March 16 . 6 min read
Female Desire and Cinema
In the 1950s and 60s, women characters in Indian cinema were put in four categories, which included “the ideal wife, ideal mother, the vamp, and the courtesan.” First, the ideal wife represented “sexual purity and fidelity” and, subscribed to the “traditional Indian roles by honouring the family and depending on the husband.” Second, the ideal mother involves a “religious suggestion” of a country being connected to the Goddess Shakti (Power). Third, the vamp is shown as a woman—who has adopted the “western” characteristics, who smokes, drinks and parties and, is “quick to fall in and out of love”. Fourth, the on-screen character of a courtesan “is outside the normal realm of Indian womanhood in that she is a type of prostitute or dancing girl. She embodies sexuality. She is a character who helps with the physical and emotional needs of men. Often in Indian films, she gives the man comfort and care, after which, he leaves her to desperately mourn his loss.” One can easily note that societal stereotypes shape and fuel these characters; therefore, projecting a rigid and false idea of female sexuality on screen.
For a long period of time and even now, the whole concept of female desire and its portrayal on screen is tailored for male consumption. A man’s desire is shown explicitly, even if it leads to the objectification of women's bodies; however, a woman’s desire is either absent or kept under the safety blanket of metaphors. In Indian cinema, the “... songs always highlight certain traits of women. A man is mostly shown to desire a woman’s beauty, but vice-versa can rarely be said to be true…The female lead falls in love with the male lead simply because he is the protagonist. What else would she need?”
Establishing a connection between the male gaze and objectification of women in cinema, researchers argue that “the mass media typically degrades and objectifies women, as the majority of modern mainstream films are produced and directed by men who portray women’s bodies in ways that appeal to the “male gaze.” These portrayals include using stereotypical images and representations, including observable “gazing” and objectification of female bodies, utilizing visually consistent and unattainable images of female beauty, and ignoring or discouraging the consideration of women's sexual needs, experiences, and pleasures in filmic texts and imagery.”
Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) a dark comedy film endorses “the integrity in female desire” and doesn’t shy away from it. In this movie—“An older woman who reads erotica and lives vicariously through the character of Rosie…forms a romantic interest in a man much younger than her. The ageing woman rediscovers her sexuality and lives out her desires behind closed doors due to the fear of losing respect in the eyes of families that place her on a pedestal of chastity. Most people regardless of age call her ‘bua ji’ (Aunt), further desexualising her completely. Her story is a triumph over the limitations placed on women that surpass a certain age.”
In Memories of a Machine, a short film by Kani Kusruthi and also, Kerala State Film Award Winner, the subject of female masturbation is discussed and the film “explores sexuality through human morals and instincts as a woman narrates her early sexual experience as a curious young girl and her quirky struggles in discovering “self” amid the traditionally bound system.” The Cloud Door (1994) by Mani Kaul, a short Indo-German drama film also delves into the theme of female desire in an erotic way and “features pictorial beauty, slow-building sensuality and surprising humour” that gives a seductive richness to the story.
There are also cinematic attempts at stepping out of the boundaries of heterosexualities and showing same-sex desire on the screen. While analysing the same in the South Asian movies “Subhah”, “Fire” and “The Journey”, Gurbax Matoo (2014) comments that these works “have tried to articulate and represent same sex-desire, feminist autonomy and sexuality as major themes” and these attempts “are also silenced and closed down as the films are shrouded and underscored by religious frameworks and cultural expectations of South Asian femininities.” The Pakistani queer drama film, Joyland by Saim Sadiq also attempted to show human desire on the screen in an open manner. The story revolves around a transgender love affair and also, focuses on “how the tension between religious conservative norms and modern sexual freedom can often be awkward and absurd”.
We need more stories about female sexuality, which are not just written ‘for them’ but are ‘by them’. The portrayal of female desire in cinema must be true to the bodies it is showcasing and representing. Desexualising the characters or even, over-sexualising them, cater to the ‘male gaze’ and reduces female figures to mere bodies with the sole purpose of pleasuring others.
"Sabahat Ali Wani is a writer, researcher and artist from Kashmir. She loves to explore the intersection of cinema with gender, identity and politics, and believes that the appreciation of cinema is incomplete without its criticism."