Female representation in cinema has been an area of contention for a while now. One of the most popular measures used to look for equality in representation of the sexes in movies is the Bechdel-Wallace test. To pass the test, the film under consideration has to have at least two female characters that have names and who converse with each other about anything other than men. It sounds very simple but unfortunately, a surprisingly large number of productions fail, even today. My time in quarantine over the past year gave me an opportunity to explore a variety of films and TV series; and in doing so, another issue made itself very prominent amongst countless others - misrepresentation of women and the relationships among them. In this article, I’ll be pointing out the absurd depiction and storylines involving female characters in The Queen’s Gambit, Fate: The Winx Saga and Bridgerton.
The Queen’s Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit is probably one of the best TV series that I have watched over the past year. However, it does have a glaring problem, one that is common in many modern day movies - the male gaze. “Male gaze” is a phrase coined by feminist thinker Laura Mulvey and in the context of cinema, it refers to the depiction of women as seen through a heterosexual male lens. The most commonly used example of this is the portrayal of female superheroes in unrealistic hypersexualised and non-functional costumes, such as the Black Widow or Wonder Woman.
A girlboss character is one who is seen as a feminist, with talents and powers at par with or more than her male counterparts, yet still are characterised by the male gaze. For example, while Black Widow is a fan-favourite character with unparalleled combat skills and iconic one-liners, she is still a hypersexualised girlboss character, waiting to be elevated beyond her almost side-kick like status by her individual movie to be released next month after a decade of being a part of the MCU.
Likewise Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit is a girlboss character. Depictions of “rock bottom” faced by women in cinema have been criticised for being sexist, eroticised and, overall, unrealistic throughout history. Beth is shown struggling with addiction and her past trauma throughout the miniseries. In one scene she is dancing around in her underwear, with perfectly shaved legs and with the camera following her rear end; apart from her indulging in alcoholic drinks or smoking cigarettes in order to showcase her version of “rock bottom”.
It is important to remember that mental health issues manifest in a spectrum of different ways in different people and this can be used to justify the artistic choices involved in the depiction of Beth’s struggles. However, it is easy to note that a man’s struggles with alcoholism or any other form of addiction would probably not have been portrayed similarly, and a conscious choice was involved in trying to make Harmon and her mental illness sexy - a gorgeous damsel in distress. In terms of entertainment, hyperbole and embellishment are common. But, unrealistic depictions of struggles of characters meant to be reflections of reality over and over again makes real people question their own struggles, and this often isolates them. Accurate representation is important, especially in a world where so many struggle with mental illnesses.
Fate: The Winx Saga
Fate is a Netflix remake of the beloved Italian animated TV series Winx Club. The original series was extremely popular because of its colour palette, the fashion sense of the characters, the diversity and, of course, the friendship between the titular characters, all of whom were female.
Fate was meant to cater to the now 20+ year olds who grew up watching the iconic show as kids. However, as soon as the trailer dropped, fans of the original series were more than disappointed. It featured a very “
'aged' sense of fashion, one that many described as far too old for fashionable teenagers of 2020/21. In addition, blatant whitewashing of the beloved characters like Musa (originally, East Asian coded) and Flora (originally, Latin coded but replaced in the new series with a white character named Terra) left viewers disappointed. There were various other issues with the trailer too like the lack of wings in spite of the characters being fairies, the absence of one of the lead characters, Tecna and so on.
When the series finally aired early this year, the audience was left divided - some enjoyed the series while most others, who grew up watching the original, were not satisfied with the Netflix show. There are many reasons why I personally did not enjoy the series, but in this article I shall confine myself to discussions regarding the portrayal of women.
The original series portrayed female characters as fairies or witches; and male characters as warriors designated as the “specialists”. These three categories of magical creatures attended three different schools located in Magix. The new TV series makes it abundantly clear right from the start that anyone can be a fairy or a specialist (witches don’t find a place in the franchise), which is a welcome change. However, my approval of the series probably ends here.
The series tries to portray itself as a story of very woke characters but fails at every step in actually living up to the claim. For example, in the very first scene, the protagonist Bloom, who is from Earth and is visiting the 'Other World' (where the school for fairies and specialists known as Alfea is located for the first time), comes face to face with Sky, a specialist, who is Bloom’s love interest in both the original and the Netflix adaptation.
