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 explains why she chose to erase the character of Hallie, a slave woman who features prominently in the original. I emphasise Whiteness in her language below. Whiteness is a concept describing how White people don’t acknowledge how their race is central to their worldviews and contributes to racial oppression:
“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 new American webseries Ask A Slave provides a highly amusing critique of racist ignorance. It draws on the experiences of actress Azie Mira Dungey (who plays the main character Lizzie Mae). Dungey worked as a living history character at an American historical re-enactment site. The comedy centres on the ridiculous questions posed by members of the public whilst Dungey portrayed an 18th Century slave.
Historian Emmanuel Dabney also worked as a living history character, similarly playing a slave. Like Dungey, Dabney also received many preposterous questions about the lives of slaves. On his blog, he gives a careful critique of Ask A Slave, arguing that his tact was to educate, rather than to succumb to flippant or sarcastic remarks.
He provides a useful list of intelligent questions that “always need an answer.” This includes: “Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War? Can you tell me about your family? When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?”
The entire webseries is worth a watch (three episodes so far), but a really great sociological discussion is better served by carefully going through Dabney’s post.
Public education is always hard. When it is clever, satire has subversive power to make people think. Social science has greater capacity to disrupt taken for granted assumptions as well as to dispel ignorance. Our challenge is to be both educational, critical and entertaining if we are going to reach mass audiences. Dabney’s post provides a terrific starting point.
Barron Lerner reports how, over time, scientists have protested the fact that three statues were built to commemorate gynecologist Marion Sims (in South Carolina, Alabama and New York City in the USA), but none have been built to acknowledge the sacrifice of his three main “test subjects” Lucy, Anarcha and Betsy.
“The story of J. Marion Sims is a reminder of how history gets rewritten over time. The hope, of course, is that each new account gets closer to the truth”.
Similarly, the history of the clinical trials for the oral contraceptive pill were tested on poor women in a small town in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. The women were deceived about their participation in the trial. They not told about the possible side effects of the untested drug. They did not give their informed consent. Many women died and had ongoing health complications as a result of the trials.
Today, many women in Western nations benefit from the experiments conducted on poor, enslaved and disempowered Black and Brown women, but few people know about the women whose health was compromised as a result. Additionally, for all the past sacrifices, poor women are less likely to benefit from scientific trials.
While Sims’ experiments have been attributed to the eradication of vesicovaginal fistulas in advanced countries, this is still a major problem for 3.5 million women in developing nations, particularly in different countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The argument that unethical practices of the past might be excused for their present-day benefits is wilfully ignorant of the reality of who didn’t benefit back then and who hasn’t benefited today. In particular, impoverished Black women and other women of colour.