Talking to people on a regular basis is more difficult when you’re perpetually angry. It’s also difficult to write about. There’s no way to dress up rage. Not unless you’ve got some righteous purpose, like your daughter was kidnapped or you’re Batman. Hollywood is good at making rage look fun, useful, or sexy.
The truth is that it’s ugly, generally useless, and always poisonous to the possessor.
Recently all of my female friends have been enthusiastically gushing about Mad Max: Fury Road. Many have described it as an amazing feminist film. From the previews I was looking forward to seeing it, too, and hoping to feel inspired by Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa just as I have been moved by powerful female characters since I was a little girl.
I suppose it started with Catwoman. Ellen Ripley. Sarah Connor. Dana Scully. Individual roles in movies that were not very good overall. The gist: Women who are (mostly) self-sufficient, tough, intelligent, passionate, and courageous.
At the end of Fury Road I found myself feeling… tired. Worn out. Wounded.
There was nothing wrong with the film and I really appreciated that the “wives/breeders” were not depicted as fainting, delicate little flowers under the protection of Furiosa. The fierce and knowledgeable crones were a great presence as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many women in an action film. Plus it totally passes the Bechdel Test.
The women I have admired do not have episodes of dizziness, weakness, disorientation, visual disturbances, and/or irrational anxiety. The problems they have can be fought with their minds and their fists. Maybe explosives or giant robot suits.
If I could fight my way to redemption, I would. I cannot express how badly I wish I had more than just a nebulous phantom to fight. I would bloody my fists on its face, bite and claw like a rabid animal. All the tension in my body craves it, something to push back against. As it stands, the very nature of it sometimes prevents me from walking down the hall to the bathroom unattended. I am perpetually behind in cleaning, emailing, writing, and art projects.
What does my fight look like? What are my weapons?
This past week I’ve been sick with a head cold that at times has made me especially weak, which means a lot of time in bed resting. First I read Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, then A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. In both instances each woman is faced with her own battles – Anne as an impoverished orphan experiencing fluctuating disability over the course her life, not to mention teaching the unruly deaf-blind child Helen Keller; Emma as a poor, Jewish Russian immigrant dedicated to the ideals of anarchy, art, and birth control for women.
Obviously their battles are much bigger than mine. I have always been grateful not to suffer chronic pain and it would be absolutely devastating to me if I couldn’t see my husband’s face anymore. Speaking in front of a crowd of strangers about subjects that will likely land me in prison sounds terrifying. The most I’ve ever done for any cause is write an article or sign my name to a petition online. (If only social justice was less social. Amirite?)
Rather than focusing on the dull subject of who is or is not allowed to feel like they are struggling or how that is to be experienced, predominantly what I selfishly take from these biographies is that if I can recognize the legitimacy of their non-physical, non-flashy fight, then what is preventing me from recognizing my own? If their real life sassy spitfire battles without guns are enough, why are my efforts not enough?
Anyone who has nebulous health issues knows that there is constantly a balancing act between pushing yourself forward and pulling back to recover. It’s one of the most insidious aspects of disability. What can I really do? What are my actual limitations? It’s hard not to trick yourself into feeling like a victim of your own body, or to put yourself in dangerous situations because you refuse to acknowledge your limitations. There’s bound to be missteps and failures.
At the moment, I am failing to recognize my own health and ability, even while consciously pointing to it, I suppose mostly because I have to keep trying and my reserve feels low, if not emptied.
I can say this for Furiosa – as I have tried to think of way to end this post on a hopeful yet honest note, a scene from the film comes to mind in which Furiosa’s will overpowers her injury and the circumstances surrounding her, and although it’s just a movie fantasy, it is a reminder that our will counts for something. I cannot apply brute force to change the reality of my episodes, but I can reach farther into myself and cultivate a will power that is not fueled by anger alone. In my spectrum of feeling, as a friend pointed out to me today, I am just as fierce in love as in rage. The women I have admired, both real and imagined, were not and are not cold automatons narrowly devoted to a cause. Passion and hope fueled and sustained their fight. If I burn out now, it’s because I’ve been feeding the wrong fire.
It’s not my intent to argue Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence. For better or worse, plenty of other people have done that already. I’d rather focus on part of Dylan Farrow’s open letter that addresses the many other sexual assault survivors out there who are still afraid to tell their stories.
Farrow’s open letter is harrowing, painful, clear, challenging. It’s the letter someone writes after many years of suffering, having finally found a stable position of strength and support to speak from. Her story is not an easy one to tell, whether or not the accused is famous and beloved. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, “an average of 60% of assaults in the last five years were not reported”. I personally have several friends who have never even told their families about the sexual assault they experienced. Many of them have horror stories of mental health professionals regarding them coldly and skeptically once they tried to tell their story. A perusal of Project Unbreakable on Tumblr (though it certainly deserves more than a perusal) quickly illustrates how often victim testimonies are met with hostility and skepticism by families, friends, medical professionals, and police.
It’s understandable to an extent. Most cases of sexual assault are made by individuals the victim knows personally, and more than likely the friends and family know this person, too. It’s hard to accept that a person you regarded as “good” and safe has sexually assaulted someone you care about. On the scale of insensitive responses, at best the loved one tries to find out if there’s been a misunderstanding and at worst the loved one accuses the victim of lying or deserving it.
This is part of the reason it matters so much that Farrow was able to publicly share her story on her own terms and that as fellow humans our first response is to listen. If you already decided that you knew what happened before reading her statement, you are just as guilty of bias as the “lynch mob” you rail against. If you already decided you knew what happened before reading her statement, you are part of the problem.
