From Disney princesses to Devasena: Lessons in feminism

​I’m a feminist. I believe in equality of all people irrespective of their gender, colour, caste, creed or sexual orientation. This is a non exhaustive list but you get the drift. Why am I a feminist, you ask. It’s because I see women everywhere to this day working ten times harder to get even a semblance of recognition, I see them toil and sweat to break glass ceilings that don’t even exist for men, I see them being paid less than men for the same or even more amount of work, I see them being treated as less than men. This makes my blood boil, as it should make yours too.

What adds insult to injury, however, is the fact that little girls all around the world are fed dreams in the form of fairytales during their formative years. Incidentally, they’re taught to wait for their prince charmings to come to their rescue. Be it sleeping beauty or snow white awaiting true love’s kiss to make them open their eyes or be it Cinderella, finding it a more viable option to marry a man she met only once and danced with in order to escape a life of slavery at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. These fairytales have been immortalized in the form of  Disney  movies as well.  Ariel, a mermaid, the quintessential symbol of beauty, gave up her voice and sense of self to pine after a guy who wouldn’t even spare her a second look nor wasted a moment in feasting his eyes on the next beauty that crossed his path.

However, fortunately, winds of change are blowing now. At one hand we got to see Princess Anna being counseled by Queen Elsa as well as Kristoff that she should absolutely not marry a man she just met. Even the definition of an act of love changed from true love’s first kiss by a guy to a sacrifice made my that same Princess so save her sister. We got to see Rapunzel, not needing a prince to help her escape from a tower. No, no, she and her good ol’ trusty frying pan were enough to take out any villain. She had a dream and she chased it. She made it come true, whatever it took. We also got to see Princess Merida competing for her own self and independence against princes in a tournament rewarding her hand to the winner. No sir, no man was good enough for her. These were all very good attempts to nurture young, impressionable minds in the right direction. Way to to, Disney! I haven’t seen Moana yet but I’ve heard she’s a step further in this direction.

Finally, in 2017 came a princess in an Indian movie that broke all notions of what a princess should be like. Thereby, creating new benchmarks of what a princess should be like. I speak of Devasena from Rajamouli’s fantasy epic series titled “Bahubali”.

Devasena was a warrior skilled in various forms of fighting and had mastered a plethora of weapons. She was an archer par excellence, hailed as the best in her kingdom in fact. She wasn’t bogged down with thoughts of choosing a prince to marry and settle down with, rather, she opted to invest her time and skills in alleviating the problems faced by her subjects. She commanded respect. So much so that when she’s left alone to defend herself against an army of intruders, her calm confidence, self assurance and steady nerves showed Bahubali to not mistake her for a damsel in distress but to treat her as an equal warrior. Hence, instead of rescuing her, he taught her a new technique of shooting arrows and they, together, took down the horde of people attacking her. This is what life and companionship is, right? Tackling problems together rather than an alpha protecting its weaker counterpart who relies solely on the benevolence of the alpha.

Furthermore, when faced by a proposal sent by the queen of the biggest, most prosperous kingdom around, Devasena refused it outrightly without any fear of retribution. Queen sivagami sent her countless jewels and gold along with a marriage proposal for her son, one of the princes. Devasena sent back a rebuke stating she can’t be bought by jewels without knowing the worth of the prince, but since his virtues weren’t made known to her, she could not possibly accept the offer. Queen Sivagami had also sent the prince’s sword for Devasena to be married to, as per warrior tradition ladies could get married to a warrior’s sword symbolically. Devasena sent back her sword in response asking the Sivagami to adorn her son in all the jewels and have him marry her sword and sent back to her kingdom, she’d take good care of him. A gutsy move, some say. I say, it was a move for equality. When the prince could not be subjected to such a marriage and her response be deemed a humiliation for him, why should she have been sent such a proposal in the first place.

We see more examples of Devasena’s courage when, in Sivagami’s open court, surrounded by foreigners, far away from her own land, Devasena refused to obey the Queen’s command. She said she would not toe the line and marry a man that the Queen ordered her to without any regard for her own likes, dislikes and opinions. Her stand for what was right made Bahubali go against his own mother and people to stand up for Devasena too. It is true that “tis love, love, love alone that cause King Arthur to leave the throne”, but, it is also true that it was respect for a woman like Devasena that made Bahubali lose his throne without any regret. He’d rather be with a woman of such strength and integrity than sit on a throne.

Then again, while standing in line on a temple’s steps, Devasena saw the commander of the army touching women inappropriately without their consent. What do you think she did? Yes, she sliced off his fingers so he could never again touch a woman like that. When brought to court for this act, bound in chains, she dared to question the governing laws of the land. She stood tall in her defiance of laws that defied sense and logic.

Even twenty five years of imprisonment, torture and humiliation at the hand of her enemies could do nothing to break the spirit of the nighty Devasena. She endured. She bade her time. And she won.
I wish people will take a lesson from her character and indulge in some introspection. I wish filmmakers will dare to create more roles like her so that, for once, if real life tried to ape the reel life, some good could finally come out if it. I wish young ladies all over the world would see her and come to realise their own self worth. I wish the society would realise how to raise not only their daughters but also their sons to be able to respect females. But most of all, I wish young boys from all over the world would see her and know what a woman is. I wish they grow up to become worthy of such women. I wish they grow up to become better people. I wish they grow up to become men.

(image courtesy: protest princesses and Apekshita Solomon)