Remember the ‘Chudail’ from ‘Stree’? Or ‘Roohi’? Or the possessed girl from ‘The Exorcist’? Why do the scariest horror movies have a woman as the face of evil?
I know what you are going to say. But guess what, ask a few people around you, and they are going to say the same thing. A variation of: ‘because women are evil’, ‘woh khoon peeti hain’, ‘director shaadi shuda hoga’.
This was actually a question someone asked in an online class on films. The teacher replied, “Women make interesting characters. There’s more mystery around them. There are more layers. They are harder to predict”.
I find it fascinating how we make sense of a woman we don’t know using cues we have picked up from our upbringing, culture, and social circles. If she doesn’t mingle with anyone, she must be this. If she wears loud lipstick, she must be that. In advertising, we often segment consumers into psychographic boxes. But in life, we segment women into boxes that are much easier to create and much more difficult to break.
Let’s play a game. I’ll describe a few ‘characters’ that you ‘see’ in corporate offices or in movies/shows based in offices, and what you need to do is just think if they sound/feel/look familiar.
The Witch: She’s charming. She’s a great conversationalist. Some say she’s intelligent, others say she’s good with clients. One says she works hard; another one says she works smart. Everyone seems to find a reason to like her. It’s interesting how everyone wants to talk to her yet somehow, it is her fault that they do. You think she’s ‘doing something’, trying to manipulate people to speak to her, be nice to her and even crush on her.
The Bitch: The alpha in the room who everyone is presenting to, whose arguments are so humiliatingly right that they make you question why you came for this meeting unprepared. If you are having a bad day, why do you still know nothing despite doing the same thing for the last 15 years and if you are having many bad days at a stretch, then why do you even exist? And on some mornings, when she gives you instant approval on your project, you feel like you can run for UK’s Prime Ministerial elections until that moment in the night when you realize that you can’t even run your house. And then, the plausible explanation you give for this kind of woman’s deep knowledge about her work is that her interest in work comes from her disinterest in her home. She’s obsessed with work, data, and logic because she doesn’t have a life, love or any such magic.
The Cry Baby: She cries. She cries publicly. She cries publicly in office. Haw! How can she do that? The only reason this is possible, you think, is that she’s unstable. She can’t handle her emotions. She can’t handle stress. Unfamiliar with the concept of ‘frust-tears’, crying as an outlet for frustration and anger, and not as an expression of being sad or miserable, and even more alien to the concept of vulnerability at work, you think that she’s not strong but wrong.
Princess Perfect: She is impeccably dressed. She wears lipsticks and changes their shade to match her mood, the weather, or her dress. On the days, she’s not wearing make-up, she still looks perfect in her perfectly done messy hair. Where does she find so much time, you ask? Does she not have enough work? These are the conversations you love to ignite, not accommodating in your sight her perspective that maybe it’s her way of showing adoration and respect for her work and maybe it’s important for her to not look like she last had a bath when Indus Valley Civilization was discovered.
The WIP: She wears a mini skirt but pulls it down. She wears a low-neck top but pulls it up. She wears bold lipstick but rubs it off. You get the feeling she doesn’t know stuff so let me tell her. Please don’t. She knows what she wants. It’s just that it is new and unfamiliar. She’s experimenting. She’s trying something new. Clearly, she’s trying to be out of her comfort zone. Don’t push her back in.
The Sweetheart: She’s innocent. She’s sweet. She’s caring. The one who will bring an extra sandwich for you every time she goes to the corner sandwich stall to eat because she knows it’s your favourite. If she does something wrong, she doesn’t mind you screaming at her. If you do something wrong, she doesn’t mind if you don’t apologize to her. So unconditional, so undemanding. How you wish every woman around you was like her?
The Miss Home Mom: There is a working mom who works late nights in the office like it’s her home and then there’s one who is never at home in an office. She misses her home, her family, her kids, and her comfort. In the office, she is always a little lost and a little disconnected like she’s waiting for something. According to you, she is…she’s waiting to go back home. The tricky one who seeks work-life balance that you see as a sin. How dare she? So, you play a game with her. You give her work exactly at 6 pm to put her to test and your own anxieties to rest.
The Chance Pe Dance: She works very hard for her promotion. According to you, not in the office, but in the parties. And on the dance floor. She chills with your boss, your boss’ boss, your boss’ boss’ boss and treats them like her buddies while you are still stammering to say your first hello to your boss’ secretary. You start gathering evidence to prove that she’s having a secret affair with someone in the office, preferably your boss but your theories are not convincing enough for your colleagues who are more interested in their drinks than listening to you drunk. But you just feel it in your bones. Where else can her confidence and carefreeness be coming from?
The PMS Queen: She loses her shit. According to you, anytime. Every time. All the time. If they could, her juniors would pay a developer to create an algorithm that could predict her moods and tell them when it’s safe to talk to her. Some strongly believe that it’s the pressure of being single that keeps her on the edge. Once she settles down, so will her rage. You agree. A woman over forty, and single is not a ticking time bomb, but a reusable time bomb that keeps ticking off any time.
I’ve just started, and the list is already so long. Even if you see overlaps, it’s painful to continue so I am going to stop. These are just a few examples but if any of these descriptors feel familiar to you, it’s time to stop, pause, re-assess and refrain. These are stereotypes, stories that we have made up about women who work around us or with us, stories that make us feel like the hero and make them feel far from it. Stories created for our convenience, sometimes, even for our subconscious defense as we see more and more empowered women around us, get a load of their talent and deal with newly created power structures.
It’s time to just let them be. Keep the witches, bitches, and leeches aside. Let women be just women!
(Pragati Rana, Executive Creative Director, DENTSU CREATIVE India)