By Eve Mitchell |
As people all over the country are watching films like Get Out, Lady Bird and The Shape of Water win multiple Golden Globe awards, LA Critics awards, and Oscar nominations, we must ask ourselves what these films are saying about popular consciousness and our society.
Overall, 2017 was a shitty year. Trump’s inauguration (and Bannon’s seven months as Trump’s strategist) marked the far right’s solidification in official society. People all over the globe have been attacked on multiple fronts, from the deepening proxy war in Syria to Heather Heyer’s death at the hands of a white supremacist in Virginia. On the other hand, Kurdish and Catalonian independence movements have renewed hope; brave militants struck back at J20 and have been slowly getting cases against them dropped; the women’s march drew out half a million people, airport standoffs (notably supported by taxi unions) used civil disobedience and legal strategies to block Trump’s “Muslim Ban;” we saw militant uprisings in Argentina; thousands of women came forward to call out their abusers and share stories of gendered violence via #MeToo; dozens of racist statues and other symbols of white supremacy were forcibly removed across the country. There were countless other acts of bravery in the past year. We find ourselves in an era of wild contradictions and crisis.
How does popular culture reflect these broader shifts in society, and the continually unfolding economic downturn? Hollywood is largely made up of neoliberal screenwriters who champion individualist, bootstraps sentiments like those prevalent in Hidden Figures, Wonder Woman, and The Post. These films emerge out of a kind of desperation in popular consciousness for more liberatory themes / representations. Hidden Figures rightly credits black women for having the intelligence and skills to accomplish tasks beyond what is possible; yet in the film there are only a select talented few who can raise themselves up as (almost) equals with the white men around them and the hard limits of an increasingly automated society are wholly glossed over. Wonder Woman reminds us that women are stronger, more competent, and ya, much more beautiful, than men; but still, a story centered around an isolated super-human individual achieving greatness reeks of capitalist mythology (bourgeois ideology “presupposes an abstract––isolated––human individual”). The Post communicates our collective mistrust of elected officials, and the need for democratic oversight; however, everyday people are not extended this role, it still must be done by those with the authority and “specialized skills” to do so.
Most films hold this contradictory consciousness as a reflection of our moment of crisis, but some, more than others, illuminate revolutionary themes that express our collective alienation under capitalism and the human yearning to be free. Below are some of my favorite films of 2017 that tap into these liberatory sentiments.
Much has been written about 2017’s best film, Get Out. Many have argued that Get Out expresses contemporary black lived experiences in subtle and direct forms, from interpersonal micro-aggressions to systemic white supremacist violence (and the direct connections between the two). Chris, a talented black photographer visits the family home of his white girlfriend, Rose, in suburban upstate New York––against the warnings of his best friend, Rod. The other black people who Chris encounters upstate have a robotic / Stepford Wives quality to them and don’t react to Chris’ attempts to share black cultural social cues.
On his first night in the house, Chris is hypnotized by Rose’s mother and sent to a “sunken place” where he is no longer in control of his body but can see from afar the things he is being made to do. Rose’s mother pushes him into the sunken place by forcing him to relive his darkest memories, his own mother’s death and his deep-seeded belief that it was his fault (she bled to death in the street while he sat watching TV).
Throughout the film there are foreboding subtleties that build the racial tension: early on, we encounter an explicitly racist cop and grow to question Rose’s well meaning but potentially dangerous interventions. An implicit link is made between deer overpopulation and black genocide. Chris is called “boy,” and “my man” and comments are made about it being a “privilege to be able to take part in someone else’s culture,” and about Chris’ “genetic makeup” and ability to be a “beast” fighter, and that “black is in fashion,” etc. Chris’ racial othering is evoked in nearly every scene.
As the story unfolds, Chris is auctioned off to a blind art dealer who will use Chris’ body, and his eyes in particular, via brain transplant. Chris realizes he is not the first black person to be colonized in this way; he learns that his experience is part of a larger conspiracy with aging white people warding off death by taking over black peoples’ bodies. Here, white subjectivity becomes a literal negation of black people’s life force. As Chris discovers this fact, his friend Rod uncovers the plot and comes to get him. In the end, Chris escapes, killing Rose’s family. He refuses to leave one of the black servants to die in the street but decides to leave Rose in that state––not dead but dying and bleeding out. This is significant because it was the state in which Chris’ mother died. He makes a deliberate choice to do the worst thing he can possibly think of to Rose; it is racial revenge in its sweetest form.
