Using discourse analysis, critically evaluate the ...· Using discourse analysis, critically evaluate

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    Using discourse analysis, critically evaluate the portrayal of gender,

    specifically of the politically violent women, in The Terrorist.


    This essay uses discourse analysis to evaluate the way in which women are portrayed in

    Santosh Sivan's film, 'The Terrorist'. Adopting discourse analysis as a methodological

    technique brings to the fore the subvertion of gendered norms and the fluid and

    dynamic nature of gender discourse. Moreover, this essay has sought to contextualise

    the portrayal of politically violent women in 'The Terrorist' within dominant theoretical

    insights and real-life situations, including the assassination of Indian Prime Minister

    Rajiv Gandhi, upon which the film is loosely based. Malli, the politically violent female

    character, is 'masculinised' through various techniques throughout the film. However, a

    discourse analysis reveals that 'masculinisation' in a male-oriented system does not lead

    to gender equality. The portrayal of gender within the film demonstrates the way in

    which conventional, stereotypical understandings of gender are initially challenged,

    only to be reinforced later in the film. Ultimately, discourse analysis as a theoretical tool

    can be used to provide invaluable insight into the denial of agency to politically violent

    actors, particularly in analyses of politically violent women.

    [I] tried to simply tell the story of a girl fighting for a cause, being brainwashed

    about the future of the country and ending up screwing up her own future

    (Sivan as told to Walsh, 1998).

    A discourse analysis of the 1998 film The Terrorist by Santosh Sivan brings to the

    fore many discussions on gender. In order to contextualise these discussions, we

    must accept gender to be an intersubjective social construction that constantly

    evolves with changing societal perceptions and intentional manipulation

    (Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007: 5). Simply put, discourse analysis is a general

    inquiry into how people make meaning, and make out meaning, in texts. These

    meanings represent particular beliefs and values that define ways of thinking

    about the world (Widdowson, 2007: xv). Discourse analysis as a method may be

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    applied outwith text, to both imagery and film. Critical discourse, according to

    Lazar, is known for its overtly political stance and is concerned with all forms of

    social inequality and injustice (2005: 2). It is with the acknowledgement of such

    concerns that this essay will proceed.

    The film parallels the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by

    female suicide bomber Thenmozhi Rajaratnam in 1991. 19-year-old Malli is

    chosen to assassinate a politician referred to only as the VIP. Throughout her

    weeklong journey, we see a shift in the portrayal of Malli as a politically violent

    woman. This is due in part to the gendered portrayal of individuals surrounding

    her. Whilst recognising the complexities involved in utilising such an approach,

    this essay will use discourse analysis to identify the portrayal of Malli in two

    distinct ways as her character progresses throughout the film. This essay will

    demonstrate that as a woman with politically violent intentions, Malli possess no

    agency, and is an atypical figure within the monster narrative (Sjoberg and

    Gentry, 2007). Later developments within the narrative and shifting gendered

    dynamics show conformity to a stereotypically feminised position.

    Why do discourse analysis?

    Discourse is not simply an entity we can define independently: we can only arrive

    at an understanding of it by analysing sets of relations

    (Fairclough, 2010: 3).

    In order to proceed with a discourse analysis of The Terrorist, one must first

    identify its purpose. According to Jackson (2009), discourse analysis is used to

    identify the relationship between the unit of analysis and the wider socio-

    political context. This essay begins by acknowledging the breadth of

    interdisciplinary research that has developed over the last 40 years. The

    international system remains a world of stark gender inequalities (Steans,

    2006: 4), and a discourse analysis of The Terrorist allows insight into both the

    construction and re-production of such gendered inequalities. This essay will

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    subject The Terrorist to Jacksons (2009) first and second order critique

    identifying contradictions within the film to undermine principal conceptions,

    and further utilising the discourse to reflect upon the wider significance of the

    gendered portrayals within the film.

