Feature: Female Sexuality On The Move
Female roles in popular media have been hyper sexualised for as long as humanity saw its first motion picture. But women themselves have hardly ever been the drivers of their own
sexuality – neither in front of nor from behind the lens. Words by Bidhi Bhagawati
Female roles in popular media have been hyper sexualized for as long as humanity saw its first motion picture. But women themselves have hardly ever been the drivers of their own sexuality – neither in front of nor from behind the lens. Women characters are 28”-32d-40”
sultry mannequins, an escape in the hero’s redemption story. The ‘bigger-purpose’ these roles typically serve is to glorify hyper masculinity as it rides away into the sunset on its high horse. In fact, the way female sexuality manifests on-screen screams of the servitude attached to femininity by society. In the last 20 years however, as more and more women have taken charge behind the lens, we have seen a variety of deliciously complex female characters dazzle in front of the camera as well. You only need to look at this year’s Emmy Awards where a previously little known show, driven by an exceptionally talented, rather riotous woman swiped 4 major awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Yep, we’re talking about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag!
Fleabag is a woman in her late twenties, who has lost her best friend and her mother; she is grieving and barely holding up. And yet, Fleabag is anything but a dainty wallflower. She’s boisterous, irreverent, lustful, and “screaming to the heavens on her 14th orgasm.” Fleabag is heartbroken and consumed with guilt, yet she jerks off to Barack Obama and “she probably wouldn’t be such a feminist if she had bigger boobs.” She is patriarchy’s worst nightmare. In Fleabag, Phoebe has created the eponymous ‘anti-heroine,’ whose name is never explained, a character that regularly breaks the fourth wall and makes the prude squirm, but one whom we can’t help but love (but mostly be in awe of).
When the series made its debut, the reviews were enthusiastic, but they were accompanied by a palpable wave of shock at such a sexually candid production, especially driven by a woman. Phoebe Waller-Bridge didn’t make promiscuity one of Fleabag’s many characteristics; she made it her cardinal trait. Through Fleabag, Phoebe created a unique space in television for a sexually aware and vocal female character. She also ruthlessly stripped the audience’s habit of putting women characters on a pedestal and labelling them virtuous, when they can be just as greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved and morally bankrupt as their male counterparts. And the best part – us, the audience didn’t even know because we were too busy guffawing at the sparkling punch lines! Phoebe is so good at making people laugh, that they never quite anticipate the pathos of it all sneaking up on them.
While Fleabag uses sex as her defence mechanism, Lulu the protagonist of Phoebe’s 2016 series Crashing is just plain selfish. It’s astonishing how she takes a sweet memory and curdles it into something awful for the purpose of her story. She enjoys being the centre of attention and uses ‘truth songs’ to wreak havoc amongst her housemates. She does it with a ukulele in her hand, unapologetically and with such subtlety that you would guilt trip into the night and crawl to sleep in foetal position if ever you found yourself at the receiving end of it.
Besides Fleabag & Crashing, Phoebe also wrote the screenplay ofKilling Eve, an adaptation of Luke Jennings’ novellas, a screwball romance between an Intelligence Operative and a psychopathic assassin. Killing Eve is about ‘difficult' women, a narrative categorically monopolised by male characters. It is probably the first show to put two difficult women who are equally ambitious, obsessive and emotionally unavailable in a mission to overpower each other and save the world (sounds like a Bond film right?).
It’s not as if we haven’t seen larger than life female characters on television before. For instance, Shonda Rhimes’ Annalise Keating or Meredith Gray are trailblazing female solo leads - passionate over-achievers, not shy about their emotional vulnerabilities and yet as independent as the next Netflix hero. Similarly in 2013, audiences saw one of the most eye-opening shows in a long time in Jenji Kohan’s adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is The New Black. It follows Piper as she finds herself suddenly and unexpectedly indicted for having committed a drug trafficking crime for her ex-Girlfriend Alex, 10 years ago. Now she faces a 15-month sentence, total disruption of her new law-abiding life, and the prospect of having to be reunited with Alex - in prison. Orange Is The New Black was one of the first shows to portray difficult women as they were, in tough situations and with male characters in a minority. However, the show makes zero attempts at making the narrative emancipatory, and rather focuses on humanising not just the perception of prisoners but also of women. It was applauded for its balanced depiction of race, sexuality, body types as well as gender.
‘The generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal’; John Stuart Mill wrote this in 1869. Today, in 2019 are we there yet? When Lipstick Under My Burkha released in 2017, it made the censor board squirm and audiences wary of watching it in the theatres. It took an uncensored Amazon Prime release for the film to reach a wide enough audience to spark legitimate debate. John Stuart Mill’s words ring loud here. Perhaps India was not ready to see Ratna Pathak, a woman in her late sixties catfish and fore-talk with a man her son’s age while masturbating. Perhaps it still isn’t. But with women increasingly gaining control of how their sexuality is depicted on screens, it’s perhaps time the rest of the world catches up on what they are and aren’t willing to put out. And because of this very context, we were a little saddened by the final sequence of Lipstick, where all four lead characters just sit in a circle and share a smoke. We appreciate that it is an open-ended film - nobody knows what happens to Rehana, Buaji, Shireen and Leela, it is left to our imaginations. But to us that scene was about four helpless women who will probably never, truly experience freedom, indulging in a redundant session of smoking, wanting to feel those fleeting moments of power and masculinity attached to a mere cigarette.
Feminism isn’t about putting women on a high horse and painting them as the most exemplary creation of god. Women can be highly flawed, they can be selfish, and they can be brutal. But don’t these qualities humanise them? We retire to the sweet epiphany of women being dark deviants but more importantly, free to pursue these endeavours - on and off screen.