How to Make a Show about “Liberated” Women. Just Talk Sex, What Else?

Pop Culture

How to Make a Show about “Liberated” Women. Just Talk Sex, What Else?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Submissive or Sexual. These are the two ends of the spectrum that exist for most writers when writing about women or their experiences, anything in the middle appears beyond their gamut of the female. Irrespective of the genre of the story, our lead in a woman-centric show is usually a Sati Savitri or a “Slutty” Savitri. The honest female experience exists between these polar ends but on-screen characters are often divided into these binaries with a clear want of depth. If we really want to give women a platform, why not write their narratives beyond their vaginas?

Netflix’s latest, Bhaag Beanie Bhaag,  gives in to this stereotype. Starring Swara Bhasker, Varun Thakur, Ravi Patel, and Dolly Singh, it is reminiscent of Marvelous Mrs Maisel. Like the original show, the titular character Beanie (Bhasker) is an aspiring stand-up comedian much to the chagrin of her parents and her fiancé Arun (Thakur). On-stage, Beanie rakes up quite the laughter with her comedy set on having sex in the bathroom (a place where Indian women refrain to even pee, she claims). She is characterised by her dead-end job, her affluent and stiff fiancé, and her typically Indian overbearing parents so much so that there is nothing to her character beyond her relationship with the opposite sex. The only trait that is personal and akin to being liberated and “modern” is her sex life. Her very open-mindedness stems from her sexuality.

In that sense, Beanie is a lot like the four veeres from Veere Di Wedding and the besties from Four More Shots Please! In the 2018 movie, the conversation among four friends is dominated by boyfriends, sex, masturbation, condoms, and more boyfriends. In Four More Shots Please!, its lead characters are devoid of profundity and plans of sleeping with other men occupies much of their mental space. They are merely catapulted from the saas-bahu end of the spectrum to the other, where “empowerment” is directly proportional to their sex lives.

On paper, these shows might be centred around women but would they really pass the Bechdel test? 1. Do these films/shows have two or more (named) female characters? 2. Do these characters talk to each other? 3. If so, do they discuss something other than a man?

Sadly, they don’t.

Making a female-fronted show does not necessarily translate to a just representation of women. A modern, Indian woman is often remarked by broken dils, dildos, rebound sex, a devil-may-care attitude all the while carelessly (but carefully choreographed) dangling of a cigarette between her fingers. This excessive and obtuse focus on sexuality alone (sometimes accompanied by tequila shots) doesn’t do justice to women.

During the course of the six episodes of Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, Beanie’s confidant apart from Kapi (Singh) is her fellow stand-up comedian, Ravi. What would have been interesting to watch is the development of their relationship without it being sexual. But alas, it doesn’t. In this show as well, Ravi flirts with Beanie from the get-go and it is only after they have sex that she finds out that his entire sob story with respect to his wife is a fib. She’s then heartbroken and wants nothing to do with him. The problem with narrative development of this kind is that it treats sex as a summit for women, something to aspire to. After their little break-up, she finds herself making out with Arun in his car. Here, once again, she is defined by her relationship with men and it is only they who further her story.

These excessive displays of sex do nothing to boost the narrative or put a magnifying glass on the hardships that accompany this gender; it dilutes them to a voyeuristic fetish. While the portrayal of female sexuality does much to liberate and normalise sex in a country, making characters that are manifestations of only that theme defeats the point of a woman-centric show. It’s no longer about the experience of the women, it’s only about sex.

A whole world of femininity exists in this white space. We know that sex cannot be the only litmus test for female liberation, but when will showrunners learn that?