At least one major network has recently devoted much time to advancing and promoting women’s rights, and it is in that spirit that I offer this post. Gender discrimination, in particular, is complicated to the extreme by the fact that gender as a construct is so loosely and inexactly defined. What constitutes “masculine” as well as “feminine” leaves more than ample room for debate and indeed it varies considerably from person to person. Moving targets are notoriously difficult to hit. We might define gender the same way Justice Potter Stewart famously remarked about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Perhaps, but looks can be deceiving.
Recently I watched the 1951 Swedish film, Miss Julie, which was based on the play of the same name written by August Strindberg. Strindberg’s tortured psyche and resulting tumultuous love life must certainly have factored in to the equation, as he sees the relationship between men and women as being a combative, loathing affair in which both sexes are driven together only by carnal lust. The two main characters, Miss Julie and her nominal lover Jean, spend the majority of the film variously exchanging insults, spilling forbidden details of each’s dysfunctional childhood, while desperately striving to keep away the barely concealed desire that so strongly pulls them together. This, to Strindberg, is what characterizes every romantic pairing at its basest core. The war between the sexes is just that, war, and a particularly bombastic affair where victory quickly gives way to defeat.
While I might not agree with said statement, I do grant that the playwright does deserve some praise for being ahead of his time to some degree. Power dynamics, particularly those regarding types of privilege are explored in much detail, especially the means by which gender inequality trumps class distinction and vice versa. Miss Julie holds power over her working-class, though highly educated lover because her background is aristocratic. Jean, however, has power over Miss Julie because he is male and is not restrained by upper-class values. Ironically, the aristocracy is shown to create its own needless restrictions and its own cages, and though the working-classes might have less money or influence, they also live lives of greater freedom than their social betters. As for Jean and Julie, their flirtation is as much about control as it is about lust, and in it neither character wins the upper hand for very long. Instead, we the audience are left with a maddeningly unresolved squabble that, by the film’s conclusion, is never really put aside.
As a feminist, however, what I found most appalling is the presentation of Miss Julie’s mother. She was not a part of the original play and was instead added later by Alf Sjöberg, whose screenplay also fleshed out the character of the count considerably. A woman who comes across as a sadistic parody of first-wave feminism, her character reads like a laundry list of male privilege paranoia. For starters, she broaches propriety by being unwilling to get married because she does not wish to be seen as her husband’s property. Loathe to give birth or to be a mother, she nonetheless becomes pregnant, while plainly hating the child that emerges from her womb. Her daughter is forced to dress in boy’s clothing, forbidden to play with dolls, or to embrace even the most modest of female gender roles. All of this is meant, as the playwright asserts, to prove that women are equal to men. However, these draconian tactics lead to much misery and confusion for the child who finds traditionally male pursuits like hunting or plowing a field either perplexing or impossible. She is therefore raised as a boy would be, learning the same chores and same societal obligations as would a male offspring, though the implication is that gender role distinctions to some degree exist for a good reason. The mother’s designs even fall upon the workers of the estate. Women servants are required to perform men’s work and men servants are required to perform women’s work. Neither does so competently and before very long the family is nearly penniless. It is then without much surprise that Sjöberg notes how much Miss Julie’s mother hates, fears, and mistrusts men and seeks to pass along this same perspective to her daughter. The mother’s belief in radical feminism crosses the line from empowerment into misandry and it is this gross distortion of feminism that still finds its way into modern conservative discourse, particularly in the bluster of Rush Limbaugh’s frequent rantings about so-called femi-nazis.
Returning to the film, it is at this point, unsurprisingly, that the established patriarchy attempts to re-establish control and save the day. Her husband, Miss Julie’s father, is a well-meaning and kind-hearted count who patiently tolerates his wife’s behavior until he takes a firm look at the balance sheet. At this point, he insists that a more traditional means of both raising a child and conducting business will be employed. He liberates his daughter from boy’s clothing, dressing her in what he believes to be gender-appropriate fare. He arm-twists his wife into a marriage ceremony and exchange of vows, much to her extreme distaste. However, he fails to take into account her perfidy and bitterness, as she sets fire to the estate, forcing the family to take on more debt and leaving them without a place to live until the Count finds the means to rebuild. She then suggests that her husband should borrow money from a close personal friend, one that she happens to be having an affair with, no less. The money borrowed is secretly her own that she has hidden away, but she lies deliberately to entangle her husband into an economic arrangement that could have been otherwise avoided. The Count discovers what she has done, but due to the insidious nature of the transaction cannot file charges or seek justice.
Strindberg’s own views were frequently perplexing and capricious. At times in his life he advocated for women’s suffrage but also made misogynistic statements that completely negated his original position. He was, quite unsurprisingly, married three times, each of which ended in bitter, acrimonious divorce, due in large part to the fact to the fact that he was hypersensitive and highly neurotic. It is easy for us to come down harshly on those who make anti-feminist statements or who state shocking offensive opinions. Criticism is always justified, but I try to, as best I can, take into account the circumstances and the state of mind of those who make patently inappropriate public as well as private statements. Words do matter, as do statements of brazen misogyny and unrepentant sexism, but without excusing such behavior, I do seek to find its root in an effort to formulate a solution. The past several months have shown a marked uptick in what seems like a perpetual cycle of insults, retorts, charges, counter-charges, and the like. I know this sort of behavior goes along with the territory but I still wonder about the ultimate impact. Whether our dialogue is somehow coarser now than before I can’t say and whether our children are more or less inclined to violence is a matter of debate, but the fact remains that so long as we fail to seek a common humanity, we’ll always be at war, not just with our enemies, but also with ourselves.