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A Victory that Feels Like a Loss
Cramming in grrlpower endings to other kinds of stories
So far, I’ve only seen Everything Everywhere All at Once of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. We have Tàr at the top of our list for when there’s a syzygy of “children go to sleep early” and “no grading due.”
(Content note: Women Talking is inspired by the real experience of women in a Mennonite community who were repeatedly drugged and raped by a group of men in their community. They had to choose whether to stay in their homes or leave. The essay discusses the sexual assaults central to the plot and another assault. The part I excerpt below and my discussion of it do not describe any of the assaults).
Gaitskill wrestles with both the film and the book it’s adapted from. The section I quote is from earlier in the essay, and is more negatively inflected about the film than she is by the end of her writing. She was put off by some of the ways the movie flattens the very particular women at the heart of the story.
There are saccharine scenes of the women holding hands and singing hymns intercut with images of beautiful children running in sun-lit fields and lines like “When we’ve liberated ourselves we’ll ask ourselves who we are” (intro portentous music) which sounds like something from an early feminist handbook rather the words of an abused illiterate person who doesn’t know what feminism is and who has never experienced a self that hasn’t been formed by her role in a fanatic patriarchal community with no relation to the outside world. Who, if she did accidentally hear something about asking-oneself-who-one-is on a radio, wouldn’t understand it because 1) in this colony the women speak entirely in an antiquated form of German and 2) because that question only makes sense in a highly individuated society as opposed to a totally and rigidly communal one.
Most contemporary Mennonites do not live like this; I am guessing that they would find it hard to fully grasp what it would be like to live this way. For the secular people who made this movie, how could it be other than near-impossible? I can readily believe that the women of the colony would be complexly intelligent, highly verbal and subtle. But I question that they would express themselves in ways so “relatable” to urban feminists accustomed to societies that prize individuality, whether or not said urban feminists are in rebellion against such prizing.
I really appreciate her essay, both as a way of asking what is due in justice to the women whose story is being told, and as a way of asking how to respond to stories that don’t achieve the same catharsis we want or expect.
Several years ago,reviewed Six, the musical that casts Henry VIII’s wives as rival pop divas (you… just have to go with it). She noted that Catherine of Aragon’s song is framed as a defiant “You can’t get rid of me” number, when, in fact, Henry did.
This song could actually work, could be poignant and complex, if it were taken in a harder and sadder direction. What if Catherine holds on to the belief that no matter what happens in the world of men, she is married to Henry and that bond is one not even the King has the power to break? If only the song had let her admit that he got rid of her quite effectively in the world’s eyes, but that they were bound together ’til death in the eyes of God. That could give you a wrenching triumph when she predeceases Henry (this I had to look up) and is finally free. It could also give a spin on the show’s insistence that the women are more than just their common bond as Henry’s wives: Her bond to Henry did define her life, as she said, even in the face of Henry’s insistence that it didn’t.
By the end of the show, however, the musical imagines the queens all changing their story and… forming a triumphant girl group (again, go with it). Catherine explicitly chooses what in history she rejected—she joins a convent rather than marry:
He got down on one knee, but I said “No way”
Packed my bags and moved into a n-n-nunnery
Joined the gospel choir, our riffs were on fire
At the top of the charts is where I'm gonna stay
As Eve put it:
[It’s] asking me to feel good about a thing that never happened and wouldn’t be anything more than mere worldly success if it had. If worldly success is the measure then Henry wins. Don’t play that game, girl!
This left me casting around for stories that show a real loss in the eyes of the world and a victory won outside worldly measure. Most of them were about martyrdom.
There’s A Hidden Life, about Bl. Franz Jägerstätter, who was executed for his resistance to the Nazis. Notably, his defiance wasn’t a cinematic act of active resistance, but a refusal to cooperate with conscription.
Of Gods and Men is structurally similar to Women Talking, in that a single-sex community must confer together and make a choice about staying or leaving. For the Trappist brothers in war-torn Algeria, their choice is about whether to return to France or stay embedded in their community, where they will be a particular target for violence.
I think both films do an excellent job showing a countercultural life, which would be (and for the Trappists is) a witness, a martyrion without a literal martyrdom being necessary. It’s particularly true of A Hidden Life, where his wife Franziska undergoes a parallel trial. She is not threatened with execution, but her community shuns her and her children for their non-compliance with the Nazi regime. There’s no finale to her story, just the ongoing drudgery of doing the right thing, over and over, with the cost coming by inches.
These are all stories where the protagonists are embedded in a culture they clash with. But for Six and Women Talking, we’re peeping into a world that differs (at least hypothetically) with our own, and so the clash isn’t explicit.
Which leaves me a little curious about what the version of Women Talking made by Robert Eggers (of The Northman and The VVitch). Eggers approached The Northman by trying to make a Viking movie, not a movie about Vikings. And all the reviews and discussion I saw implied he succeeded, insofar as the movie is alienating—Amleth’s idea of a good life is not ours, and his view is presented without irony or commentary to the audience.
I doubt I would enjoy Egger’s Women Talking, but I’d be very curious to watch it alongside the movie that actually exists and to see what a movie that tried to inhabit the Mennonite women’s point of view, more than just their circumstances might be.