Director Jordan Peele blends horror, comedy and thriller, referencing a variety of films, including most notably, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Stepford Wives, updating their political content. By constructing a horror story about the theft of black lives in the liberal suburbs, the film makes an explicit critique of so-called “post-racial” society and liberal white supremacy. It uncovers the shady racism, anchored to explicit and systemic white supremacy, that permeates the everyday life of black people in the U.S. There are many increasing examples of hardcore, direct white supremacists. However, the white supremacist structures which would remain under President Oprah Winfrey, for example, are equally dangerous for black people in America, even they are not as flagrant as confederate flags and Nazi salutes. Get Out gestures at this. Before Chris figures out what is going on, and as Rod is investigating what’s happening, it is implicit that there are some black upper class, or upwardly mobile, people who have “internalized” whiteness, engaging with white people in ways that they would not if their primary community was working class black people. Chris is weirded out by the other black people in Rose’s family’s social circles, but it isn’t until he actually recognizes one of them that he entertains the idea that they are being controlled. So the film contains a warning: don’t get caught up in white people world, because you will lose yourself in the process and become part of the system that oppresses you and others like you.
Get Out is a brilliant example of the horror of the everyday we experience in our moment. It illuminates a master-slave dialectic––white people absorb black people’s essence, longing to physically embody black people, while at the same time destroying black people’s very existence. Afro-pessimists define this experience as “social death,” a lack of access to full humanity, historically rooted in slavery. Similarly, Fanon describes an objectification where a black person exists only for a white person’s use. White people find their subjectivity (meaning their ability to decidedly act upon the world around them) through the negation of black people; through absorbing their human creative potential. This process is quite literal in Get Out, as Chris is being auctioned off not only because “black is in fashion,” (fashion being a form of labor) but because of his photography talents. Similarly, the sunken place expresses what Fanon conceives as “triple consciousness.” From this space, Chris watches his oppressors watch him; he is acutely aware of his reduction to an object, and he is unable to intervene. These are the material conditions of racialized capitalism: black people (young men in particular) are imprisoned en masse, un- and under-employed, murdered in the streets by police and other white supremacist forces. The economic crisis is deepening and continues to slough off the most devalued, abject layers of society. This everyday horror can feel like being buried alive, isolated in a hole, a dark and depressed underworld where you lie suspended and frozen.
It is interesting that Peele chose to end the film on a hopeful note (he entertained other, more pessimistic endings). Through violence, Chris is able to reclaim his subjectivity, something that Fanon argues for in Wretched of the Earth. This implies that a fight and struggle is necessary, and that it is possible for black people to assert their humanity and be victorious. This tug of war between pessimism and optimism very much represents today’s social consciousness. On the one hand, today’s fractured and precarious working class lacks a clear “common interest,” and a clear political vanguard (in the way that Black Power organically rose to the forefront of class struggle in the 1960s); on the other hand, we are pressed to seek out global struggles that pose new and interesting solutions to the class formation problem. Similarly, the debate between afro-pessimism and black optimism highlights this black negation and potentials for the negation of black negation. Get Out simultaneously holds both sides of this debate, highlighting nihilistic and gross social death alongside a sense of comic hope.
The Florida Project
Sean Baker, co-creator of my favorite film from 2015, Tangerine, is back on my list this year with The Florida Project. The film is aesthetically similar to Tangerine, and other films set in the southern coasts, like Moonlight, with beautifully warm colors and hues contrasted with blue skies and pops of tackily painted buildings and summer clothes (the motel they live in, the Magic Castle, is bright purple). The story follows six year old Moonee and her mother Halley, who live in an extremely poor community of pay-by-the-week motel strips in the shadow of the theme park industry, most notably Walt Disney World. Moonee’s summer vacation includes stomping around the motels with her two best friends, Scooty and Jancey, and getting into trouble, from spitting on cars, to cursing at adults, to cutting the motel’s power. Eventually, the trio accidentally sets fire to an abandoned motel in the area. Moonee’s mom, Halley, is unemployed and has a record, so she spends her days re-selling perfume and stolen goods. At night, she hangs out with her best friend (and Scooty’s mom), Ashley. The two have a close relationship and provide mutual aid for one another––Halley watching the kids during the day, and Ashley giving them lunch out of the back door to her work. However, after the arson incident, Ashley forbids Scooty from hanging out with Moonee and Jancey, and turns a cold shoulder to Halley. Halley ends up violently attacking Ashley, bruising and swelling up her face. Short on money, Halley turns to sex work. Meanwhile, the motel manager, Bobby, plays a protective fatherly role around the motel, loosely enforcing rules, fixing and upgrading the premises, shouldering the blame when things go wrong, silently watching over everyone through security cameras, and even chasing a creepy potential pedophile off the grounds.
