In Southeast Asian and Asian society as a whole, we are largely anchored by traditional values and beliefs, rarely deviating from values passed on from generations before. As a result, there are certain roles that exist determining how different genders should behave. However, the two short films, “The Malediction” and “Ephemera” by Makbul Mubarak and Ho Thanh Thao respectively, adopt an off-kilter method of addressing and challenging these views of gender constructed by religion or society by portraying women as both superior and inferior to men. This has inspired a conversation between us surrounding different facets of the topic of gender stereotypes in film.
On Stereotypes in Film:
Siobhan [S]: Why do you think gender-specific tropes exist, sometimes inevitably, in most TV series and films?
Daryl [D]: I think this extends to literature and even other forms of art as well. Such tropes can be traced back to ages ago where there already existed a very concrete view of women’s role in society. It is persistent and prevalent in so many artforms as it is so innate it becomes part of our tradition. Artists also use them as an easy way to get into a story since these stereotypes are so easily accessible to everyone. This also encourages them to continue coming back to these tropes. These tropes definitely exist for both men and women, they reflect social position, identity and belonging, since there’s a certain role we all play in society. They will stay for as long as society prevails since they are modelled after society. Of course, we see writers playing around with these stereotypes and by doing so, break what is conventional and acceptable in society. Movies like Manchester by the Sea may utilise standard character tropes, but the unconventional treatment of such tropes may result in a new perspective, which is encouraging to see. If audiences see these portrayals as true, then maybe it calls for us to reflect on our roles in society.
[D]: Masculinity has almost always been portrayed with the stereotypes of strength, stubbornness, and superiority. Taking the male protagonists in Ephemera and The Malediction into account, how do you view this version of masculinity portrayed in film?
[S]: This is a deep-seated issue which does not materialise from nowhere but the social and cultural views of men that society has for many years. The reason why there has not been a change is because directors and writers see these stereotypes as a “secret formula”: men portrayed as strong and superior are definitely easier to write as the character development becomes typical and overplayed. However, the treatment of this masculine portrayal in “Ephemera” is rather unorthodox as compared to other films. While it does express familiar ideas of masculinity: men have gangs, are involved in fighting and get injured, the film pokes fun at this, implying that it is a very immature way to behave. Ultimately, the men are not as “strong” as they set themselves to be.
[D]: Do you think these portrayals are true then?
[S]: These portrayals of masculinity may not necessarily be true, but because people have been programmed to believe that this is the standard men have to abide by it becomes a sort of self fulfilling prophecy. Male audiences begin to model this standard, making it true in itself. How can we expect men to allow themselves to make mistakes and be vulnerable if they are always portrayed as strong, the hero? This is a very self destructive cycle.
[S]: “… Woman becomes the privileged exemplar of madness while simultaneously being deprived of the ability to articulate and to understand her own state. The mad woman is thus constructed as a site of non-knowledge.” With this statement in mind, do you think it is justified to simply label the female characters in both short films portrayed as the “Jealous Woman” trope as irrationally “mad”?
[D]: I disagree. The madness does not come from women being ignorant of their own state. This “jealous woman” character trope is seen in many films and even plays. A lot of this madness actually stems from social stereotypes that place women in a certain box. This madness is not a reaction to what’s immediately happening to them by their male counterparts but by a larger society itself. A society that rejects them, a society that limits them to the role of a good wife or girlfriend. Madness becomes a reflection of women’s inability to react to a restrictive society and to change certain things, as we see in Hamlet or Blue Jasmine. We live in such a patriarchal society that women are unable to resist these confines, therefore driving women into a state of madness. This actually speaks more about society at large rather than the women. Just look at that scene in Ephemera when the female protagonist acts out of rage by inspiring jealousy from her alleged-cheating boyfriend, therefore portrayed almost as a mad and irrational woman, recalling Cate Blanchett’s character in Blue Jasmine. Yet maybe, it says more about how as a woman, she is unable to resist the noncommittal and casual attitudes of men and has to resort to extreme means to get what she wants. There is a courage and vitality to it that is admirable and unexpected, but refreshing nonetheless.
On the Big Screen:
[D]: Name five female-centric films you enjoyed and why.
[S]: 20th Century Women, Landline, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids and Angels Wear White. I like these films because it was empowering for women but in the most unconventional and in some cases, outrageous ways. Unlike Wonder Woman where the symbol of empowerment was very obvious (a female taking on the role of the hero instead), these films can empower or at least empathise with being a female. You might think it bizarre considering the script of some of these films, but after watching these films I felt a weird and inexplicable sense of empathy and empowerment. A striking example is the film “Angels Wear White”, where one of the lines uttered by a female character was “In my next life, I do not want to be a woman.” By portraying bluntly the unbearable prejudices and atrocities ordinary women face, this film highlights the fact that being a woman is in itself a heroic act.
[D]: How did these female-centric films differ from male-centric films, or not at all?
[S]: For these 5 films, there wasn’t any outstanding difference in terms of plot and everything. In fact they were all so well crafted that people could recognise good stories are not the result of the genders of the cast. Just by being able to tell a story and tell it well, these films can empower and empathise with women everywhere.
[D]: Much has been said about how male-dominated the film industry is – whether in the people behind the camera or on screen. Do you think that the film industry is innately sexist or are there other motivations?
[S]: I remember reading something about this issue that says “Hollywood is just like any industry in the world. Its mostly male-dominated”. This goes back to what we’ve mentioned before of societal norms and expectations of females being the homemaker and not having occupations. Of course this has been changing but the change will not be completed overnight. However, going back to what you said Hollywood is definitely a more devious industry than most. I say this because my views are constructed on the cliched story of “an aspiring beautiful actress goes to Hollywood to make it big”.
[D]: Like La La Land.
[D]: Imagine if Emma Stone met Harvey Weinstein instead of Ryan Gosling!
[S]: Big Hollywood executives who harness a lot of power may prey on and take advantage of these innocent girls who would give whatever to make their name. It is because of this that Hollywood becomes much more devious than other industries that exist.
[S]: As a male, do you think any of these films mentioned seem like they are overtly pressuring you to acknowledge the changing gender stereotypes.
[D]: For me, 20th Century Women actually did play by stereotypes, with roles such as the Mother, the “Sister” and the Lover being portrayed by each female character in the film. But Mike Mills does not follow the conventional stereotypes strictly, instead choosing to give each character their own individuality. As a male watching this it didn’t really enforce the female role upon me, but it asked me how I viewed women in my life. Sure, we can label women as mothers or lovers, but we also have to acknowledge that they are more than that. This is what’s powerful in this film — we begin to accept these characters for who they are as individuals, beyond the labels and stereotypes given to them.
From this conversation we can see common character tropes and stereotypes have infiltrated films and television programmes that we consume and enjoy. More often than not, these tropes and stereotypes begin to suffocate our society with restricting expectations of what men and women should be or at least aspire to be. Will we as a society ever successfully challenge these age-old “norms” and construct new portrayals of men and women that will do justice to the nuanced existence of both genders?