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In response to our My Favourite Female contest, Unmana of Unmana’s Words very kindly sent me a link to this interesting Female Character Flowchart developed by Overthinking It. It nicely identifies many different kinds of stereotypes/archetypes which most female characters in popular culture usually fall into: damsel in distress, perfect wife, The prude and Crazy career woman being some.
Now, stereotypes are of course not limited to female characters. One could as easily point to male archetypes – some common ones being bumbling husband (Everybody loves Raymond, King of Queens), the strong-silent-type and the rough diamond (think Mills & Boon anti-hero). Stereotypes are basically a bundle of traits applied consistently to a particular target group – Punjabis are always boisterous, the career woman is always Westernized, selfish and bitchy, the mother is always sacrificial and so on. Stereotypes work not because a writer (or any other person) thinks them up with malicious intention but because they reflect the underlying ideas of the majority and/or because they make it easy for people to identify and remember things. After all, when one has seen a dozen Hindi movies with a jovial, good-hearted Punjabi saying Jolly Good ji!, it takes no work for the viewer to understand what another such character is about.
Can stereotypes ever be positive? One such stereotypical character which appears to focus on a positive trait, is the ‘Redeeming Woman’ – the woman who redeems others, usually her man, by her good character/qualities. Once upon a time, this character was very popular in Indian movies – usually as a young bride who redeems her ill-natured husband/in-laws with her patience, virtue and unstinting devotion to them. While the stereotype appears to highlight the ‘strength’ of such a woman, this strength usually is translated as the ability to make any amount of ‘adjustment’ with the husband’s family and an unwavering commitment to the marriage at any cost. Taken to grotesque lengths, this included said young woman’s ability to marry and then redeem her rapist, in movies like Raja Ki Aayegi Baraat and Pudiya Paadai (Tamizh).
Few people asked that why should such young women not focus on improving their own lives instead? While the woman is given the attributes of a Devi – nobility, courage, perseverance – all these qualities are put to the service of other people. Indeed, the Redeeming Woman has very little going positively for herself, unless one counts a marriage at any cost as redemption.
If you think that this sort of sacrificial character died out with the unfashionable 90s, here is the latest exhibit: We Are Family. While Kareena is not terrorised, abused or forced to marry a rapist, and is ostensibly ‘modern’ (said modernity usually depicted through wearing Western clothing and little else) her redemption can only occur through her taking charge of a family that she really has no obligation towards. No modern man possibly being qualified enough to look after his own children, the ‘step-mother’ must be dragged in to assume the hallowed mantle of Mother, never mind her own plans or feelings about the whole thing.
How fair is it to expect a young woman to take responsibility for 3 (somewhat grown up) kids, to whom she has no ties either of blood or affection? Why must their needs necessarily come before her own? Is abandoning your career and life plans the only way to demonstrate loyalty to a man? Must redemption only occur through motherhood and motherhood necessarily be a sacrifice? These are questions that most Indian cinema still has no intention of asking.
Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas
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