'Women Talking' Overwhelmed Me With Grief — And A Sense Of Possibility
I want to talk to everyone I love about this movie and the profound effect it had on me.
I didn’t know if I could write about Women Talking. I wanted to explain to my friends why it was essential that they drop everything and go out and see it, that very day, but wasn’t sure how. I wanted to tell my husband how much it resonated with me, how if he could see it he would understand something about being a woman, about being me — something both beautiful and extremely painful that I had never been able to articulate to him. I wanted to turn to the young, single man sitting alone in the theater and ask him, as the credits rolled, “Well, what do you make of that??”
But for days after seeing it in the theater, with zero expectations and a big bag of popcorn I didn’t end up eating, I was so overwhelmed by a strange mixture of grief and gratitude that I didn’t know where to begin.
Women Talking centers on a group of women in a conservative religious community (the book it is adapted from, written by Miriam Toews, is inspired by real-life events that took place just a decade or so ago in a Mennonite sect in Bolivia) who have experienced rape and violence and who have decided it is time to figure out what to do about it. In an act of brilliance and restraint, director and screenwriter Sarah Polley never shows us these incidents of abuse. Instead, she flashes back to their aftermath — both immediate and ongoing, with devastating effect. In an interview, Polley explained that not only did she feel that watching scenes of violence toward women was too traumatizing for herself and for viewers but that it seemed more important to show what happened to the women as a result of this violence. The story she wanted to tell wasn’t about sexual assault; it was about what it does to you.
I found it difficult to talk or even think about this film because I believe I was in some kind of mourning. Mourning for myself and my own experiences, for my daughter and her potential to be a victim, and for my son and his automatic inclusion into a broad and arbitrary club that boasts the vast majority of sexual abusers in its membership.
Just as it portrays the need to protect your daughters and sisters as both extraordinary and everyday, Women Talking treats the subject of boys, and of mothering them, with both urgency and delicacy. At one point, the women ask the boys’ schoolteacher if boys of 12 or 13 are a danger to them. Due to his literacy and outsider status, the boys’ schoolteacher now serves as the women’s secretary. I won’t butcher his response, but what follows is one of the most touching and harrowing descriptions of male pre-pubescence I have ever heard. Are the boys perpetrators, or are they victims, too, in a way, of a patriarchal culture?
During and after this film, I thought about this duality. The sadness I felt when I pulled my husband aside as a male neighbor played with my children to explain that you never, ever leave your daughter alone with an unknown man, even for a second. The shock I felt when I once insisted that I would never allow my daughter to sleep over at a friend’s house who had older brothers, and then realized with horror, that that described our house. Though I dutifully read C Is for Consent with both my children and discuss the patriarchy with my son to the point that he can accurately point out its influence in daily life, sometimes I worry that my terror at the idea of my daughter experiencing sexual trauma will overshadow my responsibilities to keep my son from perpetrating it. I know that in real life such gender divisions don’t always ring true, and that there are countless male and nonbinary victims. But, you know, the only memories that haunt me are my own.
I have never experienced what the characters in the film experienced. But I do know what it feels like to have a man do something with your body that you wish he was not doing and to fold that into your sense of yourself, to carry it with you. While 1 in 6 American women are survivors of attempted or completed rape, many, many more, have experienced what writer Melissa Febos calls “empty consent” — allowing someone to use your body for sexual pleasure, in the way that you do not explicitly object to but feel, nonetheless, like you have no choice in the matter or cannot even begin to feel like an active participant. When I first read Febos’ essay, I saw so much of myself that had never been named that I also remember going into an internal hole about it for days before I could begin to process it with others.
There are so many things our bodies, especially women’s bodies, endure, that it’s easy to access the pain and grief of stories like the ones Women Talking tells, even when the details differ. It’s why I sobbed at the horrific depiction of birth in Fleishman Is in Trouble, not because I had those things happen to me but because I would venture to guess that every person who has experienced pregnancy and birth in a medical setting, such as myself, knows what it feels like to feel powerless while people treat your body like a vessel and your experience like a technicality.
How little we had understood, at that age, about the difference between being an object of desire and desiring ourselves, about how to recognize something unwanted and name it.
