Ms. Representation: The Assistant
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is about Amy Jackson and the trope of personal assistants in cinema
Amy Jackson in 2.0 as a humanoid personal secretary Nila plays her role to perfection. There’s little to do, but she gets her brief right. There are no emotions; just plain delivery. Amy is perhaps the first Tamil actor to be playing this ‘deadpan’ assistant a la the stoic and efficient (if you are in PG Wodehouse’s universe, then hilarious) ‘butler’. Nila too has a sense of humour–she mouths Vadivelu lines, watches mega-serials, and falls for a male robot. Go on the internet though, and you will consistently find reports that say there’s a reason assistants, even the digital ones like Siri and Alexa, are overwhelmingly female. Sexism. The job of assisting is women’s, while men are free to chase glory. Could there be a better metaphor for the women of our films? In 2.0, Chitti goes for glory in versions 2.0 and 3.0 and Nila plays sidekick.
Back in 2016, Jessica Nordell wrote in a piece titled ‘Stop Giving Digital Assistants Female Voices’ in The New Republic, “Our society largely depicts women as supporters and assistants rather than leaders and protagonists. A recent study found that women accounted for only 22 per cent of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2015 (and only 13 per cent of protagonists in films directed by men). A comprehensive review of video game studies found that female characters are predominately supporting characters, often ‘assistants to the leading male character’. And a study of prime-time television found that women comprise the majority of aides and administrative support characters. These create ‘descriptive stereotypes’ about what women are like — that women are somehow innately more ‘supporter-like’ than ‘leader-like’… Ultimately, the more our culture teaches us to associate women with assistants, the more real women will be seen as assistants, and penalised for not being assistant-like.”
The ‘Secretary’ is also among the most glamorised, fetishised and/or penalised characters on screen. The Anglo-Indian secretary in short skirts or dresses; the powerful men with money, whose wives give the sexily-dressed secretary ugly looks; the ‘ugly’ secretary hired with the intent of keeping the boss man from straying… How many of these tropes have we seen repeatedly over time? From English and Hindi to Tamil and Korean… there seems to be little cultural difference in the way our screens treat this woman.
Indeed there are notable exceptions like Mad Men’s Peggy Olson who smashes the glass ceiling, or closer home, Urvashi’s Janaki in Magalir Mattum who strikes revenge on her lecherous boss along with with two other female employees, Andaz Apna Apna, a comedy of errors in which a rich woman, Raveena (Karisma Kapoor) and her secretary, Karisma (Raveena Tandon) switch places (and names!) even as suitors line up, and a personal favourite, Devil Wears Prada, in which Miranda Priestly’s (Meryl Streep) pursed lips and ‘that’s all’ are hilariously exasperating as Andreah (Anne Hathaway) tries to please her boss lady, by hook or crook.
Playing the assistant to someone is challenging. It involves prioritising someone else’s needs. Women are constantly ‘expected’ to do that in real life and made to do it on screens too.