Pop Culture

'A Call To Spy', 'Tenet', And Women Being In On The Action

. 6 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
'A Call To Spy', 'Tenet', And Women Being In On The Action

Cinema has cultivated something so aspirational, something almost seductive, out of a man in action. A man seamlessly blocking off a blow from a bad guy before roundhouse-kicking a second. A man training to be a spy. A man standing in a group of men and taking them through his scheme to execute a dangerous heist.

The only thing that can rev up this aggressively masculine trope is a woman on the side-lines. The helpless-woman is put in danger, and The Man puts saving-the-world on hold to save her. The woman-back-at-home is the only thing keeping The Man going, as he bravely fights off enemies. The lover-woman’s death spurs The Man on a path of angry vengeance.

Where appeal is built around men in action in the form of their strength, skills, and wit, cinema refuses to build appeal in the same way around women in action. Films have continually made it seem like the only way a woman being the protagonist and at the centre of all the action, can be appealing, is by sexualising her in some form, be it through the clothes she wears or the way the camera captures her.   

Considering it all, it’s safe to say that women in cinema have either been at the centre of action that is driven by the male gaze, or have been kept out of it entirely. 

Women’s Role In The Two Latest “War” Movies – ‘A Call To Spy’ And ‘Tenet’

War movies have always represented a reality focused on battalions consisting solely of men (the only appearances by women are usually in the pictures the men keep of their sweethearts back at home, in their pocket).

The most recent release on Amazon Prime Video, A Call to Spy, directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, is based on a true story during the Second World War. It follows a group of female agents who were instrumental in thwarting the Nazi regime in France during World War 2.

It focuses on 3 women most prominently – Virginia Hall, an ambitious woman who becomes a spy for Britain in France and ultimately provides priceless help in defeating the Germans through her spy work; Noor, the first female wireless operator who risks her life by communicating inside information to Britain from France; and Vera, the “spymistress” of Britain’s new spy agency who recruits these women.

All three women face numerous challenges – from being doubted to undermined, especially because of their gender. However, through it all, they stubbornly fight for what they believe in and even rally other women around them to do the same. “I understand sitting on the side-lines seems safe. But you doing nothing is what the Germans are counting on,” Virginia tells a group of women in France. When asked what they can do, her answer is simple – “Resist.”

The film’s credits tell us that Virginia was the only civilian woman awarded with the US Distinguished Service Cross in World War 2, Noor was awarded Britain’s George Cross for refusing to abandon the “most dangerous post in France”, and Vera was honoured by the British and the French.

Their work, while not as glamorous or exciting as most other spy movies we’ve seen, is grounded in real hardships and wins.

The previous week also saw the release of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated, reality and mind-bending film. The film in its essence, is about preventing World War 3 – a fictional war where the future is attacking and attempting to completely destroy the present. The responsibility of preventing this, inevitably, falls on the shoulders of a man, who – look! – is aided by other men, thwarted by other men, and constantly saved, in this crazy Nolan universe, by himself. He is even referred to as The Protagonist.  

The only women in the film are – a scientist who explains Nolan’s world to The Protagonist and the audience in a 5-minute scene, the antagonist’s damsel-in-distress wife whom The Protagonist feels the need to constantly save, one female soldier with two dialogues, and Dimple Kapadia who sometimes shows up and says vaguely intimidating things. 

They’re all plot points that serve to fill the gaps in a plot and action meant for the man. 

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While reality has shown us time and again that even when not allowed on the battlefield, women can and have been integral to shaping our world, films have continued to fail to acknowledge, represent, and encourage this reality.

A Google search of “war movies” throws up a sample of 50 of the most popular films, out of which none are helmed by, and most don’t even involve, women.

A similar search for “spy movies” shows just 4 women-led films in this sample of 50 – Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow, Salt, and Raazi. A Call to Spy would be the latest addition to both these lists.

It’s also interesting to note that the first 3 in the 4 female-driven spy movies – directed by men – seem to be unable to not sexualise their female spy leads. On the other hand, Raazi and A Call to Spy, directed by women, are able to engage with their female leads’ capabilities and trysts with danger without needing to make it look seductive.

Does Women Being Left Out Of The Action In Most Action Movies Hold True For The Action In Real Life As Well?

A friend recently told me about how when the lockdown was implemented and employees laid off, her workplace laid off all the women first. When confronted about it, the managers admitted that the decision to let them go had little to do with any of their performances and more to do with their unshakeable belief that the women would soon be unable to perform. They wanted to avoid the underperformance that would inevitably come with women having to take care of their families and the household while working from home, so they were the “obvious choice” when cuts were made. “We need people who can be active and join a meeting at a moment’s notice,” she mockingly mimicked her manager, with a resentful laugh.

My friend’s situation isn’t a one-off case. The studies and stats all say the same thing – “coronavirus job losses are disproportionately impacting women everywhere”.  

Even before the pandemic, workforces have continually kept women out of the action. Right from the interview process that uses “unsatisfactory” answers to questions like “Do you plan to get married soon?”, “Are your in-laws okay with you working?”, or “Do you have children?”, as justified reasons to not hiring women, to keeping women out of leadership positions in the organisation – women are still constantly on the side-lines of the action at work.

No matter their position, most women have faced situations where their authority in their field will be questioned, their opinions left out of important decision-making, their femininity treated as a weakness or a threat, and generally be excluded, with their vulnerability, emotions, and lack of strength or “sense of humour” cited as viable reasons.

What does all the progress we’ve made mean if ambitious and driven women like Virginia Hall would find themselves in the same predicament of having to work just as hard today to prove themselves in the face of misogyny, as they did in the 1940s?  What does it mean when women still have no useful role to play in a filmmaker’s vision of having to save the world from destruction, in 2020?

Be it at the workplace, or if the world was ending, I believe I and every other woman I know, would be able to contribute something invaluable to the action. What we need is for people in positions of influence and authority – from bosses, political leaders, to filmmakers – to recognise, celebrate, represent, and encourage that.  

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