Religion & Liberty Online

Women Talking Will Definitely Have You Talking

(Image credit: Orion Pictures Corp)

Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Women Talking takes a real-life story of horrific abuse in a South American religious community and transmutes it into a transcultural discussion of women’s choices. But does it lose something in the translation?

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The film Women Talking opens with what amounts to a warning: “This is an act of female imagination.” That’s because it’s not actually a telling of the events on which it is based, the horrific story of rape and abuse of more than 130 people in a small Bolivian Mennonite community called Manitoba between 2005 and 2009. The abuse story remains the same, though: nine men, and almost certainly others who were never revealed, used cow tranquilizer to gas whole households, brutally raping girls as young as three, women as old as 65, as well as men and boys. These are sometimes referred to as the “ghost rapes of Bolivia” because the community decided that the women were visited by ghosts, or perhaps by the devil himself. A young woman discovered two men in the act, they named the others, and nine men went to prison. In the real story, the victims were commanded to forgive the men or be damned to hell, they received no counseling or help, and in fact rape and the general prevalence of incestuous sexual abuse has continued until the present day.

Novelist Miriam Teows, a former Plain Person herself, imagined a different outcome for the women of the colony. In her fictionalized version, the women have a few days to respond to the demand to forgive their abusers, since the other men of the colony have gone to post bail for the attackers. Having discovered the real, flesh-and-blood explanation for the assaults, the women are faced with the decision of how to respond. They engage in a debate over three options: leave, stay and fight, or stay and do nothing. In film director Sarah Polley’s film version, practical details are eschewed to foreground the days-long conversation between eight women. We are not told why every man in the entire community needs to go to the city to post bail or why these eight women are responsible to decide for all the abused women in the community. There’s a purposeful vagueness to the film: the women are white, so it’s obviously not set in Bolivia, but the only hint of where these people are is that they are speaking English and a census truck drives by playing a Monkees’ song. While the women refer to particular religious beliefs and requirements, wear flowery dresses, kerchiefs on their hair, and cannot read, the word “Mennonite” is not used. Polley wanted to give the women’s conversation a certain universality.

Does this universality make sense, though? On one hand, women and girls are sexually abused and raped at a higher rate than men and boys, so the conversations about how to get away, how to protect our children, whether to forgive, and what to think of God’s allowing such things to happen will certainly resonate with women across cultures. The film was deeply moving, and I am not the only woman reporting that elements brought up tears of grief and a sense of healing. On the other hand, most American women are simply not in the position of the characters depicted in the film. We are well educated, do not live under similar religious requirements, and have direct access to legal protections. I don’t mean to overstate this; even some modern religious groups have been known to encourage women to endure abuse, to reconcile with abusers, and to avoid using the legal system against church members. It’s a good thing that reports of such teaching are now considered scandals, but we have a long way to go for churches to put proper processes and protections in place to deal with sexual abuse cases responsibly. While it may seem ridiculous that such things are not already in place, recall that the true nature of the rapist’s and pedophile’s compulsions and patterns have only been recently understood. As recently as the late 1970s, secular psychologists thought that pedophiles could be cured and reenter environments with access to children. Getting huge institutions to shift their thinking and practices can be a daunting task, but such a shift is finally underway, even if moving at a glacial pace in the eyes of some.

For those either in more mainstream religious communities or in nonreligious ones, however, sexual abuse may be just as prevalent as in isolated religious sects. After all, Hollywood is also the source of some of the most egregious sexual abuse scandals in recent memory, such as the Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby cases, not to mention the devastating child sexual abuse reported by people like Corey Feldman. It’s possible that a rumination on the experiences of illiterate women in an obscure religious colony could serve as a kind of allegory for the plight of secular people living in big cities in a high-tech, modern world. It’s certain that factors such as lack of sexual education, an exaggerated willingness to ascribe events to supernatural causes, and social isolation from the broader world directly harmed the victims in the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia by allowing these attacks to continue for years. But these are clearly not the issues at play in the lives of most viewers of this film. Instead, I might conjecture that the ethos contributing to the ubiquity of abuse in Hollywood has more to do with an “anything goes” culture of sexual envelope-pushing; a toleration for putting children in adult situations; and an attitude of “success at any price,” even the price of silence about disgusting and illegal behavior. Furthermore, those dealing with abuse in, for example, the public school system (where rates of abuse appear to be higherthan in religious communities) may have a different set of concerns to address altogether. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