The climax of the film comes when Child Protective Services (CPS) comes to take Moonee away from Halley. Halley assumes that Ashley called CPS on her but the social worker mentions that they had video footage of men going into Halley’s room, hinting that it may have been Bobby that called CPS (it is unclear!). As the social worker attempts to take Moonee away, she runs to Jancey’s motel room and starts crying. This is the first time we are given a close up of Moonee and despite all the hardships she experiences, it is the first time she cries. She has none of her usual loudmouthed curses and wit, but instead melts into pure and helpless childhood. Suddenly, the film is emotional, if still a bit campy. There is a clear shift in cinematography, camera angles / movement, music, and tone. Jancey grabs Moonee’s hand and the pair run to Walt Disney World. The end.
The community and setting highlighted in The Florida Project is probably its most interesting aspect. Most of the people in the community are white but many are brown and black. Similar to Tangerine, there is a sense of solidarity across racial lines that only abject poverty can foster. The backdrop of Walt Disney World highlights differences in meaning that certain symbols hold for people of different class positions . Walt Disney World is typically seen as a child’s dreamland, the highest attainable form of unrestricted childhood imagination and creativity––a literal “Magic Kingdom.” In contrast, for Moonee, the myth of happily ever after is utterly unobtainable, and the “Magic Kingdom” provides the context for her and her mother’s exploitation. It is a modern day de-industrialization tale: capital continually sheds workers from the production process via automation, building the surplus workforce as a pool of people to compete with each other, driving down wages and chipping away at the gains of the workers’ movements that came before them. But in an era marked by a crisis of social reproduction, un- and under-employment becomes an objective phenomenon of working class life, and expulsion from the workforce means cycling in and out of service jobs and one-off gigs. For some, like Halley, it means sliding into the informal economy. Disney World represents the creative potential of humans, fetishized and crystallized into an expensive as hell commodity, a spectacle, a distorted echo, of what we are capable of, warped in the in interest of capital (the more we produce the more immiserated we become). Moonee’s story cuts through this fetishization and reveals these social relations for what they really are: exploitative, oppressive and alienated.
At the same time, Baker does not flatten the characters into one-sided misery. Moonee strikes the audience as an incredibly happy child, laughing and running and playing around in nearly every scene (even if she engages in activity that bourgeois culture would consider dangerous or immoral). All the characters are afforded a sense of creativity and resiliency. Halley and Mooney have a lot of fun together, taking “swimsuit selfies,” playing in the rain, hustling for cash, and talking shit about everything around them. Halley screams and protests at injustices, and seeks revenge every time she is wronged. In one scene, she is discriminated against at another motel (presumably for being poor) and pours her soda all over the lobby. In another, she sticks her used menstrual pad on the glass to the Magic Castle lobby. She mocks a John that comes to her to collect property she stole from him. In many instances, both Halley and Moonee make trouble for their enemies, brushing just at the edge of what they know they can get away with. This is definition of militancy: pushing your tactics to the edge of what it possible in the moment.
Their “chosen” motel family is creative and looks out for each other, even if they also do terrible things to one another. This contradictory behavior reflects relations that have broken out of a nuclear family model. For example, the patriarch Bobby character is protective and caring on the one hand, but also toes a paternalistic line and clarifies his class position as motel manager anytime fault lines emerge. As mentioned above, it is unclear if he is the one who called CPS on Halley but either way, he provided the footage and silently stands by as police and social workers enforce the state’s hand upon the motel community.
The Florida Project illuminates many layers of complex and interrelated relations under the capitalist crisis of social reproduction, articulating it in a raw and direct sense. Don’t sleep on this one.
This beautiful documentary describes the life and career of singer Chavela Vargas, supplementing interviews and performances with some nearly-lost footage shot by the film’s co-director, Catherine Gund. I had the opportunity to go to a talkback with Gund and learned that she left New York City for Mexico in 1991, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. After watching many of her friends die, and helping to build the more militant wing of ACT UP, Gund left in search of space to rebuild herself and mourn her losses. She found a group of lesbians who rallied around an elderly Chavela Vargas, who was just beginning a career revival. Well into her seventies, Chavela maintained a sexually-infused swagger that enticed the young women around her––i.e. she’s super hot, confident and flirty.
Chavela, as Gund mentioned, is either a household name or a complete unknown. For many, her voice evokes nostalgia and longing. The film communicates these feelings for those of us who did not grow up hearing her voice. The first wave of her career began in the 1950s, when she made a name for herself with her deep and sultry voice that drips with haunted passion, heartache, and force. She was the first woman to sing traditionally male ranchera folk music, and she did so wearing pants and a poncho. While she was not officially out until the 1990’s, her lesbian sexuality was common knowledge, and she had a relationship with Frida Kahlo. This illuminates an interesting and contradictory relationship with sexuality that many queers in the Global South face: communal acceptance is available but only under a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Joseph M. Carrier points out in his exploration of Mexican gay youth, “When acceptance or accommodation occurs … gay youth and their families often cope with the problem by using a conspiracy of silence about homosexuality” (230). This is related to Western individualism: in sharply developed capitalist countries like the United States, social acts of labor, like who we have sex with, are flattened and crystallized into one-sided “identities” that express our alienation under capitalism. As John D’Emilio argues, capitalism creates the conditions for sex acts to become gay identity. Because of this, and the uneven development of capitalism globally, many areas of the Global South have withheld a sense of feudal kinship that takes priority over individual identities. For example, there is a rich history of indigenous acceptance of queer people in Mexico, Central and Latin America, and many 1940s-1960s Mexican writers, activists, artists, etc., acted on same-sex desire, even if the form of “out and proud” LGBTQ people did not quite match up. In this tradition, Chavela was able to rise to fame and have semi-public lesbian relationships, while not finding the need to explicitly name these aspects of herself until very late in her life.
