Ms Representation: The Damsel In Distress
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author writes why the heroines no longer need a hero to save them
‘What do we do now?' Reese Witherspoon’s speech at the Glamour Awards 2015 referred to how she dreads the part in the story where the cutesy female lead turns to a man when there’s a problem and says, “What do we do now?” with a perplexed reaction that is unintentionally comical, and also in a sugary voice that will likely cause the viewers diabetes. “Do you know any woman in any crisis who has absolutely no idea what to do? I mean, don't they tell people in crisis, even children, 'If you are in trouble, talk to a woman?' It's ridiculous that a woman wouldn't know what to do,” she adds. The Indian equivalent for ‘what do we do now?’? Look at our women during action sequences, when the hero is likely fighting for her. As he is kicking people around, the damsel in distress stands helplessly, waiting to be saved.
This week, thankfully, I found two fascinating women who refused to just sit by and wait for someone to give them what they want (also strangely connected by ice). The first: Mathukutty Xavier-Anna Ben’s Helen. An employee at a franchise chicken store, she gets locked in the cold storage unit. What’s fascinating is how Helen battles this. After the initial shock, Helen beautifully transforms into warrior mode looking for things that can help her survive. She uses everything -- from hair-clips, her father’s tiny lighter, her college brochures, her clothes, cold meat, wrappers, cartons and what not. The writing is beautiful, organic, and more importantly, doesn’t insult the intelligence of the character and the audience. Helen decides to go to Canada, despite resistance from her father and her partner. When her partner says he will get married to someone else in jest, she simply says she will leave after the wedding in that case.
Anna plays the vibrant, sensible, street-smart Helen beautifully. The first half shows Helen to be a sensible, self-sufficient and a fairly independent whose smile invokes the sun. No, really, Anna’s vibrant smile is so infectious that it can light up a room. Anna contrasts this merry disposition with a frozen, almost immobile face in the second half, as she braves the ice. The steely resistance her eyes speak of, quite effectively.
Who could be a more perfect trope for a damsel in distress than a princess? Remember the scene from Ralph Breaks The Internet when Princess Vanellope Von Schweetz drops into a room full of princesses, and they bombard her with questions that would qualify her as one. Rapunzel asks the million-dollar question ‘Do people assume all your problems got solved when a big, strong man shows up?’ When Vanellope says, ‘Yes, what is up with that?’ they unanimously agree that she is a princess. Elsa’s narrative from Frozen 2, subverts this stereotype. Frozen 2 as a film might not have worked for me as well as the first installment did, but I like how Elsa’s character evolved. While the first film saw Elsa owning her powers, ‘taming’ them for the rest of the world, the second film sees her find her home, a place where she can truly be herself. Take the song, Show Yourself, for example. That’s the kind of song a princess gets before she meets her true love. But here, Elsa is the person she has been waiting for. And being ‘queen’ isn’t her only destiny. Being happy and at peace with who she is, is the destination. The final frame is Elsa galloping on an ice horse into the sunset, alone. What’s more poetic than that?
While promoting Frozen 2 in Tamil, Divyadarshini who voiced Anna in the Tamil version, spoke about how every young girl would have imagined being a princess. There are the gauzy dresses, the tiaras, and of course, pretending to be the damsel in distress so that love can knock on the door in the form of a handsome prince. Finally, that narrative is changing. One might complain that franchises and filmmakers are merely cashing in on the feminist wave, but I am okay with it. Years later, when our remains and footprints are archived, it will be great to have a good number of examples of art that at least tried to portray women realistically. We aren’t waiting for someone to give us a lift on a horse anymore. We ride them ourselves, in all glory towards sunsets, and if we meet a prince on the way, we are quite happy to offer a lending hand.