“– It is possible that the men in prison are not guilty of attacks but is it possible that
the men are guilty of not stopping the attacks?”
We do know that the conditions have been created by men and that these attacks
have been made possible because of the circumstances of the colony.
And, these circumstances have been created and ordained by the men.
It’s the elders’ quest for power that is responsible. Because, they needed
to have those they’d have power over.
– And, they have taught that lesson of power to the boys and men of the colony.
And, the boys have been excellent students.”
– dialogues from the film Women Talking, 2022
The premise of the film Women Talking—where survivors of sexual violence discuss what must be done after they were attacked—is an uncanny representation of how society deals with sexual violence. Directed by Sarah Polley, the film won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2023 Oscar Awards. In the movie, after the attacks, the women go to the police and the elders of their colony. This results in the arrests of some men of whom only a few can be identiﬁed by eye-witnesses because most of the survivors were drugged using animal tranquillisers and hence could not identify their attackers. As the women sit down to take stock of their options, they are aware that soon, the men who were arrested will be let go on bail and nothing will change for the women. There won’t be any justice and there won’t be anyone to protect them from further attacks. This gap in accountability becomes culpable for the propagation of such violence.
The few dialogues from Women Talking mentioned at the beginning are important insofar as they allow us to take a hard look at the conditions which allow for sexual violence to go unchecked in society. Such power centres of patriarchy which allow for sexual violence to go unreported and unpunished, are visible in our legal systems, social systems, and even in how sexual violence is dealt within homes.
As many have argued, one must ﬁrst acknowledge the problem before endeavouring to solve it, Women Talking does exactly that. It spells out the problem in the clearest way possible that sexual violence is not happening in a bubble of a few cruel individuals but in a global context of patriarchy which must change. So, when we talk about rape, we must talk about patriarchy and the decision to control one group’s (women) sexuality and bodies by another group (men). We must talk about how ‘the way things always have been’ and ‘this is how the world works’ are actually convenient deflections which try to wash away the truth of what men in power are doing to women’s lives everyday.
With this understanding of how little men are interested in making the world safer for women and other gender minorities, it begins to become clear how disheartened we feel as a group with men who are choosing to do nothing on a daily basis. As we go on with our lives, how often are we seeing justice and actions to address the causes of violence around us? There is grief here from being let down by our fellow humans who make the choice to allow us to be hurt again and again. There is deep discontent and sometimes even hatred for men. The movie once again displays this sentiment brilliantly in a scene where the women are shown discussing their options for the future. One option is to stay and ﬁght, quite literally with their lives and hence give up their lives; another is to leave the colony entirely and start over elsewhere. Here, one of the women suggests that maybe, they can ask the men to leave instead to which Agata, one of the older women present, played by veteran actor Judith Ivey, says, “None of us has ever asked the men for anything. Not a single thing. Not even for the salt to be passed. Not even for a penny, or a moment alone; or to take the washing in, or to open a curtain; or to go easy on the small yearlings; or to put your hand on the small of my back while I try again for the 12th or 13th time to push a baby out of my body. Isn’t it interesting that the one and only request that we women would have of the men would be for them to leave?”
When an oppressed group is given no right to a voice, when they stop asking for things they need or imagine that they can never have them, perhaps then, we can see how heartbreakingly deep the oppression is. While across groups of women with different amounts of privilege, there will be those who are able to ask for the things they want, but most of the time, we just settle for the idea that “at least he doesn’t…” and you can ﬁll in the blank. Some may have the privilege to say about the men in their lives that “at least he doesn’t hit, rape, leave, cheat on me”, and the list goes on. But many others cannot say the same.
Even those who are able to say this are bartering, or as author Bonnie Burstow in her book Radical Feminist Therapy puts it, “buying protection from men at large at the price of submission to an individual violator,” these basic human rights for many other daily injustices and living diminish lives. This line from Burstow puts in to context the above dialogue as well, that since we have already been granted ‘protection’ (from other men) by the men in the family, asking for anything more makes women seem ungrateful and greedy by men. To be able to ask your spouse to pass the salt, do laundry, or just be gentle seem like daunting tasks and are often fought for even by those who might have spouses who will abide.
I am not speaking to the exceptions here who will say ‘not my husband’ or ‘not my father’; but to the others who have to live this reality. Looking at the collective group of women we will ﬁnd, time and again, that they are unable even to ask for the violence to stop. Because the conditions around them ensure they can’t. When one, then, looks at women’s situation from these perspectives, is it any surprise that there is discontent and hatred for the oppressor?
Author Pauline Harmange in her book on misandry as a political stance, I Hate Men speaks of something very similar. She says, “Ultimately, misandry is a principle of precaution. Having spent so much time being, at best, disappointed and, at worst, abused by men—all the more having absorbed the feminist theory that articulates patriarchy and sexism—it’s quite natural to develop a carapace and stop opening up to the ﬁrst man who comes along and swears on his heart that he’s a really good guy.”
In Agata’s dialogue mentioned above and in Harmange’s views, it starts to become evident that the generational trauma plus the lived experience of women has led us to this point where there is the lifting of the illusion that men are interested in changing anything at all. And, eventually, we must turn only to each other in order to even dream of a different future.
While the women in the movie contemplate leaving the colony and hence the men behind, a debate about the younger boys erupts. Claire Foy’s character, Salome, who has pre-teen and teen sons argues that they are her children and they must go with her. Some others wonder how safe the women will be, if the boys who come with them turn out just like their fathers. They turn to the colony’s schoolteacher, August (the only man asked to attend and quietly take minutes of the meeting), at this point to ask his opinion. His response, which begins with a description of the nature of young boys, is searing. He speaks of something that public discourse barely scratches the surface of. Can young boys be taught differently? It is of great relevance not just as a society to ask this question but more brilliantly highlighted in this movie because there are many women who have sons and many who will be mothers to sons. Is there hope that they can teach them a different way to be? The teacher says,
“… with guidance, ﬁrm love, and patience, these boys are capable of relearning their roles in the colony. I believe in what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought were the cardinal rules of early education. ‘To work by love and so generate love. To habituate the mind to intellectual accuracy and truth. To excite imaginative power.’ He said, ‘little is taught by contest or dispute, everything by sympathy and love.’”
These dialogues are said between interchanging glimpses of the women talking to the teacher and a visual montage of young boys playing in the colony. The mise en scène produces shivers in the viewer, because the teacher speaks of the great amount of violence these boys are capable of but also that they can be taught otherwise. There is a way to not let them become beasts who not only hurt women but also each other.
When I began watching this movie, I knew it wouldn’t be easy for me. It would make me sob and feel deep despair. But I didn’t expect that it could make me feel hope. And, yet it does that.
The word ‘dreamers’ was used in the movie to describe something that can seem so far away that it often seems ephemeral, and that is a hope for change. In a blazing performance, Rooney Mara, who plays the character of Ona, says, “We are women without a voice. We have nothing to return to, even the animals are safer in their homes than we are. All we have are our dreams. So, of course we are dreamers.”
Despite the suffering portrayed in this movie, it does what, to me, seemed impossible, which is to make you hope. It also makes you smile. You watch these ﬁctional women sit down and talk until they choose a way forward for themselves. You watch the youngest of the girls—who were also raped—attend the meeting, but by running around the older women, giggling as they play their games. And witnessing such solidarity, togetherness and tenderness makes you wonder if maybe, we can also do the same for ourselves in the real world.