Sky offers help after noticing that Bloom is new to the school and is facing difficulty in finding her way around. Bloom tags this as 'mansplaining'. The choice of words sound almost like someone who is attempting to make fun of feminism by trying to give terms like mansplaining a meaning very different from what it really is in a way to undermine women’s experiences. Had Bloom known what she was doing, was aware of what Sky said about the school beforehand and didn't actually need help, then the use of the phrase 'mansplaining' would make sense. But she did in fact need help as Bloom was in a world that she admittedly didn't know existed up until a few months ago.
One striking difference between the original and Fate is the relationship between the lead characters: Bloom, Stella, Aisha, Terra and Musa. In Fate, they are shown to be mean to each other before even getting to know each other. Their hurtful comments make no sense. They are seen trying to avoid being friends with each other and even crossing paths, again, without a reason. In the original, they enjoyed each other’s company, appreciated their individualities and supported each other through everything that life threw at them. In fact, the 'Winx Club' is what they named their friend group.
In Fate, however, Winx is simply the name of the suite that they unfortunately had to share. Real life interactions between women (or anyone for that matter) who are meeting for the first time are rarely ever the way Fate describes it and is definitely much closer to the animation, except when internalised misogyny plays a role. Fate’s version of a broken relationship between all female characters is unfortunately not uncommon in cinema. Animosity between women, shown to be a result of jealousy, is used as a plot line, even the main plot line, in shows very often. The lack of friendship and the chaotic energy that the audience of the original series so loved was painfully apparent and a punch in the face of those who were looking forward to the adaptation.
Stella, clearly, absolutely despised Bloom. The show would let us know eventually that it is because Sky, who is now interested in Bloom, is Stella’s ex boyfriend - a standard love triangle trope. This trope is not only tired but also is solely created to cause friction between the female characters and reduce all their interactions. This, however, did not exist in the original. In Winx Club, Stella was the one to discover Bloom on Earth and take her to Alfea. The two were the closest of friends.
The best friend’s position in Fate is taken up by Aisha, the only person of colour in the show. She is stripped of her extremely celebrated original storyline, much like all of the other characters, and reduced to an overachieving mother-like character to Bloom - serving yet another common and tired trope - the ‘Black best friend’. All of the characters were stripped of their individualities - their style, their backgrounds, their struggles and their personalities; in a weak attempt to make Bloom look like an interesting character. Unfortunately, the original Winx Club was celebrated because of the diversity and extensive storyline, which the creators of Fate obviously failed to realise.
The series does make a feeble effort to overcome the biggest criticism of the original series: the lack of diversity in body shapes as each female character was portrayed with an unattainable hourglass figure while simultaneously being extremely thin. On the other hand, the male characters were tall, built and had very broad shoulders. There were very few exceptions to this. Fate introduced a singular plus size character through Terra - a token plus size character.
The fact that the extras were also very thin made her standout. In addition, her entire storyline was reduced to a young girl always conscious and embarrassed of her size and as a result, always opting to cover up. Winx was a perfect opportunity to have a confident plus sized character with an incredible fashion sense and not make everything in her story revolve around her size, in contrast to almost all of the stories told by movies today that involve a curvy character.
My final criticism is about Fate’s protagonist, Bloom and her unbearably annoying personality that again, is in stark contrast to the original Bloom. She comes across as a “I am not like the other girls'' type of female protagonist as she herself makes it clear to the show's audience by repeatedly mentioning how she is not very social or in any way like a cheerleader from Earth; and somehow that is indicative of her fairy ancestry.
However, even while she is at Alfea, her antics, attitude and sharp words make her come across as a, for the lack of a better phrase, self-important brat. She certainly doesn’t know how to treat those around herself including her suite mates well, and often makes rather dumb choices inspite of having Aisha always trying to babysit her. She however does realise this herself, only after she has caused more than enough trouble and the series has shown her to be indeed different from the others in the sense that she, someone who has been unaware of magic her entire life and has a meagre few months of training, is the most powerful fairy in the realm and has wings! Everyone loves a chosen one trope, but this particular instance has been handled terribly. Being rude does not make anyone cool or dark and mysterious, it just makes them super annoying.
Clearly, this entire series was a weak amalgamation of tired, problematic tropes that did not exist in the original series resulting in an absolute train wreck of a show that many were looking forward to.
