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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Women must stop being portrayed as damsels in distress on the big screen

It's time the story line changed to give real life figures a chance to break free from damaging preconceptions

Only the prince could wake Aurora up from the spell she was under. Photo courtesy of Disney
Only the prince could wake Aurora up from the spell she was under. Photo courtesy of Disney

As I’ve grown older, one of the fairy tales I’ve come to detest is Sleeping Beauty. The only one who can save the princess is the sword-wielding prince, bursting with testosterone, who chops his way through the forest and liberates our poor heroine with a kiss. She is passive and helpless, with no proactive abilities and cannot save herself, let alone direct a whole story.

Sadly, the tale’s entrenchment in our collective psyche highlights deep-set ideas about the passive secondary nature of women in the grand circle of life. Women should not be heroes, they should be inducements, prizes or catastrophes. Just think of Helen of Troy, who is cast as the cause of war. Or romantic comedies, where the main character is stalked by the relentless male who "wins" her, because he knows better than she does what she wants in her life.

We far too easily accept that all the action happens around men, while women – just like Sleeping Beauty – hang about for things to happen to them. Well, enough with that.

In reality, women need to push for films and other forms of art to reflect the fact that they are leaders in their own lives. Having female role models on screen, in turn, can encourage women, and girls in particular, to believe in themselves and take charge of their own lives. They don’t need to hang about for a hundred years waiting to be saved.

So it is great news that one of the UK’s most popular TV series, Doctor Who, has just announced that after 52 years it is finally casting a woman in its lead role. The “doctor" is an extraterrestrial being, who explores the universe in a time-traveling spaceship called the Tardis (time and relative dimension in space). On the outside it looks like an old blue British police box, but on the inside it is much larger. Every so often, the doctor’s alien life form "regenerates" into a new persona, which has allowed the series to introduce new actors over the decades to play the role.

To my bemusement, the fact that the 13th actor to play a non-gender specific character is a woman, has generated outrage. Because the doctor is a man, the role apparently must be played by a man. This despite being a regenerating time-travelling hero, who lives inside a box that is larger on the inside; but the doctor should not be a woman, because he is written as a man.

Like the prince in Sleeping Beauty, only a man can be in charge and have exciting adventures.

It's mind boggling that even in fiction - and supernatural sci-fi at that - people can't get their heads around a woman. Fighting daleks? Tick. Changing bodies? Tick. But a woman hero? Heaven help us.

We heard the same argument when actor Idris Elba was mooted for the next James Bond. But Bond is a white man. Actually, no, Bond is a fictional anti-hero who wouldn't last five minutes as a spy. What kind of spy introduces himself and then proceeds to seduce his prized possessions? Does this mean that we can accept a devilishly noticeable heart-breaker as a spy, but not a person of colour?

Or can you imagine any of these franchises starring a woman-of-colour hero? The world would end. Or how about a Middle Eastern hijab-clad woman James Bond? Would that throw out every villainous, stereotypical, submissive and oppressed caricature that Hollywood plays on? How uproariously exciting that would be!

It is fantastic to see our norms challenged and the images we have in our head turned upside down. But we also need to see change behind the scenes. Women are still not sufficiently represented behind the camera, treated fairly or equally, and the same applies to people of colour.

We can hope that by shaking up our accepted notions in front of the screen, we can accept such examples more readily behind the screen.

We don’t need to be passive like the Sleeping Beauty and wait to be saved. Instead, I wish she’d slapped down the malevolent female witch-voices that make women think that passivity is their only option. She could have then stolen the prince’s horse and galloped off to start her own Queendom. That’s my kind of action hero.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World