Reel vs real women

March 12, 2023

Misrepresentation of female characters has been pervasive in recent years

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Women have come a long way in the recent decades. Thejourney was not a bed of roses; it was rife with hurdles and backlash over any attempt to close the gender gap. But if the adage ‘the journey is the destination’ is anything to go by, they have made big leaps in terms of forming alliances and demanding their rights.

The youth today owe a lot to the older women who had to stand up for some of rights now taken for granted. Still, there is a long way to go. Many women are still subjectto harassment and discrimination.

Television is a powerful tool for spreading mass awareness. It can shape values and help change opinions. It can shed light on social issues and provide an impetus for the necessary conversations.

It is important to pay close attention to television programming to deconstruct its biases. So, what type of productions are being broadcaston our mainstream media? What themes are they covering? Does the drama industry accurately portray the complex realities of women’s lives? Has it been tainted by the male gaze?

A quick comparison between the plays currently on air and some of the popular plays from a few years ago suggests that the television serials have grown more unrealistic and divorced from the everyday reality.

The mammoth disjuncture between the circumstances and choices of women who surround us and most of the characters in today’s TV serials is immediately noticeable and irksome.

The average women one sees on the street is struggling against odds, working hard, facing discrimination and breaking some barrier or the other. Thereal women are nothing like the damsels in distress on our TV screens.

It is time our playwrights realised that Pakistani women have more pressing matters to attend to than waiting on their doorsteps for their knightsinshiningarmourto come and sweep them off their feet. It is rather unfortunate that, although many women enjoy much more freedom today, the TV plays represent them differently.

Gender stereotypes and sexism still inform the portrayal of women in TV dramas. Sadly, despite having more business, more writers and more actors at their disposal, the entertainment industry still misrepresents women on screen.

Insofar as female representation is concerned, the drama industry has regressed instead of evolving. Unlike the strong and layered characters written by the likes of HaseenaMoin and beautifully executed on-screen, we now have only weak female leads.

Remember Tanhaiyan?The drama serial was all the rage in the late 1980s. It is still considered a classic. The two central characters Zara, played by Shahnaz Shaikh, and Sanya, played by Marina Khan, were strong and fearless. The sisters were unapologetically vocal butnot rude. They carried themselves with utmost grace and poise, mirroring their aunt, Zubi, played by Badar Khalil.

In the play, Zara vows to reclaim her childhood home. To this end she works day and night. She rebels against her sister and her aunt and stands her ground.

The supporting characters too had carried themselves with dignity and self-respect, particularly Vida, played by Yasmeen Ismail, who chooses to walk away from Zain’s life on realizing that he is interested in Zara. Having watched the show only recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see a woman taking on the challenge of investing in a dying business and turning it around.It was refreshing to think that this was shown more than thirty years ago.

Also, the characters in those plays had depth as well as a certain grace that is evidently absent from most of what is currently on air. Today, a typical love story has two main leads, one of those having an obsessed lover willing to go to any length: black magic, conspiracy - you name it. It is a well-worn trope and the viewers are sick of it.

A case in point is Sara from Humsafar.The role is strange and provides no closure. Sara’s character seemed to be framed as a 21st-Century Pakistani woman, or based on the writer’s conception of a woman in contemporary times. Her characterization included Western attire, refusing marriage proposals, working a corporate job and showing no regard for good manners. Framed as a negative character, she meets a tragic end.

Introduced as a woman who lives on her own terms, the character undergoes an unrealistic shift, descending into obsessive fervourfor the male lead. Unfortunately, that is how ‘strong’ women are portrayed in the dramas today. Seen as a threat, they almost always meet a sorry end. So, what is the takeaway?

Another flawed depiction of a modern 21st-Century woman was the role of Asmara from ZindagiGulzarHai. The characterisation is almost laughable for being steeped in stereotypes.

A decade later, not much has changed. We continue to see a problematic portrayal of women on screen. Do we not want to see more relatable characters who do not always dress a certain way; are vocal but not loud or disrespectful; strong-headed but not obsessed, and who aim for something other than ‘getting’ their love?

The writer is a reviewer and critic based in Karachi. She can be reached at

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