Here’s the thing, I feel like this essay needs a disclaimer and a little bit of a backstory for it to make sense to an audience. The thought struck me on a random Sunday morning, the day after I had seen the Malayalam-English language film Wonder Women directed by Anjali Menon. The film follows multiple women in a prenatal class. The women come from different economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. They have their conflicts, some of them emotional, some of them linguistic, and some of them personal. But the one thing they all share in common is the condition of being pregnant. Ranging from first-time mothers to accidental pregnancies, single mothers, experienced mothers, and IVF pregnancies, there is a plethora of women and their stories portrayed in this one-and-a-half-hour feature.
Why is it so uncomfortable to sit with the phrase “women-centric”?
When I first heard of the story, I was beyond excited. What had me the most excited about the film was the adjective associated with it, its promotion and description as a “female-led, women-centric” film. Like most of the audience of the film, I did not question it. Sure, “women-centric” film, big deal!
However, the more I sat with that adjective, the more uncomfortable it made me feel. Why exactly was this film receiving so much hype as a “women-centric” film? Was it because the subject matter is of consequence only to women? Was it because most of the actors of importance are women? Was it because pregnancy and childbirth are largely feminine experiences where men, regardless of how involved they are, have no place to understand or judge? Or was it because that the awareness the film was supposed to bring about prenatal classes was primarily targeted at women?
No matter how I tried to argue the case, there was something seriously concerning about the term “women-centric”.
Let’s try a different approach here, shall we? Take the film, Arjun Reddy. I only pick this film as an example because of how popular it is and the kind of global reach it has (ironically). Clearly, we have a male protagonist, one that is a pain in the ass to deal with, and a poster-female character who is a sounding board to the misogynistic actions of the male lead. How many times has this film been referred to as “male-centric”? I mean, it ticks off all the categories, right, required to make a film male-centric?
A male lead
The coming-of-age story of a man
Themes circle around male interests and experiences.
So why exactly wasn’t it marketed and promoted as a “male-centric” film?
What does the term “women-centric” really mean?
Essentially speaking, it is blatant sexism, nicely wrapped in a little cute bow, presented as a progressive message to the otherwise undoubting audience. When you refer to a story or film or any art form as “women-centric”, you are immediately branding it. This piece of art is only meant to be consumed by women. The target audience is established, and there is an agenda behind it.
If anybody else, primarily men, is found on the premises of the same piece of work, they are branded as “feminists”. Not the kind that is respected and admired, but in common terms, “simps”, who are trying to win that girl or seem better than anyone else.
It is extremely easy to fall prey to this form of sexism disguised as feminism and a new wave of art forms, here, in Malayalam cinema. Let’s use Wonder Women as an example to understand how the message of the film and the countless efforts of all the actresses and the characters they portrayed may go to waste because of the one brand: “women-centric”.
Why Wonder Women by Anjali Menon is not a women-centric film?
Okay, so I can already imagine all the counter-arguments that will be directed at me for even asking this question. The first one involves having the term “women” in the title of the film itself. To those harsh critics, I have one question, Spiderman, Batman, and fricking Bamboo Boys, all have the title “boys” or “man” in them. Are you going to tell me women are blissfully unaware of these narratives and stories?
Wonder Women by Anjali Menon is a story about women and their experiences with pregnancies. However, men are equally important and present in both the story and the pregnancy narrative. I would assume, from the presentation of the story, the message it was trying to convey was the humanizing of its characters. Sure, the women are referred to as “superheroes”, but that is not the message I took away from it.
Rather, for me, Wonder Women was about a bunch of brave women learning to be mothers. It is about men and women breaking cycles of generational trauma, it is about learning a new style of self-aware parenting, and it is about creating a community and friendships. It is about support, empathy, and understanding. It is about how to-be parents navigate this liminal space of the period of pregnancy: the nine months between conception and the birth of a new being into the world.
How can anyone sit behind any screen or sit face-to-face with someone and tell them that none of these are men’s issues, but they are “women-centric”? Make it make sense.