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“The Woman” and Her Manifestation in Literature and Media

Updated: Apr 28

Simone de Beauvoir says of femininity, “Thus, as against the dispersed, contingent, and multiple existences of actual women, the mythical thought opposed the Eternal Feminie, unique and changeless. If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behaviour of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that the women concerned are not feminine.”

When we turn to the internet for everything, it should not come as a surprise that women, especially young girls, turn to the internet to define the concept of femininity in their contemporary era. Fads and micro-trends catch on so quickly because of women’s — often desperate — attempts to assimilate into the Feminine. Here, I use “assimilate”, because when held in front of a woman, Femininity is less a mirror and more a magazine page taped to the wall, telling her what “The Woman” is like, and leaving her to analyse how close she (as an individual, living, breathing, and to a certain extent, flawed woman) is to that image.

The Woman is a myth. The Woman is an ideal image, the kind that exists in Plato’s writings, and in seeing that ideal image, women, the un-capital-W women reduce themselves to mere mimesis. They look for ways to “ascend” closer to her pedestal.

And where better to find The Woman than in larger-than-life art that is the media?

Art imitates life. Art — in the form of words, pictures, music, and other mediums — is man’s window into his history, culture, and society. He turns to art in the process of formulating his identity. In the era of the big screen, it is natural that the representation of communities in media is a part of the formulation of identity. The most susceptible to this practice is the young people on the internet, connected to the whole world through their devices, where they have access to different styles of expression, thought processes, and ideologies — all at the tap of a screen. It is when considering this that the power of representation is realised.

The characters in books and on screens have become ideals for people to follow; this applies especially to women, who are constantly conditioned to feel the need to look “desirable”, “pretty”, “sexy”, and all the other adjectives that can be found, and then bombarded, at every turn, with methods to achieve it. Media, whether it be in the form of the written word or the characters on screen, becomes a conduit of conditioning and a vehicle through which the introduction of a new trend becomes instantaneous. In an attempt to fit in, young girls often internalise these media standards and succumb to the beckoning of the consumerist practice of selling identity.

Rayne Fisher-Quann writes: “It’s become very common for women online to express their identities through an artfully curated list of the things they consume, or aspire to consume — and because young women are conditioned to believe that their identities are defined almost entirely by their neuroses… The aesthetics of consumption have (…) become a conduit to make the self more easily consumable: your existence as a Type of Girl has almost nothing to do with whether you actually read joan didion or wear miu miu, and everything to do with whether you want to be seen as the type of person who would.”

This desire to be the kind of person who would do something — like listen to Lana Del Rey, or wear leather and heeled boots and smoke and seduce men by just existing — leads to the formation, and the subsequent pigeonholing, of women into various tropes. While we can argue that The Woman herself is a trope, she is not a trope that prescribes in a concrete sense. If The Woman is the ideal form, then the woman of the trope is the best possible alternative on earth. And, for added fun, there are several options in tropes to choose from. It’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet!

Every trope is formed through the perception of a woman through different lenses.

  1. The “mean girl” is the perception of an arrogant, condescending woman in the eyes of other women. Examples in books are Caroline Bingley, Genevieve Michell, Veronica Lodge, Rebecca de Winter, and more. In movies, the famous Regina George, Jennifer Check, Marianne Bryant, and more.

  2. The “good girl”, on the other hand, leans more towards the sexual expectations of men to “bed” an innocent, naive, virginal “girl”, as a sort of rite of passage. Several 21st-century protagonists of high school romances are portrayed as such — Lara Jean Covey, Isabel “Belly” Conklin, the Lisbon sisters, Naoko from “Norwegian Wood”, and more.

  3. The “manic pixie dream girl” presents a larger-than-life woman who is whimsical, quirky, and most importantly, exists only for the male protagonist’s character development. Alaska Young from “Looking for Alaska”, Midori Kobayashi from “Norwegian Wood”, Claire Colburn in “Elizabethtown”, Clementine Kruczynski from “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, and more.

At the bottom of it, however, all of these tropes, even if they might appear unrelated to men on the surface, are run by the patriarchal lens, which affects not just the formation of the female characters but also the male characters.

These tropes are just two of the countless that exist. The compartmentalisation and subsequent prescriptivism regarding The Woman’s image in the media industry is an age-old problem. However, there is no denying that with changing times — the era of ideologies taking root and forming a solid foundation — the tropes that emerged out of a desire to “define” the woman have been captured and reclaimed by women, and then employed as a way to reclaim the diversity and nuances of their identity.


Mrunal Rajadhyaksha is a student currently studying English Literature in Ruia College. She is passionate about reading, art and history, and the sea. She plays the guitar as a hobby.

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