Friday Feminist Reviews, Movies 14th July, 2023

Intersectionality in Cinema: Films that Challenge Gender Norms (Part I).

Cinema is a mirror to society. It can also be a means to learn about intersectionality in feminism. Our society has caste, class, gender, tribe, ability, age, and various other issues that can be explored only through approaches where we look at each of them in relation to the other. In today’s Friday Feminist Review, we are going to look at five films from India, America, and Iran. This two-part article will follow the journey of multiple issues together to show how cinema can add a lens missing from our daily lives. 

Cinema helps us understand these complex issues better. These films were chosen because of their affinity to feminist messages and their relevance in today’s world. Let us take a deeper dive into cinema that is both enjoyable and educational, looking at the harsh reality but also touching the finer moments of our lives. 


1. 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), directed by Aparna Sen, India, Bangla and English


Original Cinema Double Crown Poster – Movie Film Posters

We begin our journey with Professor Violet, a lonely woman who lives with her cat and teaches Shakespeare to a class of disinterested youth. Jennifer Kendal portrays the character so well that you will be lost in translation and end up rooting and feeling for her. Her life changes when a former student and author boyfriend befriend her to use her apartment for pleasure, writing, and joy. It is a win-win situation as Violet gets a companion and the couple get to have their. This film can be seen through three lenses. The first is Violet herself who seeks her youthful days in her student and finds pleasure and pride in teaching Shakspeare. These get subverted at the end when her only remaining audience is a stray dog. The second lens to look at the film through is the girl student who is breaking gender norms by being sexual with her partner before marriage. We may tend to think that they are using Violet but it is, in fact, the opposite. It is a way of enjoying freedom through one another. The class difference is stark and adherence to the social norms quite murky. 

The class difference is stark and adherence to the social norms quite murky. 

In one way, the young student breaks the norms but once her own relationship is socially enshrined as legitimate, her refusal to invite Violet at a Christmas party sees her upholding the same society’s ageist rules. Violet is not young and vibrant like her other friends. She will stand out in public but the fact that she was a close friend in her private life is not prioritised. This duality creates the third lens, that of the audience who watch Violet walking alone in a street and reciting King Lear to a stray dog at the end of the film. It speaks perfectly to how we do not see older women worthy of joy, pleasure, and sexual beings but someone to pity. Violet is the woman worthy of pity as she walks back betrayed,  realising she was not invited to a party organised by her ‘friends’. It is a cruel lens that leaves Violet not considered worthy of anything but pity and the unconditional but ultimately incomprehensible attentions of a stray dog. 

2. Tangerine (2015), directed by Sean Baker, USA, English


Where 36 Chowringhee Lane ends, is where Tangerine begins. It begins with a friendship of two black transgender sex workers sharing a donut on Christmas eve. Cindy is just out of prison with two dollars in her pockets and meets her best friend Alexandria to talk about her fiancé Chester. She gets to know that Chester was cheating on her and then the entire film goes on a journey that also ends with the two friends, sitting together and sharing a wig this time. Tangerine showcases the power of friendship as none of the protagonists beg for pity or neither they were framed as such. They are shown in their life living with drama. For Cindy, the drama of her life is the core of her existence as she is the firebrand in the film. She explodes with an energy and a rawness of feminist vocabulary of not caring about anyone. Yet we see her trapped in the same way Violet was. She is in love and needs the approval of her fiancé to say that. She dreams of a bigger life and is ready to fight anyone.

Alexandria, on the other hand, is an aspiring singer who even pays a club to let her sing Toyland. She brings the feminist rage only at times when her livelihood is challenged. She is ready to battle out a man when he refuses to pay her for services she provided. The joy of the film is in the finer moments, whether it is the singing at a bar or supporting her friends when they are harassed by passersby. This is the flashpoint of the film, that above all a friendship mixed with kindness is always needed. 

Tangerine showcases the power of friendship as none of the protagonists beg for pity or neither they were framed as such.

Before this incident, they both were seemingly parting ways but decided to share their wig as they shared the donut in the beginning. The film is a complex mix of reality and fantasy. The fantasy world shows both them as being all accepted as they are but in moments of reality they are called names. The film is fantastic in its narration as the actors representing one of the most marginalised populations in the USA–black transgender sex workers–are also the same in their own lives. Killing of black and brown transgender women in the USA is high and the accused rarely get justice, getting away instead with the shield of a ‘gay panic’ defence. Watching the film with this context in mind, one feels like the characters are walking on eggshells. One waits for a tragedy to happen but rather it ends in joy and compassion. It is a must watch to understand the complex racial and gender dynamics of a society that seems to set precedents for others to follow.

What other films have you seen that make you question gender norms and how society polices them? Think about them. See you back here next week for part two of this article!

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