One of the most potent methods of destroying a body is to turn its own components against it. The mechanism cancer employs; the procedure colonialists perfected; the method the TTP is adept at. It is also how, historically, women have been divided and subjugated for the collective benefit of ‘mankind’. ‘A woman is a woman’s worst enemy’, we are told repeatedly, a cliché that all too often glosses over the reason behind this enmity: the fight for economic benefit. The large part of the world’s financial resources having always been in the hands of men, it was thus only reasonable for women fighting to survive, to get into the good graces of the men around them. The age-old battle lines between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are not just drawn around a shared love for the same man but for a mutual grab for resources. The mother needs to be certain she will be taken care of in her old age, while the younger woman needs to ensure the best possible survival of her progeny and her own self. Men putting ‘bros befo’ hos’ also made sense for the same reasons; it helped them consolidate their position of power in the world. In such a milieu, women turning upon each other was just akin to the swooping down of a hungry mob on a single piece of bread. Survival has to come before higher notions of loyalty and solidarity. And once certain social patterns have been established, it takes decades, sometimes centuries, of on-ground change for it to begin reflecting in behavioral patterns.
Solid, unchanging and supportive female friendship, more succinctly called the sisterhood, has always been a central condition of activist and academic feminism, but all academic ideas are doomed to remain buried under a thick dust of impenetrable jargon till pop culture picks them up and blows the dust away to reveal them in full colour, Dolby surround sound and 3D; simplifying and then amplifying their reach to billions of regular folk.
In a world where women’s economic independence has become more of a norm, popular culture suddenly seems to have embraced the notion of sisterhood. The internet has given the oft-reviled idea of feminism a new and positive life (even as it has also produced visible backlash from the likes of the risible Men’s Rights Movement). The ideology that had seemed all but dead in the ‘post-feminist’ 80s and 90s among girls who wanted to distance themselves from their mothers’ hard won freedoms is slowly but surely becoming more palatable, and as it turns out, commercially viable in the current decade. This change is so sudden and pleasant that I am loath to celebrate it too much, lest it all suddenly vanishes into a puff of smoke and we revert to the days of women against women on screens near and far.
But look around you, folks. Hollywood, particularly films directed at younger audiences, specifically those produced by Disney, have suddenly discovered a new ‘trope’: a happy ending that does not involve a rescue by a prince charming. Two back to back Disney films have women rescuing other women, rallying together on one side to defeat the forces of darkness, often represented by a man. The ‘prince’ still exists but he is now the token good guy, not the central character on whom all the hopes of our lovely little princess are pinned. Frozen did it first. Maleficent has taken it up a notch, and even Bollywood dabbled with it in Queen (the relationship between Raani and her French/Indian friend who first gives her the confidence to take on the world). Having gone to the cinema a second time this week to watch Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent in a cinema hall packed with men and women, boys and girls, I am allowing my heart to fill up a little at this small, but hopefully not insignificant cinematic coup, a celebration of the sisterhood. In this Snow White story the older woman is not competing with the younger one for the title of ‘the fairest of them all’, and though both the female protagonists are still undeniably beautiful and no doubt chosen for their roles for their good looks (amongst other things), their physical beauty barely finds mention in the movie’s action. That Frozen and Maleficent have come barely seven years after the galling Enchanted is even greater cause for celebration. Disney’s Enchanted played up all of old Disney’s stereotypes in a live-action film that was emotionally manipulative and dated, unable to pick up on the pulse of the time. But the great real-life Disney hero, producer John Lassetter intervened in Frozen’s initial storyboard to help create a fairy story for the 21st Century, a success on whose coattails Maleficent is riding a wave of success.
Unfortunately, Pakistani pop culture hasn’t woken up to this phenomenon yet. Television plays are all full of male fantasies being played out on screen aided by the pen of female writers. Two women crying, begging and running after one man is still the 16th century trope our audiences seem to be happy with. Or are they? We won’t find out till somebody takes that leap of faith and treats our viewers intelligently. Are the channels, MNCs who provide advertisements and the media barons who call the shots, listening to the international winds of change?
Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.