#menwritingwomen is a well-circulated meme on the internet. There is an entire Reddit community dedicated to it — users share examples of how men characterise women in all kinds of literature, there are Twitter threads that mock men who go into too much detail about a woman’s appearance, from her breasts to her butt, and a quick search into the hashtag on Instagram leads you down a rabbit hole of the most bizarre quotes from male-written female characters. The tagline for r/menwritingwomen is, “She breasted boobily down the stairs…”
But it’s not all jokes. Members of the subreddit discuss various tropes and stereotypes that fictional women are subjected to. For example, there is the Sex Dispensary archetype who “exists solely to provide sex to the male protagonist after he saves her.” She is a woman who constantly needs saving by the leading man, and their “love” is based entirely on her dependence on him for safety; so basically all the Bond girls. There are more stereotypes for fictional women—the Madonna vs. the Whore uses the sacred-profane binary to juxtapose extremities of femininity, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists to save the man from an existential spiral.
For a long time, anything that was ever published was written by a man. They created beloved characters like Othello, Gandalf, Ram, Darth Vader, Patrick Bateman, Sakharam Binder — a list so endless we could make a game out of it! Why then, are the women written by men so… singular? Why do they fictionally behave in either black or white, but never shaded with colourful nuance?
In a recent talk organised by Nalanda Arts Studio, playwrights and translators Irawati Karnik and Shanta Gokhale were in conversation about how male playwrights write female characters. In her response to a question on why women are stereotyped so heavily in Indian theatre and literature, Shanta talked about how male playwrights’ lived experiences of women have been very limited. If you live with a woman, and have grown up around women, “it builds your understanding of a real woman who cannot be generalised,” says Shanta. It is very telling why so many female characters in Indian theatre exist in stereotypical binaries. As a culture, our experiences of women, regardless of what wave of feminism we’re currently in, are complicated. Even though women have the right to vote, we still live in a patriarchal society that exploits its women, whether in the home or in the workplace. We have all seen older women in our families sacrificing their needs over their husbands, sons, fathers, in-laws. We have seen our mothers silently swallow pride to maintain their husbands’. We have been told to keep ourselves in check because emotional volatility will not be appreciated after marriage.
So what kind of women exist in these households of suppression? Indian playwrights from the 20th century had only two options: a) the submissive woman who is stoically strong, does her duty quietly, unflinchingly, unsexed, and without carnal desire, and b) the rebellious woman who defies norms and displays brashness, and titillates the male protagonist by her lack of shame towards herself. In Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder, we see both these women in the characters of Laxmi and Champa. Shanta complains about the wasted potential of Champa’s character, and how it reflects on Tendulkar’s inexperience with women. She remarks that, “Champa has strength, but the playwright does not have the confidence to fully give her that strength. Tendulkar feels completely confident creating Sakharam Binder, but not the women.” Of course, there are men who have tried to create flawed, imperfect women in plays. Shanta credits Padmini in Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana to be a character who takes a step away from the stereotypical strong women who fight back. Padmini tries to create the perfect man by collaging for herself a third new man who is an amalgamation of brains and brawn. In her obsession with Kapila’s body and Devadutta’s intelligence, Padmini puts her greed above all else which is what makes her such a gratifying character for modern women.
Even in the 21st century though, a majority of the pop culture I grew up on consisted of either wholly perfect or wholly imperfect women. How old were you when you realised the stark binary between Arwen and Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings? I have loved them both. Arwen is beautiful, ethereal, floating, badass, and a devoted lover with the softest, most mystical glimmer around her; Eowyn is a fighter, swordsman, heroine, slayer, defiant princess, unlucky in love but cooler for it. Did I mention they’re part of a cliche love triangle? When two men love the same woman, it often does not end well. When Paris fell in love with Helen, a city burned and a new civilization was born. When Desdemona is desired by Roderigo, she is used as a pawn in a plot of vengeance. When Sita is kidnapped by Raavan, her loyalty is questioned by an entire nation, and she is cowardly exiled for it. It’s too simple. It’s the same story every time. Each story uses its women — not to make them well-rounded humans meant to be understood and felt — but as plot devices to further the objectives of its male protagonists, and in the case of mythologies and religious texts, female characters become examples to scare women into submission. In each tragedy, women’s bodies become sites of violence to further the narrative. What a sad, cruel way to find yourself represented in fiction.
In the context of theatre, Irawati and Shanta spoke at length about the possible journeys a female protagonist can make. According to Irawati, female protagonists are on psycho-spiritual journeys that “explore themes of dependence and self-doubt that are deeply entrenched in our psyches.” She goes on to compare female narratives to that of a female orgasm. It is not like the male orgasm of singular climax, but rides more on unsureness. The female narrative and orgasm have peaks, valleys, achievements, failures, and do not rely on an ultimate realisation. Contemporary female playwrights like Phoebe Waller-Bridge do this with success; Fleabag is a character who is bad, morally corrupt, and she does not need to be an idol to earn her place in the narrative.
Ultimately, to write real, nuanced, surprisingly female characters, men must widen their lived experiences. They must make friends with women; different women, who occupy different roles in society, who do not subject themselves to stereotypes, who defy what is expected of them. They must change the gaze with which they look at women — a woman as mind, body, soul; not just a construct or a literary device. Parallely, Shanta urges women to create “characters who don’t hold the responsibility of explaining to you what it is like to be a woman.” It is only in the way we tell stories, varied stories consisting of multitudes of women, that we can show how women relate to the world.
Photos by Phalguni Vittal Rao and Tanvi Shah.