By the early 1970s, Chavela’s alcoholism spun out of control and she largely disappeared from the limelight for over two decades. In this time, many of her fans assumed she was dead. But she did not let alcoholism seal her fate. Chavela’s former longterm partner, Alicia, describes leaving Chavela after Chavela physically attacked her. Alicia drew a line in the sand that pushed Chavela toward sobriety for good. This gave Chavela the drive and ability to perform again, launching the second wave of her career.
Though this culminating chapter of Chavela’s life constitutes the climax of the film, it was nearly lost. Apparently, the filmmakers were unaware of Alicia until a translator asked why she wasn’t interviewed. The film crew scrambled to add Alicia’s story, working past the official production deadline. This aspect of the story is incredibly important, as it bares Chavela’s contradictions. She embodies a deeply human, vulnerable and empathy-producing humanity through her music and struggles with alcoholism. But she is also a dark villainous figure, capable of horrible and unforgivable things. The film is structured in relation to this complexity, adding layers and dragging the audience back and forth between empathy and mistrust. I was impressed with the way the film made sense of Chavela’s duality, exhibiting a sharp understanding of the relationship (or lack thereof) between substance abuse and intimate partner violence.
In the end, Chavela sings until her body gives out; it is her wish to die singing, and she comes very close. The film leaves you with a sense of perseverance and passion, and some hope for the creative capacities of humans. We are all contradictory. We make choices and interact with our environments in ways that are harmful and helpful, but if we are able to create and share with others in ways that move us and enrich us, we will find a beacon of hope for something new, un-alienated, directly social. It is through this directly social labor that we find the kernel of a new society. We grasp at these relationships in fleeting moments at Tahir Square and highway blockades, in Ferguson and Rojava. Collective ways of relating to one another directly, unmediated by value (or rather, in attempt to negate the value-form), are what it means to move through contradictory times in favor of communization.
The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro’s most recent film is my pick for the classic queer love story of the year. Set in Baltimore in 1962, Elisa is a mute custodian in a classified government marine laboratory. The lab captures a creature from off the coast of somewhere in South America. The creature, we learn, is amphibious and extremely intelligent. “He” (apparently cis, and only otherwise referred to as “The Asset”) is physically beaten and tortured by the violent villain, Richard Strickland. Strickland seeks to use The Asset as a weapon or tool for use in the Cold War; as a figure, he represents the horror of patriarchal and militarized state power. Simultaneously, a Russian spy-scientist seeks to extract The Asset for the USSR, while facing moral dilemmas about the creature’s conditions of confinement and the final decision to put him to death. Elisa teams up with the spy, along with her two besties, Zelda and Giles, to bust The Asset out of the lab and take them to her home. All the while, a love story ensues between Elisa and The Asset, culminating in a fantastical sex scene in Elise’s makeshift bathroom water tank, and a lip synced music and dance number (love the camp!). The film is a nod to the ‘50s classic, The Creature of the Black Lagoon, though infused with some important political updates.
The Shape of Water is a super simple queer love story with many more complex yet palatable themes mirroring key issues of the contemporary moment, including monstrosity / otherness, ally politics, toxic masculinity, colonialism and imperialism, and distrust of / lack of faith in the state.
Queerness is a question of belonging to a marginalized or othered sexual and / or gender identity. In this sense, The Asset, in his cross-species sexual and romantic relationship is a queer character. M. Mendez writes about the connection between monstrosity and queerness, arguing that hir “definition of ‘queer’ presupposes a rebellion and dissention to capitalist exploitation. Such subjects have always been described as monstrous, both literally and figuratively … [M]onstrosity, for working class queers, women and people of color, is no mere metaphor. There is a materiality to being an oppressed, objectified being…”
Similarly, Che Gossett offers some interesting perspectives on species and racial oppression (or more specifically, black death). They argue that given the literal dehumanization black people experience under capitalism, species dominance (caging and killing animals) is intimately connected to racial dominance and white supremacy. From this, they conclude that liberation struggles for both black people and animals are intimately connected. What appears as a strange romantic union in The Shape of Water can be broadened out to a critique of animal, racial and gender domination within capitalist society, and the potential for struggles against it. Mendez comments on the communist potential, the “possibility” of monstrosity: “Monsters are dangerous because they operate through a desire that conjures a thirst to live beyond the horizon because and despite of the confines of civil society.” In The Shape of Water, The Asset consistently defends himself, biting off three of Strickland’s fingers (notably including the one wearing his wedding ring), and seeks to assert his subjectivity throughout.
