Gender, Race, Power and The Beguiled

Gender, Race, Power and The Beguiled

How do White women perpetuate gender and racial inequality in film? A new adaption of the 1966 novel and 1971 film, “The Beguiled,” is hitting the silver screen. The original story opens with a limping, dirtied White man, John (also nicknamed “Mr B”), played with relish by Clint Eastwood. The audience knows the violence and lies he’s capable of, as we see flashbacks that contradict his charm. He is an Unionist soldier injured in battle towards the end of the American Civil War. He staggers his way to a secluded boarding school for girls and young women, where he is nursed back to health by the older women, a mixed group of begrudging and bemused ladies who are stifled by their secret desires.

The 2017 version has already built up high praise, with director Sofia Coppola being awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. This is the first time the prestigious award has been given to a woman. Coppola has given an interview to explain why she chose to erase the character of Hallie, a slave woman who features prominently in the original.

“I really thought it was interesting because it was a group of women all living together, all different ages with different stages of maturity, and how they interact. It’s a group of women kind of isolated in the world… I’m definitely attracted to stories about female characters, and characters that I can relate to. I’m interested in stories of groups of women together… At the heart of the story, it’s really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal, but that are sort of heightened in this kind of premise.”

Copolla makes two points in this interview:

* She loves women’s stories (read: White women’s stories).

* By saying she chooses stories that she relates to, and having omitted the only Black woman from her script, she is saying she only relates to White women.

This may seem “natural” to White people: why would a White woman relate to a Black woman character? This logic is how Whiteness works: by taking for granted the power dynamics of race.

Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in 1971) is the sole Black woman character in the original story. Her presence alone would disrupt Coppola’s picturesque vision of gender unity. Her existence as a slave is both a reminder of the violence that White women are capable of, and the violence that is to come. She discusses life as a slave and comments about the racism the other characters throw her way.

White women like Coppola ignore two crucial points. First, White women benefited from slavery. Second, White women today continue to benefit from slavery. For example, being in control of a story set in slave times and removing enslaved women is power. It is an example of White supremacy.

Read more on my blog:


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#sociology #socialscience #socialjustice #equity #inclusion #diversity #poc #slavery #whitefeminism #whiteness #racism #film #history #sofiacoppola #gender #power #race

17 thoughts on “Gender, Race, Power and The Beguiled

  1. Thanks Michael Verona. It’s incredibly disappointing! She might have done something interesting with this character or she could have collaborated with a Black history expert or co-authored with a Black woman scriptwriter to update the character. A true shame. Hallie is an interesting and pivotal figure in the original film adaption.


  2. The contention that white artists can’t (or shouldn’t) explore issues of race, especially racism, doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Coppola’s excuses seem little more than an admission of her own (self-imposed?) limitations as an artist.


  3. George Bratcher Again, complains on poverty, morality , race or immigration won’t help to life up Quality. We need positive strategies including recognizing all humans weakness. I used to act and think like you, as a world traveler for years, I see things from a different and a wider standpoint.


  4. I imagine that she also considered the risk of getting the character wrong and having to deal with all the Spike Lee et al. shaming; it’s a lot easier to disregard a bunch of white academics.


  5. I’ve linked to my commenting policy for a reason: I do not allow my threads to be derailed by hate speech or off-topic comments. This includes George Bratcher Caroline Wu who are in no way discussing anything related to my post, hence I’m removing your comments, which have absolutely nothing to do with the movie and my sociological discussion of representation of race in this film.


  6. KayJay White I’m afraid that DNA sequencing is not the answer to ending racism nor to enhanced representation of Black women in film. Race and racism is not about genes (

    What we do need is for structural patterns of racial inequality to be addressed. In the film industry, it means providing more funding and opportunities for people of colour. It also means White people need to take ownership of their contribution to racial inequality, which includes removing Black characters from stories, whitewashing roles intended for people of colour, and generally becoming better educated and more inclusive in their choices.


  7. Agreed Jason Smith. Coppola made other choices in changing dynamics of the story. She should have recognised her limitations as an artist and brought in writing partners or advisors to help her develop the character of Hallie. She had other options!


  8. Bryana I There’s no risk to being “shamed” if she had done her research, as all directors and scriptwriters must do. She could have worked with people more knowledgeable but instead chose to whitewash a story involving a slave, set in the era of slavery, with a principle character who fought in the Civil War! In the original, the male character and Hallie discuss slavery and she’s central to the plot, as discussed in my blog post.


  9. Jason Smith Do you mean White people when you say target audience? There are other very successful films about slavery and racism that have been watched by White people as well as people of colour. The Beguiled is about the confederacy: “It was precisely this interaction of desolation and Southern confederate femininity that drew Coppola to the project.” Coppola wanted to set a story about the confederacy without slavery. That decision whitewashes history and the original story. The White women in the original were strong supporters of slavery and say so throughout the film!


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