Ms. Representation: The lone tigress
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week the author discusses The Token Female TM trope in our films
The global percentage of women in the human population, and in India, is close to 50 percent. However, if you look at our cinema, often thought to be a reflection of our society, you rarely get this impression. The Token Female TM, also referred to as The Smurfette Principle, is one of entertainment’s most common tropes. It is when a lone woman is included in an otherwise entirely male ensemble. It’s a trope quite common in Hollywood. If you exclude love interests and women villains, this Token Female is ubiquitous in action films, from The Avengers to Inception. This slowly gave way to the ‘Two Girls in the Team’ trope in which creators seem more ‘equal’. There’s representation, but the content is carefully tailored so as not to look like it’s just for women (An all-male cast though is considered perfectly unisex).
In the Indian context, you can apply The Lone Woman trope to almost any mainstream commercial film, especially in Tamil. Our film universes are usually so male-dominant that they usually have room for exactly one woman, the love interest. As American writer Katha Pollitt, who coined the term, The Smurfette Principle, noted in 1991, “The woman character essentially represents ‘femininity’ in these cases. She may or may not play a major role in the story, but typically is ‘everything female’.” This is precisely the description of women in our mainstream films. A recent example would be Jagame Thanthiram, where Attila is pretty much the only notable female character. One can even argue that The Family Man uses the lone women trope as well, given that it has one woman in each group. This is even seen in films with a woman protagonist, like Airaa or Raatchasi, where the lead herself turns out to be the lone woman. Gunjan Saxena is an example too. While the previous examples are of fictional narratives, in Gunjan Saxena, a real woman co-officer was omitted from the narrative in order to achieve the ‘lone woman against patriarchy’ effect.
However, Vidya Balan-Amit Masurkar’s latest film, Sherni, comes as a breath of fresh air in this aspect. There’s a lot to like in Sherni: The thoroughness of the narrative, its not-preachy-but-still- effective politics. But what really stood out for me was how it organically populated its universe with women. Apart from the Divisional Forest Officer Vidya Vincent (Vidya Balan), we see several other forest officers and stakeholders in the search operation for the tigress. Even more importantly, they hold opinions on social matters. They stand up to local landlords, correct mansplaining men, and mostly, are shown doing their work. It is an acute reminder of how low our existing standards are that we have to celebrate such details.
Sherni’s casting choices are based on reality: reports do indicate that a lot of women do get appointed as forest officers. But given the influence of pop culture, you would never know this. Vidya’s look is another refreshing change in the film. When films are usually set in the jungle, we are often shown women wearing tight tank tops and shorts. But Sherni sidesteps the Western influence and is realistically Indian. Vidya rocks the kurta-leggings-dupatta with a sports shoe look, something that every middle-class woman must have worn at least once, despite it being regarded as a fashion blasphemy. There are niftier touches too: a handmade handbag, and elephant earrings, that not only feel real but also adds to her persona of a no-frills officer. Vidya Balan is known for playing strong women, but she also admits that they have been strong in obvious ways. Vidya Vincent, however, challenges stereotypes there as well. She is quiet, a loner herself like the tigress she is searching for. This is the woman who knows the drills of sexism, and also knows how to maneuver it and get the job done. And Vidya Balan aces the role, to no surprise. (Also, how lovely it is to see Hindi films take to multi-lingual women, casually slipping into their mother tongue now then!) More brownie points to Sherni for making motherhood a choice, and not a mandate.
Have you ever wondered why nature is referred to as Mother Nature—why the earth and its rivers are referred to by feminine pronouns? Is it because we don’t respect their boundaries? Is it because we only ‘take’ from them all the time? In one of the best lines from the film, a student says, “It’s simple, sir. If the tiger exists, so does the jungle. If the jungle exists, there’s rain. If it rains, there’s water. If there’s water, there’s human life.” Isn't this true of women as well?