- Which women are allowed to fight back?
- We cheer men who fight for a woman or women who fight for ‘honour’
The silver screen is replete with depictions of male rage and men engaging in violence, but when women engage in violence, even when it is reactionary violence, it doesn’t sit right with us. We allow mothers (as portrayed in Sridevi’s Mom and Raveena Tandon’s Maatr) to avenge their daughters and resort to violence when all else fails, but when the abuser is an intimate partner, the rules appear to be different.
Depictions of female rage on screen garner mixed reactions. We root for protagonists and films we agree with like Mom or Maatr, but there are also films like Darlings which drew flak for its depictions of reactionary violence.
Which women are allowed to fight back?
This begs the question, which women on screen are allowed to fight back and why do we root for some of these characters while refusing to see where others come from?
Darlings was met with the unwarranted outrage that Mom and Maatr escaped because Darlings portrayed a wife resorting to reactionary violence against a long-abusive husband. Many dubbed the movie feminist propaganda (whatever that might be) and suggested that Alia Bhatt’s Badru and her on-screen husband Hamza were engaging in ‘mutual abuse’.
Mutual abuse is a misleading term because no such thing actually exists. Victims of abuse who engage in violence against their abuser are reacting to the abuse they are faced with, the nature of such violence is reactionary, not mutual. Both partners in such cases cannot be deemed mutually abusive or equally abusive, the abused partner is merely retaliating to the abuse they are being subjected to by the abusive partner. The abusive partner, who initiated the abuse, is the primary aggressor with power dynamics in their favour. The response to such abuse, even when it is violent, doesn’t make a relationship mutually abusive.
It isn’t just depictions of retaliatory female violence against intimate partners which audiences seem to take issue with, it’s female characters taking a stand against intimate partner abuse that seems to cause outrage. Taapsee Pannu’s 2020 release, Thappad, depicted no reactionary violence, just a character who decides to leave her husband after he hits her. And even Thappad garnered outrage and was accused of normalizing a line of thought that is harmful to the Indian family unit.
While the 2022 release, Ammu, wasn’t met with similar outrage, the film, however, didn’t do well at the box office. It’s also worth noting that Ammu doesn’t depict any reactionary violence, but it does portray the titular character taking a stand against her abusive husband. But films like Ammu are the exception, not the norm.
We cheer men who fight for a woman or women who fight for ‘honour’
Alternatively, Pink fared better than Thappad and Ammu because Pink sees a man (Amitabh Bachchan as a lawyer) defend a woman. Although, Pink too was dubbed feminist propaganda by many online. But we cheer on men who fight for women, but when women take charge, we object to it.
What’s ironic is that off-screen we expect women to fight back against abuse and question the truth of their abuse allegations if they don’t. We blame domestic violence survivors for staying in their abusive marriages for as long as they did, completely missing the socio-economic and cultural contexts of their decisions. We question the truthfulness of sexual violence allegations if a victim can’t prove they fought back, In reality, we expect women to fight back and take a stand, but when women do so on screen, it isn’t palatable to our sensibilities if it doesn’t align exactly with our narrow idea of what taking a stand and fighting back should look like for a woman.
Darlings was met with flak that other movies of similar nature weren’t because we expect wives to endure abuse and even if they fight back, we expect it to be in limited ways, and without the involvement of any reactionary abuse. Mothers fighting back for their child, on the other hand, are glorified because it is seen as a mother’s duty to so. And men fighting for women on-screen are heralded because for men to do the right thing is still considered applause-worthy.
The 90s and 2000s were full of the trope of the man avenging someone he loves and being heralded as a hero. Films like Damini and Garv are depictions of this trope. But a majority of these films used violence against women as a plot device to further the story of the male characters. Also, these male characters often resorted to violence not for the sake of the woman but for the sake of family honour or their pride.
It’s time we stop expecting women to be silent witnesses to their dehumanization. Films like Ammu, Thappad, or Darlings are rare in the Indian film landscape, but the fact they exist is a step in the right direction. These films attempt to normalize the wife beyond the quiet, suffering wives of times past, they give their female characters autonomy, something that is long overdue in Indian films. Our patriarchal notion of the silent, complicit, helpless wife is challenged every time a woman on-screen decides to fight back against intimate partner abuse.
Art is a powerful medium and films have the ability to normalize things, perhaps this is why we are so outraged by women who refuse to stay silent or refuse to take the high ground. We are threatened when women on-screen take back their agency because it indicates at the possibility that women might do so off-screen as well.