    The application of an intersectional analysis allows for concepts to be

    understood in a wider context. Davis understands intersectionality to be the

    interaction of multiple identities and experiences of exclusion and

    subordination (2008: 67). Whilst a notoriously ambiguous concept, oftentimes

    it is this flexibility that has led to its successes as a methodological approach

    (Davis, 2008). The intersections between gender, age, and education provide

    insight into the portrayal of Malli as a politically violent woman. Finally,

    attention must be paid to aspects seemingly absent within the film. Discourse

    analysts are primarily interested in studying the process of construction itself,

    how truths emerge, how social realities and identities are built and the

    consequences of these, [rather] than working out what really happened

    (Wetherell, 2001: 16). In The Terrorist, Mallis identity as a masculinised female

    is constructed in a number of ways, which will be explored further in this essay,

    including her willingness to engage in violent behaviour.

    Subverted gender norms and the monster narrative

    Women are not supposed to be violent

    (Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007: 2).

    In the opening sequence of the film, only male voices are heard. Masculine

    prefixes are used until Malli is spoken of, at which point gender-neutral language

    is adopted. By concealing Mallis identity as a woman and surrounding her with

    male voices and faces, the opening sequence perpetuates the sentiment

    articulated in the above quote. Discourse analysis reveals Malli to be a

    masculinised figure possessing traits stereotypically associated with the

    ideal male: bravery, courage, and strength (Sjoberg Cooke and Neal, 2011: 4).

    For instance, after Malli kills the traitor in the opening scene, her female friend

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    tells Malli that she is hero-worshipped, further stating, If you were a man, Id

    marry you. The masculinisation of Malli subverts the norm that whilst war and

    combat have been conventionally viewed as masculine activities, peace has

    been associated with the feminine (Steans, 2006: 4). Malli becomes the anti-

    feminine woman. Thus, we are able to identify discourse to be an active

    construction (Wetherell, 2001: 17) which, in this instance, subverts gendered

    conventions. Within The Terrorist, women are not only both victims and

    perpetrators of political violence; there is also a deconstruction of the

    masculine/feminine and peace/violence binaries (Ahall, 2011).

    Malli is portrayed as a masculinised distortion, possessing character traits that

    the ideal types of womanhood in gender norms exclude (Sjoberg and Gentry,

    2007: 41) as an individual who fits within the monster narrative. According to

    Morrissey, such monsterization denies agency by insisting upon the evil nature

    of the murderess, thus causing her to lose humanity (Morrissey, 2003: 25). With

    such a loss of agency, neither they nor their gender are responsible for their

    actions (Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007: 41). Thus, politically violent women seen as

    monsters are regarded as irrational and possess no agency. In such instances,

    causal factors lead to a loss of humanity. Analysing Mallis experiences in

    conjunction with academic literature (e.g. Sjoberg and Gentry, 2007), we arrive

    at the narrative suggestion that grief leads to insanity.

    Whilst Malli has been masculinised, this is not to say that she is presented as

    equal to her male counterparts. Despite the honour and privilege of sacrificing

    her life for the greater cause, Malli is still within a position of inferiority. She is

    not consulted on any decision-making; her involvement is limited to fittings and

    rehearsals of the assassination. Discourse analysis in this instance reveals the

    way in which gendering has maintained notions of power distribution. The

    camera pans up whenever Malli is listening to the Leader, and looks down upon

    Malli when she is being spoken to. Whats more, the leader of the organisation is

    never named; nor is the father of Mallis potential child, or the faceless VIP

    chosen as the assassination target. The anonymity of several key male figures

    within the film warrants further investigation. This may serve to suggest that

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    Mallis private life is truly private; in this sense, she is conforming to

    conventional notions of femininity and its association with the private sphere.

    Additionally, this may serve as a further example of gendered distributions of


    As Van Dijk remarks, a primary purposes of critical discourse analysis is to

    reveal inequalities in power (1993: 249). As such, the intersections between

    gender, education and age