As a disabled woman, Elisa’s character also evokes the othered subject. At one point, in describing her feelings for the The Asset, she says, “He doesn’t see me as incomplete.” Like Chris from Get Out, she possesses triple consciousness: she is acutely away of herself as an othered object, and is paradoxically forced, in her everyday life, to reproduce her own othering. But again, there is possibility and liberatory potential within the lived experienced of oppressed beings. Elisa is sexually harassed by Strickland but triumphs over him, planning and leading a guerilla raid on a militarized facility and liberating The Asset. At one point, she signs “F-U-C-K Y-O-U” over and over again directly to Strickland’s face while he cannot understand her.
Contributing to its contestatory stance, the characters in The Shape of Water form a sort of rainbow coalition in solidarity with the Asset. Elisa is a mute white woman, Zelda is a black woman, Giles is a gay white man, and the Russian spy-scientist is an immigrant. After some convincing, the group bands together to free, care for, and protect The Asset. The acts and risks these three take on demark the difference between ally politics and revolutionary solidarity. Ally politics traditionally expresses the correct notion that privileged people have a role in political movements, but flips the master-slave dialectic, rather than seeking to destroy it. In practice, privileged allies will blindly follow oppressed leadership, regardless of the political content of their decisions and acts. In this way, privileged people seek to be subordinate to, rather than unified with, oppressed people. Oftentimes, this plays out with an effect that is opposite to its intent: white people will be immobilized, for example, for fear of putting people of color at risk (nevermind that people of color have a long history of the most militant forms of struggle in the face of death, imprisonment and torture). On the other hand, solidarity politics allow for (admittedly fraught and difficult) unity and collective transformation of social relations. In the film, the group that liberates The Asset are throwing down and sharing the risk of death, rather than becoming immobilized out of a paternalistic fear for his safety. These dynamics unfold in a Hollywood movie in a post-Obama, post-Black Lives Matter contradictory moment. This raises the possibility that mainstream consciousness is being pushed into a polarization that no longer puts faith in neoliberal, official leadership, but must answer to the most militant forms of struggle from the most oppressed layers of the working class.
This distrust for official leadership is also clear in that the protagonists are positioned against both the US and the USSR governments. Both are portrayed as imperialists seeking the primitive accumulation of riches from South America in the form of The Asset, who is viewed as a God to his native people. This reflects our moment of extremely low voter turnout, an overall lack of faith in the State, and a deepening economic crisis that continues to wither away civil rights and the few exclusionary concessions gained by the working class in the 1960s.
The Shape of Water touches on a critique of toxic masculinity that demarks our moment, expressed through popular gender-related movements, such as the Women’s March on Washington, #MeToo / Time’s Up, and ongoing struggles against femicide, rape and control over reproduction internationally. Strickland is almost cliché as a toxic masculine figure: in addition to physically torturing the Asset, he sexually assaults both Elisa and his wife, he is consistently racist, he disinterestedly dominates his children, he pulls his dick out in an attempt to flash his power over Elisa and Zelda. The dude literally keeps three rotte fingers (to the point of being gooey and black) attached to his body throughout the film, noting that he still has his “thumb, pussy finger and trigger finger.” The list goes on and on. But what’s interesting is that he is torn from his position of power, he loses, and (possibly?) dies.
If The Shape of Water doesn’t express some of the rapid shifts currently happening in our popular consciousness, I don’t know what does.
Based on the 2000 novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is an animated film following Parvana, a young girl in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In addition to the story being extremely moving and emotional, The Breadwinner’s animation is incredibly beautiful and at times overwhelms the audience. The animation portrays a lighthearted, flowing rhythm, matched with a breathtaking sound design. Parvana’s sharp green eyes provide a focal point across the brown and tan shadowy hues of the desert-rich and mountainous Kabul backdrop. The playfulness conveys a serious topic in a form that is palatable for a mainstream audience.
A young officer berates Parvana and her father because Parvana is not fully covered. Parvana’s father defiantly asserts that the young man should “stop looking at her,” and is arrested. Parvana, her mother, older sister and toddler-aged brother are in the impossible situation of not being able to go outside of the home (and by extension make money or even purchase food), since there is no man in the home to accompany them. Parvana decides to pass as a young boy. Meanwhile, Parvana’s mother has agreed to arrange a marriage between Parvana’s sister and a distant cousin of the family. The clock is ticking for Parvana to figure out a way to get her father out of jail so the family does not move away from him and so her sister will not be forced into a marriage out of desperation.
