Two weeks ago on Tuesday, the world observed the 88th Academy Awards, an annual rite of passage in which the world took part in a millennial idol worshipping fest where a single golden statuette called “Oscar” was God for the day.
This year’s Academy Awards was a standard Hollywood affair. None of the winners pulled a Marlon Brando by sending someone else to accept their Oscar, or a Vanessa Redgrave by denouncing Zionist hoodlums in their acceptance speech. It was all luminous Cheshire cat smiles and well-rehearsed speeches from the winners.
All that and for what appears to have now become a permanent mainstay of the Academy Awards, the divisive word that is ironically “diversity” was front and centre for the second year running. Not a single actor nominated was from a minority background, consequently reigniting the #OscarsSoWhite debate. To partially quote the Lupe Fiasco song, this year’s Oscars was “all white, everything”.
But for all the shortcomings on diversity, there was some small measure of happiness. A Pakistani director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, won her second Oscar for her short documentary, A Girl in the River – The Price of Forgiveness, which follows the story of a young Pakistani woman who was shot in the face and dumped into a river by her father and uncle because she eloped with a man.
Now as a Pakistani woman, there’s no doubt Chinoy’s win evoked a sense of patriotic pride within me. Not only was she the first Pakistani to win an Oscar back in 2013 for her other documentary, Saving Face. She was the only woman of colour this year to win an Academy Award at all. The fact Chinoy jumped over the towering hurdles of racism and sexism was enough to elicit a fervent double fist pump.
But here’s where that ever cynical, big “but” comes in.
Despite the fact Chinoy’s work sheds light on the nightmarish reality for women mentally and physically scarred by senseless acts of violence, I found it problematic that the only two Oscar winning films about Pakistan, examine Pakistani women under the age old lens of victimhood.
Like a well-rehearsed Bollywood routine, this stereotype has been regurgitated to oblivion in both popular film and literature, perpetuating the fetishisation that to be a Pakistani woman (or a woman from the subcontinent for that matter) is to suffer perpetually.
Saving Face follows a British-Pakistani plastic surgeon who traveled to Pakistan to perform life changing surgery on women scarred from brutal acid attacks. Considering it was Pakistan’s very first Oscar, the fact it went to a film about acid attacks does elicit a slight wince. Oscar winning or not, these documentaries add nothing new to the cannon fodder.
Looking at previous nominations, most of which are set in India, they too march to the same drumbeat. Deepa Mehta’s Water and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire are just some Oscar nominated titles where victimisation and submissiveness are central to the story of some of its female characters.
Unsurprisingly, the stereotypical depiction of people of colour has historically been the case in Hollywood.
Take for instance the case of Hattie McDaniels, the first black actor to win an Oscar in her role as Mammy in the (1939) film, Gone with the Wind. The mammy caricature portrayed black women as obese black women content with a life of slavery, a caricature which interestingly enough made frequent appearances in the infamous children’s cartoon Tom & Jerry. The fact that Hattie McDaniels received an Oscar for portraying such a role was salt in the wounds. It was a case of “life” imitates art, art imitates “life”, and all that jazz.
Even the acting giant that is Sidney Poitier, who became the first black actor to win the Best Actor award, was no exception to Hollywood’s love for assigning particular roles to people of colour. With his dignified speech and desexualised presence on screen, Poitier was a white man’s fantasy of a civilised black man. He was well dressed, silver-tongued and anything but the wrathful angry black man, which some critics say is why he got as far as he did.
The Japanese-American actress, Miyoshi Umeki, was the first (and still remains to this day the only Asian woman to win an Oscar in 1954 for her role in Sayonara, which yet again) projected the stereotype of the demure, subservient Asian woman, qualities suggestive not only in her character but also in the character’s name “Lotus Blossom”. Since Ben Kingsley won an Oscar for his role in the Gandhi biopic, a film which is often toted as a snapshot of the “real” India, no Asian man has won the best actor award.
None of this is any surprise considering the racial make-up of the Academy as it currently stands is 94% white, and 77% male.
This is not to detract any merit from Chinoy’s work. But the sad reality is that with so few Pakistani women on or behind the screen, compounded with Hollywood’s penchant for this narrative of victimhood, however plausible these films are on an individual level or for whatever artistic purpose they are used, it still has the inevitable effect of cementing stereotyped images into popular imagination.
