Too often, women in the movies are meant to be little more than decorative props or characters capable of delivering the occasional bit of exposition to drive the plot. The findings of the first-ever UN-sponsored study of female characters in commercial cinema across the world confirm this dispiriting observation. Conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, the study revealed stark gender inequalities in speaking and behind-the-scenes roles for women in the international film industry, with popular cinema in each of the 10 most profitable markets guilty of stereotyping and sexualising women to varying degrees. Not surprisingly, Indian cinema performed particularly poorly, with women given only about one-quarter of the speaking roles (well below the still-poor global average of 30.9 per cent) and far fewer female writers and producers (12.1 vs 19.7 per cent and 15.2 vs 22.7 per cent respectively). Indian films are also more likely than their international counterparts to depict women in sexually revealing attire or with nudity.
But then, most Indian films have always been more interested in women’s bodies, using them not just to titillate but also as grist for the male protagonist’s character arc. Proprietary attitudes towards female bodies are also reflected in how actresses are treated off screen — the recent fracas over a distasteful picture of a young Hindi film actress, to which she publicly raised an objection, is a case in point.
Some might say this state of affairs is improving and point to female-led films like Queen, Highway and Mary Kom that have done well at the box-office this year. It is also true that popular movies today have adopted a less hypocritical attitude to female sexuality, and that is welcome. But Indian commercial cinema is still a long way from making films where strong female protagonists are the norm rather than the exotic exception.
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