This is all happening within the context of an unfolding war; images and sounds of planes and bombings accumulate in the background. Interestingly, Ellis weaves an secondary story throughout, narrated by Parvana: a boy goes on a fantastical adventure, collecting all the tools he needs to slay a monster. We later learn the boy is her older brother and he is ultimately killed by stumbling upon a landmine. The oral history of Parvana’s brother maps onto the unfolding history of a people struggling for subjectivity in the face of imperialism and war.
The Breadwinner was made 18 years after the novel was released. Why now? It is possible that this is a warning in a post-2011 / Arab Spring society, where ISIS is gaining ground in Syria and Iraq, tension between “stable” middle eastern governments, such as Iran, and imperialists involved in a Syrian proxy war continues to escalate, and the global rulers are increasingly driven by ego and a white supremacist desperation to manage the economic crisis through force. It is a warning to remember Afghanistan. More specifically, we must remember the people of pre-9/11 Afghanistan who struggled on their own terms, survived and struggled for subjectivity in a world that denies them humanity.
The Breadwinner story documents a true experience of many girls and women, and illuminates a historical narrative disjointed by time and place, but intensified by capitalist domination. History romanticizes women like Joan of Arc who bravely passed as men, but such stories do not capture the reality behind this phenomenon. Beginning around the time of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, women were forcibly pushed out of the public, productive sphere into private, reproductive homes. Women’s work became seen as a natural resource to be accessed at will, for free. Wives and daughters, and the labor they performed, were viewed as the property of the husbands and fathers in their lives. These institutionalized social relations meant that women became utterly dependent on men and the male wage. Even if they were able to find work, it was largely underpaid. Similar to Parvana, many would rather risk their lives than exist as property, and so they passed as men. Simultaneously, a disciplining of sexuality and control over reproduction constructed compulsory heterosexuality, a situation in which cis-gender, heterosexual, monogomous, procreative, state-sanctioned relationships are seen as the universal, singularly acceptable relationships. Despite this, trans people transitioned, people crossdressed, and much other genderfucking occurred. The Breadwinner does not get into the complexities of sexuality, gender identity and the productive-reproductive labor split. However, it does acknowledge one form of struggle against patriarchal capitalism that is as old as the mode of production itself.
While critiquing patriarchal dictatorship, the film does not fall into typical white western feminist critiques of muslim cultural norms, or remove the subjectivity of the women and children characters, despite the author being a white Canadian woman. In fact, the plot is a series of subjectivity-seeking story arcs. Parvana’s father retains his dignity in the face of a misogynist and power-hungry Taliban soldier. Parvana wrestles with her universality when she passes as a boy (boys being the universal standard for humanity), at first timidly but then moving into recklessness and taking newfound privileges against her mother’s wishes. Parvana’s mother refuses to allow a distant cousin to take her, confronting him and threatening to kill him or herself. Parvana’s sister runs away. Parvana’s brother, in his fantastical story, collects all he needs to confront an impossible to kill monster. Though he dies, the truth of his death is screamed over and over again and it is clear that he has not died in vain. Similarly, the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have died at the hands of U.S. imperialism have not died in vain; their struggles for survival and subjectivity have reverberated in anti-war movements across the world, anti-state insurrections across the Middle East, within every young girl who takes a risk by fighting back, and in our collective consciousness represented in film, theory and art.
In the mid-’90s, Tonya Harding was a joke; the predominant belief was that everything that happened to her and to America’s Sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan, was Harding’s fault. Over 20 years later, Harding’s side of the story has finally been fully told through the campy dramatization, I, Tonya.
The film adapts a series of “wildly contradictory” interviews from Tonya Harding, her abusive ex husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her abusive mother, among other people. We follow a young Tonya who, at three years old, possesses a natural talent and love for figure skating. Her mother advocates for her but is also abusive and mean-spiritedly pushes Tonya to her physical limits (in one scene, young Tonya urinates on herself on the ice because her mom wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom). The story digs into Tonya’s “white trash,” working class background, making the case that she was not given fair judging because her clothes were often handmade and she did not carry herself in as polished a way as Nancy Kerrigan.