Last month, I got together with a girl friend I hadn’t seen in decades, who reached out ahead of a visit to my town. It was a joy to see her, this woman I had shared so much intimacy with at such a formative time in our lives, regardless of whether we’d kept in touch or whether we understood the forces that eventually drifted us apart. I asked her if she remembered her older brother’s friend, who we both admitted to having crushes on, and who would often put his hands up our shirts to touch our 12-year-old breasts as we watched TV. Speaking of him made us speak of other boys, and men, and how little we had understood, at that age, about the difference between being an object of desire and desiring ourselves, about how to recognize something unwanted and name it. I wanted to ask her if, at 40, she’d ever learned this and how.
Like the young girls in the community of Women Talking, braiding their hair together and snickering in the corner, there were so many things my friend and I did in our hours and hours together — making mix tapes and dyeing our hair with Kool-Aid and reading our journal entries out loud and laughing, laughing all the time. But the thing that stayed with us, all these years later, was something we hadn’t in many ways even participated in, something that was defined mostly by its aftermath.
Late in the film, the narrator tells us, “We didn’t talk about our bodies. So when something like this happened, there was no language for it.” For me, it wasn’t just my lack of understanding of my body that kept me from agency, but my lack of understanding of the world. In the film, the women are shielded from the “dangers” of the outside, only to suffer abuse at home, in their own beds, sometimes from their own family members.
As a young girl, I was taught not to get into a car with a strange man. I went to Model Mugging with my mother-daughter group, just in case a man attacked me in a dark alley (to this day I can still effectively perform the hand motions that go along with the mantra “Eyes! Groin!” though I have never had to deploy them). I even had a highly progressive mother who, when I turned 18, bought me a cute little vibrator and the book Becoming Orgasmic. But I hadn’t realized, then, that the perpetrators of what felt to me like sexual trauma would all be people I knew, people who I or someone I loved had let in, like a very convincing vampire.
For me, it wasn’t just my lack of understanding of my body that kept me from agency, but my lack of understanding of the world.
When I am having a hard time reconciling the world I grew up in with the one that awaits my young children, I often turn to my older nieces and nephews for guidance. I asked my 19-year-old niece what she made of all this. Did her generation understand consent and sexual safety in ways mine didn’t? Did the increase in public conversations on these topics, online and otherwise, seem to be making an actual difference for girls and young women? And what about the boys?
Her response was mixed. She explained that, in California, she had been made to learn about consent in her ninth grade health class. Sure, the scenarios were a little dinky, and sometimes the adult who led these discussions was also your math teacher, but they did stay with her. This was the first time, she remembered, that she had learned that there was such a thing as a “gray area” of consent, this concept that I so badly needed awareness of in my youth. And of course, social media made discussions of consent and sexual safety accessible and acceptable. Her friends post infographics about what, beyond the word “no,” means no on their Instagram stories. But even with the Internet, not everyone is getting the same messages. Her friend from Texas was taught abstinence only, of course. It is crucial, she pointed out, and as Women Talking made clear, that not only the Internet is giving you empowering messages but also your community.
“It’s not like we’re in this utopia,” she insisted, but there seem to be advancements. The “girl code” she follows with her friends, like not leaving someone alone at a club with a dude you don’t know, even if they’re vouched for, seems more sophisticated than the one I followed, though it’s sad to me that she has to follow one at all. At her school, one fraternity designates sober brothers for each party, and plasters their pictures and phone numbers on the walls in case anyone feels unsafe. Not surprisingly, this is the only frat her girlfriends will visit. She was 14 when #MeToo first started. She still didn’t walk home alone at night. But she grasped and discussed things that it took me well into adulthood to recognize, and that, if nothing else, made me hopeful.
When my friend and I said goodbye that night, after sharing our stories, I told her that I was sorry that I hadn’t helped her, that I hadn’t really known how. I had loved her, that was for sure, and I must have known on some level that she was not OK, but we didn’t have words for that then. In the wake of this tremendous film, and in the slow, steady efforts of young people to build something different, I wonder if perhaps now, we do.