THE SANDRA BULLOCK SYNDROME
Film and TV portrayals of women professionals are steeped in stereotypes. Leading the parade of clichés is one of Hollywood’s most successful heroines of all time
By Anna MM Vetticad
She is not the leading lady of the film. In a small role in Baby though, it is a joy to watch a counter-terrorism operative, played by Taapsee Pannu, single-handedly wallop an enemy agent, while her male colleague (Akshay Kumar) is away.
Pannu’s character in Baby is unusual in Bollywood for more reasons than her flying fists: (a) her profession is clearly specified in the story (b) she is shown operating efficiently within her professional space (c) her job is not conventionally considered acceptable/suitable/desirable for girls (read: she’s not a student, teacher, nurse, homemaker, writer, designer, beauty expert) and (d) her job is not a ploy to put her in sexy clothing (read: she’s not a model, actor, singer, dancer).
These thoughts rang particularly loud as I watched the film, since I was just back in India after addressing a conference on Women In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) organised by the Meera Kaul Foundation in Dubai. What was a film journalist doing in the midst of female STEM entrepreneurs? I was reminding them that they barely get representation in films made by the world’s biggest industries, from Hollywood to India’s Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood; and that when they are represented, too often they’re steeped in gender stereotypes.
While Hollywood is more liberal than India’s entertainment industries in this respect, it is still a male-dominated, woman-unfriendly world. For proof, look no further than Sandra Bullock, one of the industry’s highest-paid heroines today. Over the years, Bullock has repeatedly played professionally successful women on screen. Sadly, those women have invariably been lonely, socially awkward or downright dysfunctional. In Miss Congeniality (2000), she was a grumpy, frumpy, brilliant FBI agent. In Two Weeks Notice (2002), she was an environmental lawyer, ordering takeout at home for one. In The Proposal (2009), she was a nasty publisher without a sex life. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), she was a surprisingly inept engineer-astronaut with a sad past, who is unlikely to have survived her maiden space mission but for a gentleman colleague (George Clooney). There’s more.
Let’s call this The Sandra Bullock Syndrome: the hesitation to show regular, happy, credible working women helming storylines; the tendency of filmmakers who present leading women in unconventional professions to compensate for their professional success by tailoring them to fit assumptions made about such women in society. C’mon, how could she be good at her job and not be a cliché?
Even TV — which delivers more central female characters than films — is not guiltless. Carrie Mathison in the hit American series Homeland, for instance, is a genius CIA officer who suffers from bipolar disorder, which is perhaps the writers’ excuse for her emotionally overwrought nature. But she is consequently so erratic at work that it is hard to believe the agency would risk retaining such an employee.
To be fair, American TV features many non-Carrie-like women too, but the “lonely/high-strung in success” label is often floating around for the ones in less traditional professions, and too many are glamourised to the point of being unreal. In the long-running show Castle, for example, it’s hard not to wonder how the gorgeous homicide detective Kate Beckett’s knees survive running around New York chasing murderers in those impossible heels.
Here in India, it is not uncommon for a film’s heroine to be of indeterminate profession, hanging around waiting for the hero to find her. If she is visibly working outside the house, she is most likely to belong to a profession that is deemed socially acceptable for women or ups the film’s glamour quotient.
Women like Rani Mukerji’s tough police officer in Mardaani or Priyanka Chopra’s boxing champion in MaryKom last year are rare. Producers may argue that their limited portrayals of women professionals are a reflection of reality. Why be selective with reality then? How come top women bankers such as Chanda Kochhar and Naina Lal Kidwai, industrialist Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and others like them from real India are almost never reflected in films and soaps?
The situation is not without hope, of course. Television journalism has become a popular profession for women characters in Indian films ever since the electronic media explosion at the turn of the century. Perhaps because filmmakers’ exposure to women mediapersons is so inescapable now, portrayals are getting more authentic with time. We’ve come a long way from the days when Raveena Tandon as a print journalist in the Bollywood film Mohra (1994) wore a tiny skirt to interview a policeman, or Tamil actress Karthika Nair’s painted, distractingly long claws and over-made-up face overshadowed her actions in the newsroom in Ko (2011). Today belongs to Anushka Sharma’s more believable TV reporter in PK (2014).
Let me be clear: I am not dissing homemakers, nurses, teachers or models. I’m merely demanding more onscreen female leads in other fields, whose work is significant in the story (as it is with male characters), who are emotionally stable and at peace with their family/personal choices. Film and TV have great power to influence minds. The struggles and fulfillment of Arati from Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (Bengali, 1963) and Nirupama Rajeev from Rosshan Andrrews’ How Old Are You (Malayalam, 2014) are more inspiring than their creators could imagine. If even one little girl or grown woman out there sees a character on screen and thinks, “if she can do it, I can too”, that is a huge achievement.
(Anna M.M. Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on January 31, 2015.)
Note: This photograph was not published in The Hindu Businessline