As a young woman, Tonya meets Jeff, who quickly begins to physically and emotionally abuse her. He is controlling, self-centered, intimidating, and he blames Tonya for everything he does. He wails and sulks when she leaves him and even threatens suicide. His possessive behavior escalates every time Tonya has some success or positivity in her life. He cannot stand to see her do well. He will do anything to control her, including potentially hiring people to attack her rival, Nancy Kerrigan (it is implied that he did not know the hired guns were going to attack her but that he did hire them to threaten Kerrigan without Tonya’s knowledge). Notably, the film shows the ways in which Tonya was pushed into this relationship because of class-based misogynistic pressures. One judge directly tells her that Nancy Kerrigan is doing so much better than her because Nancy has a (middle or upper class) nuclear family.
I, Tonya shows the messiness of abuse. Oftentime women will defend themselves, sometimes with more force than, or chronologically before, the men attacking them. To an “objective observer” this can appear as mutual abuse, or a “crazy bitch” abusing a man. However, this is an extremely rare situation. Abuse, like all other social relations, is located within a capitalist historical and social context. This context shapes and enables the power imbalance that defines abusive relationships. In abusive relationships, one person employs a variety of physical and mental means, in an ongoing dynamic, in order to reduce another person to an object for use; it is through this process of objectification that the abuser is able to find his subjectivity.
Furthermore, abuse is inherently gendered due to social conditions of gender division. Women may indeed abuse men (or women, or nonbinary people, in any combination) in individual cases, but the overall social and historical context makes the opposite far more likely, and common. Concretely, this means that men who are hit by women are far more likely to be annoyed than fearing for their lives, or angered rather than physically or mentally reduced to an object. I, Tonya shows Tonya fighting back in multiple instances, and at times appears to be the instigator of an attack. But the overall picture you get is that she is the survivor of a relationship where the power is balanced decidedly against her. The film ends with Jeff admitting that he ruined Tonya’s career. Full stop. It does not attempt to build sympathy for him, but just leaves him with the weight of accountability.
What is incredibly refreshing about I, Tonya is that it identifies a cultural shift. In the mid ‘90s, there was no question that Tonya was guilty. She was the center of a media sensation of survivor-blaming, along with other women such as Monica Lewinsky and Lorena Bobbitt. The 1980s and ‘90s in America was a period of misogynistic backlash against the gains of the ‘60s and ‘70s women’s liberation movement. Part of this included rolling back the common sense notion that abuse is a gendered phenomenon (opportunistic studies were released showing that women and men hit each other at equal rates, without looking at the qualitative aspects of control and power within the relationships), and the development of a budding “men’s rights” movement. However, today we are living in an increasingly polarized moment.
On the one hand, men today such as Roosh V can evoke a blatant anti-woman program, and a U.S. president can get elected despite his “pussy grabbing” comments and being accused of rape (there is no doubt in my mind he is guilty). On the other hand, women and femmes have led massive women’s rights demonstrations (anecdotally, many of these women went on to support the anti-Muslim ban airport protests), and they have dominoed nearly 100 creepy, abusive, coercive men through #MeToo and Time’s Up. Some have declared 2017 “the year of women” (though many are rightly noting that it could more accurately be described as the year of [white] women). These movements are pushing into the public what has for decades been considered private: intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, rape, abuse, etc. It is no coincidence that Tonya Harding’s story, along with a few other pop culture media looking at rape, abuse, and other forms of gendered violence (Girl on the Train, Handmaid’s Tale, Hounds of Love, etc.) are coming out now, instead of 20 years ago.
At the same time, stories such as Tonya’s are limiting. There is a potential for struggles against individual men and around individual acts of violence to spread out into broader movements. However, we have yet to see how #MeToo will do that. Similarly, in I, Tonya, there is no sense of how her story is connected to a broader context of patriarchal, white supremacist capitalism. More specifically, the practice of calling out individual men like Jeff Gillooly is important work but it cannot be confused with collective forms of struggle against broader social relationships. This territory remains to be explored by working class women and femmes, and we should expect to see shifts in popular culture as it unfolds.
With scorn to linear time, I will include a film that was not *technically* released in 2017. The Lure (2016) is the best recently released film I saw last year. Who wouldn’t want to watch a dark, campy Polish musical, shot in an abandoned nightclub, following the story of two man-eating hot af mermaids? Um….ya.
The Lure is a reimagined version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Little Mermaid,” with a few changes. Mermaid sisters, Golden and Silver, meet a rock band in 1980s Poland on their way to America. After transforming into their human-like form (sans sex organs), the maids accompany the band to a burlesque / fantasy nightclub. They are given (unpaid!) jobs singing, dancing, and turning into their mermaid form for show. Quickly, it becomes clear that every member of the band is either sleeping with the maids or fantasizing about them, save for the guitarist, Mietek. Silver falls in love with Mietek and attempts to seduce him. But, as she can only have sex in mermaid form, he is disgusted by her, saying, “To me, you’ll always be a fish, an animal.” Golden is concerned for her sister and encourages her to eat Mietek while she satisfies her own desires to seduce and eat men. Sick with love, Silver decides to cut off her tail (losing her voice in the process), transplanting the entire lower half of her body into a human body, with sex organs, in order to please Mietek. He is again disgusted by her when her wounds bleed on him, giving her a look of disappointment and anger, communicating blame. Simultaneously, Golden meets another amphibian, Tritan, who warns her that if Mietek falls in love with someone else, Silver will turn to seafoam. Mietek, disgusted by Silver’s now fully human body (which apparently is the only thing he is interested in), does ultimately fall for someone else. Silver has one last chance to survive: she must eat Mietek before daybreak the day of his wedding. In the end, she is so moved by her love for him that she cannot bring herself to kill him. She turns to seafoam. But Golden takes revenge, brutally murdering him.
