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“Scandalous” Behavior in Women’s Films Essay

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Updated: May 7th, 2021


Portraying scandalous female behavior in cinematography has been done since the early 1900s. Reasons for that differed depending on the storyline of every particular film or setting, but in most cases, this technique was utilized in order to enforce gender norms and exert control over female behavior and sexuality. In early films, rebellious behavior in women was often considered unsavory and typically had negative consequences for the female character in question. This tendency started to change in the 1970s when the rise of second-wave feminism contributed to changes in how society and cinematography perceived women (Rodowick, 2014).

Female characters in these pictures were given more agency as well as reasons to rebel against society for good and justifiable reasons. While the consequences of such rebellions were often negative, these tragedies were used not to control women and force them into docile behavior but to empower them and make the audience sympathize with the heroines and rage against the injustices they face. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on three women’s films and their portrayal of “scandalous” behavior and compare them based on challenges, consequences, as well as social and political factors.

“Meanings are Anchored to the Site of Reading”

This quote is found in an article by Sujata Moori and is used to address the aired titled Fire, which aired in 1991 in India and abroad. The film was equally rejected by the conservative Indian critics, who saw the picture as an endorsement of radical feminism, whereas the progressive western critics found the story to be too bland and anachronistic.

Fire is a story that explores the constraints of patriarchy and arranged marriages as well as the ideas of homosexuality among Indian women. The main heroines are Radha and Sita, who are both wives to husbands that are not interested in being such for them. Sita’s husband disliked the idea of an arranged marriage and ignored his wife in favor of a girlfriend he had, whereas Radha’s husband lost all interest in the woman due to her inability to bear children and instead sought to suppress his desire through religion. Rejected by their husbands, the two women find comfort within one another, which is soon discovered.

The consequences for their actions are quick – Sita is forced out of the house, and Radha follows after, after being hurt by fire. The scene in which Radha is caught in flames after an argument with her husband about how their family should be (Mehta, 1996, 01:40:42) is interpreted differently by critics. Some are claiming that the fire and injury sustained from it symbolize “divine punishment” for sinning, whereas others perceive it, along with abandonment by Radha’s husband, as cutting all ties with the patriarchal world and starting anew, being reborn as a phoenix.

The quote in the article explains the way in which the behavior is seen as “scandalous” in India and in the West. The scene of conflict between Radha and her husband (Mehta, 1996, 01:40:42) about her newfound lesbian relationship signifies defiance of Indian societal norms and regulations. As India shows systematic oppression of women by society and the patriarchy, any view that undermines this oppression is seen not only as scandalous but also as dangerous and terrorist.

In the west, however, this behavior is perceived as outdated, as women have a full agency of expressing themselves sexually. In order to understand Fire, the viewers need to look at it through the eyes of an Indian woman. The wisdom of meanings being defined by time and place is useful when analyzing the scandalous displays in movies such as Carmencita (Library of Congress, 1994) and The Kiss (Library of Congress, 1997).

“Alligators Have the Right Idea”

“Alligators have the right idea – they eat their young.” This quote is from the movie titled Mildred Pierce, which was aired in 1945. It is said by Mildred in relation to her daughter, Veda, whom she learned to be an insidious person who would frame a man in order to get a better life.

Veda is the deviant in Mildred Pierce. Her behavior is unorthodox in that instead of quietly and calmly weather the blows of fate like her mother, she is actively pursuing her goals through any means. As she serves as an antagonist in the story, her actions and character are portrayed in a negative light. As the movie was shot in the 1940s, the perfect image of a woman as a quiet, unambitious housekeeper was considered to be virtuous.

Anything that did not correspond to this ideal (Veda’s behavior) was considered inappropriate and irresponsible. Contrary to the majority of the plots revolving around scandalous women, Veda actually achieves her goals – she becomes rich and relatively famous but does so at the cost of her morality and reputation (Curtiz, 1945, 00:52:00). The quote above illustrates society’s opinion towards such women.

This film depicts the heroines during the great depression. Social and political vibes are strong here, as they are some of the primary motivators of the actions of both female characters in the film. The only difference lies in how they escape from poverty, with Mildred doing so through socially acceptable means, while Veda – through scheming and villainy.

“You’ve Always Been Crazy, this is Just the First Chance You had to Express Yourself.”

The quote in the title is spoken in a road movie titled Thelma and Louise, which explores the story of two women who are faced with some of the worst examples of abuse suffered under patriarchy, which involves rape, fake charges based on gender, and excessive force by police. The story ends with the two choosing freedom over the imprisonment and riding off the edge of the cliff.

The film describes the plight of women that are repressed by society in every meaningful way, from self-expression to sexual orientation to social functioning. The characters’ scandalous behavior is shown as they challenge the existing order of things by resisting arrest and committing other crimes while on the run from a potentially unjust sentence. The consequences of these actions are dire – both characters allegedly die in a crash as they drive off the cliff in the final scene of the movie, which symbolizes a dash for freedom, even if it means death (Scott, 1991, 02:05:00)

Thelma and Louise were made in 1991, back when the situation in the criminal legal system regarding rape was even worse than it is now, with victim-blaming and disregard by the police were rampant. This forms the basis for the actions of the two female heroines, as the chain of events is triggered by these injustices. The themes of independence, agency, and a will to fight, displayed in Thelma and Louise, were followed by a similar movie titled Set it Off, where the opposition to the existing order of things culminated in a bank robbery (Rodowick, 2014).


Curtiz, M. (Director). (1945). Mildred Pierce [Video file]. Web.

Library of Congress. (1994). [Video file]. Web.

Library of Congress. (1997). [Video file]. Web.

Mehta, D. (Director). (1996). [Video file]. Web.

Rodowick, D. (2014). The difficulty of difference: Psychoanalysis, sexual difference, & film theory. New York, NY: Routledge.

Scott, R. (Director). (1991). Thelma and Louise. Web.

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