We need to have space in our society for victims to speak and to be given the benefit of empathetic doubt. Even if the account given by Farrow is not factually true, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she is a liar. Instead, let’s consider that she is a woman who genuinely, unwaveringly believes that she was molested by her adopted father when she was seven years old. This account is supported by her mother and brother. There is no evidence and no legal recourse.
That is tragic. That is common. Whether or not it happened, she has carried a terrible pain and fear inside her throughout her whole life. The evidence of suggestibility of children does not exonerate Allen or condemn Farrow. If anything, it simply further implies that Farrow is not the scheming, lying cow some have claimed her to be. She has suffered. There is no justice for her, as there is no justice for many sexual assault victims.
Farrow is certainly a victim, but as the result of which moral transgression specifically, that’s less concrete. In any case, her action – an attempt to tell her story, to tell the truth – should be regarded as brave. It is brave.
Some responses have been disheartening. Stephen King, whose opinion I typically appreciate, described Farrow’s letter as containing “palpable bitchiness” on Twitter. Somewhat anonymous voices in the comments sections of various articles and on Twitter have suggested that she just wants attention. One response that I found particularly unsettling was the vehemently argued position by some men that we absolutely cannot trust the testimony of sexual assault victims because otherwise men will become the victims of false testimony.
That’s certainly a possibility, and it does happen. Does that make it okay for sexual assault victims to carry the burden of injustice themselves? Why is it always better for a sister, a wife, a friend to be doubted rather than her attacker? The power distribution is blatantly lopsided.
Imbalances stand a chance to be rectified when they are acknowledged and discussed. The article written by Patrick Perion, A Child Abuse Investigator’s View of The Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow Case, addresses issues of miscommunication and ignorance about child abuse investigations. You don’t need to be an expert to realize that people are more likely to react poorly to something they refuse to acknowledge except when immediately faced with the crisis at hand than if there’s public, on-going discussion aimed at awareness and fairness.
Aaron Bady’s Woody Allen’s Good Name makes a similar point: “In the court of public opinion, a woman accusing a great film director of raping her has no credibility which his fans are bound to respect. He has something to lose, his good name. She does not, because she does not have a good name. She is living in hiding, under an assumed name. And when she is silent, the Daily Beast does not rise to her defense.”
The Daily Beast article being referred to here is the one written by Robert Weide. Weide demanded that we consider the known facts before sending Allen to the firing squad, certainly a righteous demand to be made. However, Weide gave himself away when he published Farrow’s new name, the name around which she has built her stabilized life. If he was truly empathetic to her, whether it’s deeply rooted manipulation from her mother or sexual assault from her father, he would have respected the privacy of her name.
He wouldn’t refer to alleged sexual assault as “shall we say, touch[ing] her inappropriately”, as if he was, shall we say, re-hashing a conversation about sexual exploits between two consenting adults in a movie. And why did he use quotations when referring to the anticipated accusation that he is blaming the victim? Jessica Winter’s Don’t Listen to Woody Allen’s Biggest Defender outlines the problematic tone of Weide’s piece very well.
These are passive acts, yet still potent. They speak volumes. They speak to sexual assault victims who still cannot tell their story without once again being victimized by those who should listen. If we cannot listen and then speak without diminishing the person brave enough to share their account of the truth, how can we hope to assist in the healing of a society that has too long ignored the varied, nuanced, and profound suffering of its own people?
Lena Dunham put it best when she said, via Twitter, “The response to the response to the response doesn’t matter. What matters is that a victim spoke and, in doing so, reversed her victimhood.” And then in a following tweet, “We should be thankful to Dylan. We must begin to heal, to change the way in which we process and respond to stories of abuse.”
The second story in Kwaidan was The Woman of the Snow, about a ghost that can claim the lives of mortals. She appears to blow onto their faces, freezing them to death, and the victims are later described as having no blood (or something like that). Despite her desire to kill people during snowstorms, she is not entirely absent of other desires or pity. The cold, frightening, powerful ghost compared to the subservient, warm, loving wife is interesting, but most especially after you can see where they overlap and how her sense of power and compassion affects her speech.
In this story, the theatrical nature of the environments are heightened one step further. There are scenes where the environment does not look real at all, and surrealism takes over to depict the true feeling of the moment. Visually speaking, that was perhaps my favourite part of this story. The movement of the trees during the snowstorm (along with the music) and the first meeting of the ghost woman were, of course, not really something I could represent in a single screen shot. Or even multiple. It was a strange combination of stillness or silence, and specific, graceful, unhesitating action.
At the end, I thought a lot about identity. You might not want to read this part if you haven’t seen the movie. On the surface, she decided one night to test his vow of silence. He failed her test, and she didn’t kill him because of their children, but she did leave them immediately. Given the context, it’s not surprising at all that he would tell his wife about that night. So, really, why did she suddenly decide to leave?
It reminds me of other stories I’ve read about female ghosts, entities,spirits and so forth that match up with men, then suddenly leave and “return” to their dominant identity.
I learned how to take screen shots. Finally.
We watched Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) the other day. The stories and their theatrical visualization were really engaging, especially in the first three. The Black Hair had a moodiness to it that felt a bit gothic, but not merely for the sake of being “dark” and “creepy”. There were also some nice spatial relationships happening in quite a few scenes. My favourite part of it all was how his memory of his first wife was mostly confined to her work as a weaver, yet the lighting would change. When he was caught up in terror, the shape and colour of his terror changed rapidly. The hair, the separation of love and desire, the posturing of power, the decay from neglect, overgrowth, etc. are all old lovers. (As always, click image to view larger.)