organization.
At the time, for many it was rather revolutionary more so surprising to see an independent, self-sufficient woman fending for herself in the great-big; male dominated world. However, we are not to forget that Working Girl reflects the ideas of the second-wave feminist backlash movement by associating women’s work with sexual display.3 And regardless of how revolutionary, the film nonetheless spoke volumes about the United States as a society beckoning in the late of 1980’s. Moreover, the very fact that the film’s representation of a working woman was considered groundbreaking and revolutionary shows how the time’s society expected women to behave. The film touches on the heroine’s imbalance and the struggle to both; be professional and maintain her personal pride. In some sense, it seemed like a modern Cinderella story- but instead of following an unfortunate young woman tasked with solitude and servitude, Tess finds her feet in a glass slipper of luck and transforms herself into a new woman, wowing the masses with her new potential whilst still nabbing her Prince Charming.
With the progress of time, it is no longer an unusual sight to see women in the workplace, and although the glass ceiling still exists and gender parity makes pay gap and unequal distribution of wealth and power very real, the situation today, has definitely improved from what it was in the 80’s.
However, as far as Film and Television go, many consider genre categories themselves to be gendered, even if not etymologically. ‘Westerns, war movies, action movies, marital arts movies, spy movies, gangster movies, and road movies are male film genres Romance, romantic comedy, and melodrama, on the other hand, are female genres with a female protagonist and a female audience’.4 These segregations imply that men have a propensity for violent, dangerous, heroic and aggressive films, whereas women like sappy, dramatic and passionate films. Where such implications say a lot about our society and culture, we are not to forget that the society is yet again on the brink of a significant change in terms of gender and sexuality representation. And this phenomenon is vividly reflected in the cinematic world with the release of contemporary action movies like Mad Max, Ex Machina and The Hunger Games, which not only feature a female protagonist but make efforts to also address the female audience.
Released in 2012 and directed by Gary Ross, The Hunger Games, is a film imperative to understanding how the society; more so the American society, has changed since the release of Working Girl in the late 1980’s. The film features Actress Jenifer Lawrence in the role of Katniss Everdeen- a plucky teenage girl who runs the household, hunts in the forests and fends for her family. And Actor Josh Hutcherson as her (uncanny by societal standards) love interest, Peeta Mellark. As a character, Katniss Everdeen glistens in the light of self-dependence and valor, however what’s truly remarkable about the film is how it goes against the normative ‘Damsel in Distress and the Knight in shining armor’ rhetoric. If Katniss is a deliberate departure from the classic romantic heroine, happier carving up a deer in the forest than being on display in a dress on stage, Peeta also seems carefully calibrated to subvert assumptions about how a male love interest should look and behave. Katniss is the hunter while Peeta is the baker — she’s the skilled archer where his skills lie in camouflage. Katniss rushes into action while Peeta is better with strategy and PR.5
There are other ways in which the stereotypical gender traits and roles are swapped for Katniss and Peeta. In the film, Peeta admits that even his mother sees Katniss as stronger than he is. Peeta’s camouflage expertise come from his experience with cake decorating, and he plays forager in the arena while she goes in search of meat. He’s emotional and expressive while she’s sullen and closed off — “I’m not good at ‘saying something,'”6 she tells him in The Hunger Games Arena. He’s the more fragile one, getting seriously wounded by one of the Careers in the film. In casting Hutcherson as Peeta, the film makers have also paired Lawrence with an actor who she’s actually taller than, a height difference most evident when the stars are lined up at premieres. However, that is not a blow to his masculinity and never do we see Peeta ashamed of his physical stature, talents and abilities.
This film shows how the Western World is on the verge of a shift in gender representations and is moving towards a more gender egalitarian society.
Pakistani cinema was still on a rough road due to the loss of creative people, technicians and major market and production center after the succession of East Pakistan. Gazdar argues that the late sixties and early seventies served as a period of change and chance in the film industry7. What characterized this change is the films genre, being melodramatic and highly romantic. During this period, Pakistani cinemagoers were presented with highly thoughtful films influenced by neorealist cinema and high picturesque backgrounds. Even the films which were produced before the events of 1971, were highly artistic films as talent was exchanged between the East and West and low cost of production. Films were broadly love stories or stories of courtesans, which looked at the relations of the women with men and the relations of courtesans and their audience.8 In order to understand the societal perspective, more so the evolution of gender representations in Pakistani Cinema, different genres and gender representations within them are to be studied.