Bridgerton has amassed an almost cult-like following with both commoners and celebrities repeatedly expressing their love for the show since its release in December, 2020. The series is based on the 2000 book The Duke and I written by Julia Quinn. There have been a variety of critiques that have come up over the past few months, and rightfully so. Most of these are about how the show was marketed as one with a diverse cast but 'diverse', for the showrunners of Bridgerton, meant having only white and black characters. The show's queer baiting (due to gay sex scene in the trailer but a lack of a queer storyline in the actual show) and tone deaf handling of race as an issue (addressed only once in the series through an interaction between the Duke and Lady Danbury) has also been criticised.
Rarely does it happen that Black characters are played by those of full black heritage. This is very evident in the case of Bridgerton too. Marina Thompson and Simon Basset who are to be perceived as desirable are light skinned while the Duke’s late abusive father, Lady Danbury (a much older woman) and Will Mondrich (who fights for a living) are dark-skinned. Colourism, although not as highly discussed or debated as racism, is a very important issue, even within individual minority communities.
My main criticism of the show is how the series is seen as empowering to women when in fact, it glamourises sexual assault. The titular female character, Daphne Bridgerton rapes her husband as she tries to get impregnated by him without his consent and in spite of him repeatedly asking her to stop. The following scenes make it look like Simon is at fault for lying when, in fact, he had been very clear in his intentions right from the beginning about not wanting to have kids. Whether it is that he cannot or does not want to have children is immaterial and Daphne should have respected his choice.
The show fails to call out Daphne for her act and she is shown to be mad at the Duke for “lying” to her. The scenes are set in a way that the audience is meant to take her side and view Simon’s anger at his wife as unjustified. It was a missed opportunity to actually call Daphne out and acknowledge that men can be victims of rape, women can rape men and marital rape is just as prevalent and unforgiveable. None of these discussions take place and when the Duke explains to Daphne about the abuse he experienced at the hands of his father, she simply sees it as not sufficient a reason to “lie” to her. The relationship between the two is very toxic and everything seems to be rectified by the two simply reiterating their love for each other and deciding that if they have a child, “nothing else will matter”.
All this is problematic enough in itself but the series takes it a step further by drawing a parallel between Daphne’s situation and that of Marina, a Black woman who at this point in the story believes that she has been abandoned by her lover and the father of her unborn child. Daphne offers to help her out - the, unfortunately, very common white saviour trope wherein white characters are portrayed as selfless saviours of characters of colour, an idea deep rooted in white supremacy. When Daphne comes to know that her efforts did not bear any fruit, she is seen crying. At no point in the series whatsoever is Simon’s position as a survivor of abuse and a victim of sexual assault viewed with sympathy and the show ends without Daphne apologising.
Another women-related issue with the series is the treatment of period health. The portrayal might be true to the Regency era but frankly it is difficult to keep up with what is or isn’t meant to be accurate or morally right as per the Regency era in the show. Throughout the season Daphne and Marina are shown to check their bedsheets for bloodstains that would indicate periods. This, in their knowledge, would suggest that they are not pregnant. However, biologically, this is not the best way to check for pregnancy. Spotting or light bleeding during the first trimester, that is, implantation bleeding, is very common.
In fact, implantation bleeding is a definitive proof of pregnancy contrary to what the characters believed. In addition, when the Duke talks to Daphne about self pleasure, he asks her to touch in between her legs. This in itself is a very vague instruction and seems to be made under an assumption that vaginal penetration is the only way, all or at least most, women experience orgasm. However, only 18% of women actually experience orgasm through vaginal penetration alone and thus, it is an abject misrepresentation of female pleasure. Of course, this has been an issue with video based media for a long time now. Pornography too is often criticised for being inaccurate when it comes to female pleasure and for setting unrealistic standards for women. Again, such notions were justified under the mask of the Regency era.
Clearly, many of the issues discussed above can be easily done away with without affecting the main storyline too much. Errors associated with representation of women can be avoided to a large extent by ensuring that women tell women’s stories (The Queen’s Gambit and Fate: The Winx Saga have male showrunners and Bridgerton has female showrunners). Most widely used tropes that have been discussed here are deeply-rooted in sexism, racism and homophobia. These tropes are tired and do not have a place in a world undergoing radical changes through the MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Pride and so on and so forth. It is important that TV series and movies not only pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, which is the most basic requirement, but also accurately represent women, their problems, aspirations, desires and relationships.
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