Ms Representation: In search of the normal woman
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses Netflix's The Call and Disney Hotstar's Mulan
Mainstream language tells us, ‘Men are generic, women are special.’ Men are thought to be the ‘default form of humanity’, while women are a specific subcategory. Mankind, for example, refers to all of humanity, but womankind is just women. There are several manifestations of this around us, but in cinema, there’s one in particular. It’s how when a character isn’t defined by their gender, by default, the character turns out to be male.
The Call, a Korean supernatural thriller on Netflix, breaks this trope. It has two women play the lead, and the narrative is refreshingly devoid of sexism, or whether or not these characters bear the brunt of patriarchy. Seo-Yeon, who lives in the present, is connected to Young-Sook, who is twenty years behind in the past through a phone call. Their lives get entwined and take a dark turn after a murder. These characters could well have been male without any major difference to the story or the narrative. To have women in a seemingly androgynous narrative becomes important because it shatters our limited perception of what constitutes a ‘woman’s story’.
However, one also needs to understand that women don’t always behave like men, even in generic situations. Just flipping the gender doesn’t end in creating a good character. The accumulations of their experiences, in tandem with their identity, would give them a different set of thoughts and reactions. I loved the fact that The Call acknowledges this. Neither does it amplify stereotypes, nor does it make its women caricatures. The scars and blood co-exist in happy harmony with the nail polish. The female serial killer uses hot water and fire extinguishers as chosen weapons. And even the fights and clashes are structured in a way that makes sheer will power the core emotion, rather than brute force or strength.
Not all films document this difference in thought processes or actions, even ones that have gendered storylines in place. Take the new Mulan for example. While the animated version from 1998 had a bumbling, clumsy Mulan training hard to become a soldier, the new one has an exceptionally gifted Mulan. The story might remain the same, but the superhero treatment eradicates a relatable emotion that was omnipresent in the animated version: You don’t have to be extraordinary to do what you want. Any character should be able to do it. A normal man can become a soldier without any great merit, but when a woman becomes the same, why does she need to be extraordinary?
It doesn’t stop there though. The animated version had Mulan thinking differently, bringing solutions from a new perspective. One of the first tasks she is given is climbing a high pole with two heavy medals. She finds an ingenious solution that can be used by other people as well. However, the new film has Mulan climbing up a hill with two water buckets. It just becomes a matter of strength, with the character following an existing course of action. In the animated version, Mulan had a distinct personality. Here, she falls into line, becomes another regimented soldier, and her skills are attributed to her chi.
This isn’t to make a case against women superheroes, or women performing complex martial moves. That is important too. However, there is no need to make every woman character a superhero. We don’t always have to struggle against patriarchy and sexism in order to be a protagonist. We don’t need to be extraordinary in order for our stories to be heard. How about allowing us to just be?