Films such as Aina (1977) represent female as subordinate and secondary with her male counterpart or male members of the society represented as highly dominating and powerful. The gender roles portrayed as, norm, are reflective of the patriarchal structure and nature of society. These typical love stories and stories revolving around novelty and relationship with the audience were themselves gendered and highly revealed society and cultural values that even exist today. Rita does not use the wealth of her father in a positive way. The heroine of the Urdu and Punjabi films do not perform any great deed but is the first one in the expression of love. Though, belonging to a rich educated background, rather than helping her father or utilizing the period before her marriage to develop a career, all she searches for is true love, she falls for a man she hardly knows and is willing to sacrifice her family, status and adjust her living standards accordingly.9Sense of self-respect is reflected when she chooses not to go back to him but still the female characters are shown to be more sensitive. Films were broadly love stories or stories of courtesans, which looked at the relations of the women with men and the relations of courtesans and their audience. Highly similar to Hollywood, where each genres has their own construction for male and female characters. For example, if we look at the role of the ‘hero’ in past entertainment, we observe there is a separate criterion to qualify as a male or female hero, mostly stemming from patriarchal stereotypes about women.10 The gendered representation is highly influenced by the prevailing norms, values and the target audience.11 The portrayal of women in Urdu and Punjabi films is based on the assumptions. An agreement all over the world that the images of women projected through the film tend to reinforce the traditional attitudes and often present a degrading and humiliating picture of women, which may be true for certain cultures and societies. The portrayal of women as a mother and caring figure is a common practice, being the only or one of the few active role in society. The actions of male protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters evolve around defenseless female characters: mothers, wives, lovers and prostitutes. Evidence of this is found in both Bol and Aina.12
Women are displayed as passive receivers of the orders of the male hegemon. Rajan argues that the Masculine identity we often find is a hetero-normative identity, which is frequently visible in the clichéd boy-loves-girl story. The ‘hetero normativity’ thus defines the norm for Indian cinema, where the ‘man’ or the ‘hero’ remains the hegemonic power.13 This is similar to Lollywood love stories and even films such as Bol. The linguistic change of the cinema from Urdu to Punjabi, introduced newer nuances of dance, sexuality in the cinema, though still in the undertones. That is the film did show some power or the female having the power to decide for example in Aina, Rita choses to marry the one who she loves even after her father has refused. We even see her fitting the police diverting attention from the sensitive, chooi mooi image of a woman. Actors such as Sultan Rahi, worked on the hyper-masculine model, where the female had become an object of the male gaze.14 Changes in the film industry meant that Women were objectified as an object to fulfill masculine desires, this can be linked to voyeurism where the female body is to gratify masculine desires. This further be linked to Hollywood with movies such as Vertigo and Psycho where the man completely aims to change the personality according to his desires and the female depicted as passive.
The preference of Punjabi meant that close to two decades later than the Feminist new wave, films with different gender representations, rather different femininity representations, were being produced with movies such as ‘Aurat Raj’ represented a society where women were in charge. This can be considered one of the first films from Pakistani cinema where the women were shown in the place of hegemony. The Pakistani film industry couldn’t stay strong, leading to a decline and ‘shutdown’ period of fifteen years.15
The changes in female representations reflect the departure and the replacement of the real women: the chhooi- mooi girls of the past.16 That is diversion from pleasure narratives depicting the government attempts and the changing needs of society. The serene and obscene characterized by the gaze, adapted to an alternate distinction between modern and traditional, where modern means forward looking and traditional implies a backward woman. The modern woman is more fascinating than the traditional for media use despite the voices to the contrary in real life.17 For example in Bol we see Mahira Khan striving to develop a career despite the conditions that exist, towards the end we also see a restaurant being setup by the sisters. The dialogues and objects such as Tv, radio clearly display a sense of modernity and the changing societal values relating modernity. The movie is successful to show the false notions that prevail in society about Religion and the hypocrisy that exists. The staunch reality of prejudices that exist against homosexuals are clearly highlighted, not only in form of actions but the individual who chooses to stand up against other ills and the aftermath can also be seen as contributor or to be blamed for the course of action. The choice of language by various female characters reflect sense of identity and capabilities .The awareness of self-worth and courage is depicted by the language used by various characters. The choice of language and dialogues unambiguously represent self image.
In Bol a contrast between two depictions of types of women is seen when Zainab’s mother does not fight against her husband even after he has killed Saifi. That is the newly emerging image is identified as domineering, sharp tongued, unattractive and castrating.18 as a result of pressure from a growing number of the unsatisfied viewers the image is portrayed in films such as Bol, it self meaning bold but is presented in a distorted way, arousing more suspicion for the women concerned. That is in attempt to expose the difficulties, complexities and problems of the life, a staunch reality that exists and how individuals in the narrative chose to deal with circumstances is vague and implicitly portrayed For example the actions of Mina and Zainab, that is whether there actions are justified or not and why does Zainab’s mother not chose to revolt against her husband when he kills Saifi are all open to the audiences subconscious reception of the message. The lack of selfworth and power to fight back that exists within the third gender is blatantly highlighted that is saifi is completely broken and makes no attempt to fight against co workers when they bully and harass. The lack of acceptance or confusion of identification is portrayed throughout the film and the culture and lack of acceptance is prominent more explicitly when Zainab is confused and does not let Saifi dress and express emotions. The movie has covered so many social issues to break the stereotype and thinking of the society.19 To be phrased as leading to disturbance can be seen as highlighting the prevailing and existing values and social issues like corruption, concept of prostitution, lack of education, patriarchy status of women etc. The justification with religious references20 For example using religion to oppress women and strengthening the idea of masculinity. The lack of awareness and identification. Phrased as an example of revived Pakistani cinema like portrayals of other societal issues do exist even in recent films but gender roles are still divided with women widely represented as sensitive to some extent if not highly sensitive, the need for love, concept of marriage and the importance given to it exists with men dominating the image of a savior with an un fair and unequal representation of the third gender.
As stated earlier, media is like mirror held up to the society- it reflects what is real. In the light of these words and after a careful study of the two cinemas and the change they have undergone in terms of gender representation in the past decades, it can conclusively be said that there has been significant progress in the East as well as the West. Where the West may be years ahead of us, the Pakistani society too is catching up and Films like 2012’s BOL and the soon to release Project Ghazi which not only put women on center stage but also move away from traditional stereotypical gender roles, is definitely a sign of the Eastern and more so Pakistani society’s progress.