Changing the World, One "Chick Flick" at a Time

Changing the World, One “Chick Flick” at a Time

How often have you overheard a guy say any of the following about a movie with a female lead?

“That movie is a total chick flick, I don’t want to see it.”

“It might be a chick flick, but I’ll see it because (insert hot female actress’ name) is in it.”

“I only saw it because my girlfriend/wife dragged me to it.”

In the last few weeks, I’ve also heard the following quotes from men from a range of backgrounds:

“I can’t stand listening to women on TV. Their voices are so screechy.”

“Ugh, those giggly girls at the next table need to shut up or leave.”

“Excuse me madam – you need to be more quiet.” (waiter only choosing to address an all-women group at a rowdy bar.)

“You can’t blame him for not listening to you. Sometimes when I’m tired and hear girls talking, I can’t really follow what they’re saying, either.”

“Excuse me, girls. You’re being too loud talking about Buddhism – you need to shut up or at least start talking about something more interesting, like your sex lives.” (another patron at a restaurant.)

No, I’m not making up these quotes. I’ve heard each of them.

These comments aren’t innocuous. They are deeply problematic, narrow-minded, and—dare I say the obvious—sexist. And they reflect a deeply entrenched tendency—one that cuts across every section of society—to silence or disregard women’s voices where and when they exist. We dismiss women’s “screechy” voices, “ditzy” opinions, and “boring” thoughts. This tendency to dismiss women’s voices is conditioned by all of the media we consume: news, music, and especially movies that overwhelmingly feature male voices and experiences.

But waves of change are coming. Consider the Bechdel test with three simple criteria. In a film, are there:

  •      two named female characters who
  •      talk to each other,
  •      about something other than a man?

According to Alison Bechdel, these criteria force us to ask if a movie treats women as subjects or simply objects. Unfortunately, the vast majority of movies—both internationally and most definitely domestically—fail this test. Is it any surprise then that we disregard and negate women’s voices in real life?

And in the rare instance when movies have female leads, sometimes male viewers take special care to avoid them, or defend their watching them by sexually objectifying the main characters, stunting their ability to empathize with women (in contrast to the way that women naturally empathize with men—they have had to since birth in order to participate in mainstream culture.)

However, movies with strong female leads have shown, time and again to have huge success at the box office, worldwide and in India. The top grossing film of the year in the U.S. this year is Hunger Games, and in India, Queen performed strongly.

So I propose three simple changes in our individual behaviors:

  • Register, respect, and listen to the female voices around you, even if you programmed to feel they are trivial, silly, or annoying—real respect comes from empathy. (This goes for women too!)
  • Seek out and watch movies with well-developed female characters and listen to music with real women’s voices.
  • Don’t assume your male friends will not want to go to a female-led movie with you – invite them, question their instinctive “no,” and challenge them to check it out with you.

An easy way to start would be to check out this list of Bechdel-approved (and unapproved) Hollywood films.

We don’t yet have such a list for Bollywood, but here are a couple of films you can start with, besides Queen:

English Vinglish — The blockbuster hit of a housewife (Sridevi) who could not speak English, but finds her voice and some fun by taking an English class in New York City. Directed by Bollywood newcomer Gauri Shinde.

Margarita with a Straw  — Arriving on the indie circuit earlier this year, this female coming-of-age movie has another twist: the main character (played by Kalki Koechlin) has Down’s syndrome.

Mirch Masala — Set in colonial times, Smita Patil plays a strong-willed woman.

Mother India — The 1950s classic!

Hasee to phasee — Parineeti Chopra plays a brilliant, quirky math nerd.

What do you think of some of the movies that came out this year—for example, Mary Kom, Gulaab Gang, and Revolver Rani—would they pass the test? Do they offer powerful depictions of female strength or overly masculinized ones?

And what are your favorite kick-ass Bollywood movies featuring girls and women?

Share in the comments!