The late Edward Said observed in his seminal work “Orientalism”, how film and media depictions of Arabs as dark men with insatiable sexual appetites, leering at blond haired damsels served not only to reinforce stereotypes, but also to fuel misconceptions of the nebulous “other” in the real world, a logic which can be applied to Pakistani women as well.
Nominating films or documentaries which look at South Asian women in submissive, victimised roles would not be such a problem if they enjoyed a wider exposure in cinema of which the victimised woman plays a small role. It’s as the Asian filmmaker, Irvin Paik, wrote: “Whereas a single caricature of a white person is accepted as an exaggerated truth, a stereotype is often accepted as the whole truth about all people of colour”.
We don’t think all well dressed, European psychiatrists are cannibalistic serial killers like Hannibal Lecter. God forbid we think the world’s villains all speak in a Received Pronunciation British accent, otherwise the Queen would be considered the mother of all evil. So why is it we’re so quick to paint a broad brushstroke when it comes to women in the subcontinent? Enter colonialism.
Women of colour have long served as a life-sized canvas on which white, western directors and writers have painted their depictions of who they think these women are. British colonial literature, such as can be seen in the work of Rudyard Kipling, had a tendency to portray women from the subcontinent as alluring Princess Jasmines’, an oriental fantasy for them to cast their lustful gaze on. Since the demise of the colonial era, remnants of the “exotic” oriental woman remain, but have now been replaced with another trope; that of the oppressed burka clad woman in need of saving from the big, bad, brown man, thus causing the phrase “white saviour complex” to be coined.
I know what you’re thinking. “Here’s another brown woman suffering from an acute case of “ostrich in the sand” syndrome”. Pakistan was after all ranked the third most dangerous country in the world for women, with neighbouring Afghanistan taking the crown for first place. But this trope of the victimised South Asian woman is an exhausted trope. A friend articulated it perfectly when she said “Yes, let’s highlight problems within a culture to grow and learn from. But when those are the only stories that are coming out, it skews the reality and people are left feeling sorry for the whole people and tokenizing the “heroes.””
I don’t claim to speak for all Pakistani women simply because I am one myself. Nor am I denying the pervasiveness of patriarchy which continues to erode women’s rights in that region. I’m merely pointing out that we do in fact have a goldmine of stories which go beyond the trope of victimhood. We are after all human, but our humanity is so easily lost under the glare of the camera lens which shows a crocodile-tear inducing, two-dimensional depiction at best of what life as a South-Asian woman is all about.
If there’s one Pakistani woman who has become the crux of South Asian victimhood and tokenism, it’s Malala Yousufzai.
The instrumentalisation of Malala as the poster girl for oppressed brown women has added a new cut-out figure for them to fit into, beyond the usual cocktail of victimhood and submissiveness.
I won’t get into how she is being used to whitewash and legitimise drone activity in Pakistan. Arundhati Roy articulated it best when she said Malala the individual is brave and incredibly admirable, but the “Malala industry” is something to be weary of. I will however say that as both a Pashtun and a Pakistani woman myself, Malala Yousufzai is certainly not the only vocal Pakistani and Pashtun woman out there as she is often portrayed. With the amount of coverage she generates, you’d think she was a messiah for the masses of helpless Pashtun and Pakistani women. But there are so many of us out there. Not all of us have been given a platform to project our voices as she has, nor are people choosing to hear our voices for that matter.
The Pakistan British colonialists observed as they peered at it through their monocles is one which very much survives in the western films today. In popular imagination, it’s still the land of acid attacks, honour killings and exploding mangoes. There’s no denying the country certainly has its issues. But the Pakistani woman in particular, depicted in films for western viewership is so divorced from the “real” Pakistani woman, whatever she might be.
The Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie spoke about the danger of the single narrative. She said: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” It’s this single narrative, these bundles of stereotypes that we can no longer afford to shatter. We have to collectively rewrite them, in order to make the single narrative one which encompasses all voices rather than one.
For now, we just have to accept the grim truth that unless a Pakistani woman’s life pans out like a Khaled Hosseini novel, that shiny golden statue won’t be gracing our cabinet any time soon.