Let’s, for a second, ignore the appearance of a shitty ending. (Seriously… this woman traded her immortality and badass mermaid abilities for some shallow ass dude she never slept with and barely knew??) What does this version of the story tell us about the contemporary period? And why were the updates and changes chosen? Director Agnieszka Smoczynska has said that the story is an allegory for immigrants who are super-exploited in the sex industry as they strive for the “American Dream.” She also notes that the film makes no attempt to hide the maids’ otherness, “making Golden and Silver beautiful faced beings with bodies covered in mucus and slime.” In fact, the film argues that our power comes from our otherness, as Silver is unable to use her beautiful voice once she becomes a normy human. The maids also possess a unique power: in their human form they are unrapable. The film communciates that there is something grotesque and monstrous, but also extremely powerful and aluring, about an unrapable woman. Also, in contrast to the Andersen version of the story, Silver is not rewarded for her piousness (putting a man’s needs before her own), and the audience is meant to clearly see that she is alienating herself. The story builds in favor of Golden’s actions and her revenge act evokes a Fanonian sense that violence is justified and can be a powerful act of self-realization. This update is refreshing, considering both the Andersen and Disney versions celebrate female subservience (again…the 90s were a dark time).
The Lure also plays with some complex ideas relating to consent and gendered violence. Consent is extremely complicated; at times, people consent to things that are not healthy or beneficial to them, especially women and femmes. We consent to a great many of things under capitalism from wage slavery to increased immiseration. Capitalism conditions what our individual choices can be in the first place. Many women and femmes, and in particular women in heterosexual relationships, consent to a myriad of forms of sex work based on power imbalances in their relationships with men. Robin West and the popular podcast The Heart have done an impressive job of articulating these forms of gendered alienation. West argues that women may find themselves consenting to sex they don’t want for a myriad of reasons from economic and emotional stability to simply not wanting to upset, or cause an argument with, her (generally male) partner. She may simply be sick of arguing about it. The Heart provides a six part narrative exploring these complex feelings and acts. Similarly, it is plain to everyone around Silver that she is making a series of mistakes by falling for Mietek, then cutting off her tail for him, and then refusing to murder him. But realism is at play: at times, especially when captured in a coercive, gendered power dynamic, we make harmful choices.
The Lure ultimately raises some interesting questions about what it means to be a woman . It is interesting that the maids are both subjectively and objectively gendered as female, despite often having no sex organs. Not only does this reflect the unfolding struggles and gains that transwomen are leading internationally, it signifies a shift in gender politics as a whole. As gender lifts off from biology, a gender “troubling,” or de-naturalization occurs: transwomen are increasingly universally understood as women, ⅓ of millenials identify as bisexual, genderqueer / non-binary / gender nonconforming people are increasingly visible, body modification sciences make things like top and bottom surgery, and uterus transplants increasingly attainable, etc. The Lure expresses this reality by queering what it means to be a woman, but “anchoring” that definition around feminized labor. The maids are sex workers, performing various layers of feminized work, regardless of their “biology.” The Lure raises these questions and more, making it an important film for our time.
At times, movies will surprise you with their political content. There are contradictory and revolutionary elements that even the filmmaker and story teller will not grasp. Art does not exist in a vacuum; it is a form of theory making that makes sense of the world around us. In these seven films, we find complex narratives around race, gender, sexuality and their relationships to capitalism. We find pressing questions relating to the unfolding capitalist crisis, fault lines for revolutionary struggle, and hopeful gestures at what may be possible in a new society. There are so many politically interesting films I wish I could have gotten to this year. I hope to hear from other people discussing their favorite films from 2017, and how contemporary film and art express our collective consciousness.
Thanks to Kei Dee and the Blind Field Editorial Collective for editorial support, and to Jocelyn Cohn for her brilliant notes on Get Out!
 For other interesting notes on this, check out this recent study on the meaning of food for rich versus poor people.
 I will write something more comprehensive about this at a later date.
One thought on “The Othered Oscars: Some Favorite Films of 2017”
This was an excellent read!