In this regard, I am sympathetic to the complaint of Jean Freidman-Rudovsky, who both loved the film and regretted that it didn’t present the particularities of the actual victims. Friedman-Rudovsky broke the original ghost rapes of Bolivia story, and also did the follow-up with the colony in which we discovered the lack of care for victims. When we disassociate from those who suffered and the specific circumstances of their case, something is lost. The cast is fantastic, however: Two matriarchs, played by Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, play referee between the younger women. (Frances McDormand plays a harsh, scar-faced elder who has already decided that staying, forgiving, and thus getting to the kingdom of God is the only option; she exits the conversation early.) Jessie Buckley’s Mariche represents the stay-and-do-nothing option, arguing that anything else is insane. Her rage over suffering and being forced to constantly forgive her abuser husband causes her to lash out at the other women. Mariche represents the classic case of battered-woman syndrome: desperate, frustrated, and oppressed, she can see no way out. Claire Foy’s strong-willed Salome argues that the women should stay and fight. Incensed at the abuse of her 4-year-old daughter, Salome makes Huck Finn’s move: it would be better to risk hell than to let terrible things happen to the people we care about. A radiant Rooney Mara plays the gentle, almost other-worldly Ona, who argues for leaving. In spite of Mara’s masterful acting, it’s some of her scripted language that seems unlikely and foreign to the cultural context. I couldn’t quite picture this illiterate, deeply religious woman using words like “process” and “liberation.” Mostly, the dialogue was believable, but every once in a while the milieu of the women’s studies classroom slipped in. My guess is that women like these would have used terms they knew from memorized scripture, like “mourning,” not “process,” and “freedom,” not “liberation.” The most unbelievable character in this regard was that of Nettie, who experienced the deep trauma of becoming pregnant from her rape at a very young age, and realizes that her attacker must have been her brother, since the child was born deformed and died. The film depicts her as deciding to dress as a boy, as only speaking to children, and as wanting to be called Melvin. Furthermore, one matriarch, near the end of the film, calls her Melvin, at which point she finally speaks (to adults) and says, “Thank you for saying my name.” This scene has the effect of taking the viewer entirely out of the conceit of the film. There is simply no strict Mennonite or Old Order Amish world in which a girl would have been allowed to dress as a boy, or children would have been allowed to call her by a boy’s name. I actually checked on this with a former Old Amish acquaintance, just to be 100% sure. While hating one’s femininity is an understandable response for a young girl in such a terrible reality, the colony simply would not have allowed this. It’s an intrusion of hyper-contemporary, secular-left ideas on a community with the exact opposite characteristics.

Another element of the film initially struck me as unrealistic, but after the conversation with my acquaintance, who left the Old Order Amish, I changed my mind. While the threat of losing the kingdom of God is mentioned early, there is no significant theological conversation until well past halfway through the film. When the conversation finally arrives, the ideas the women throw around are strangely basic for such deeply religious people. At one point, Ona suggests that they build a new religion on the old, one based on love. Given the centrality of love to the Christian religion, this sounded like a comment from a teenager or a silly New Ager, not a serious member of a sect born out a desire to detach itself from ancient hierarchical structures, both civil and religious, and to practice strict pacifism. That’s not to say that she has no legitimate point. After all, it seems clear from both the film and our knowledge of the strictest Plain communities that they live under a heavy burden of earning their place in heaven through strict obedience and righteous works. I just assumed that women steeped in this religious tradition would appeal to scripture, to something in the biblical narrative, or to a reinterpretation of a received teaching. A single-sentence suggestion to build a new religion based on love seemed too simplistic for these women.

Other discussions felt right, though, such as how to understand the problem of evil. Yet no one attempts to answer, even badly, as Job’s friends do, the question of why a good God allows terrible things to happen to innocents. Laudably, Polley does depict the women as comforting themselves with memorized Psalms and singing hymns. But there was very little real engagement with scripture, debate over its meaning or possible interpretation, or discussion of details of doctrine. My friend Ruth explained to me that the depiction may have been more believable than I imagined. When her own parents began to discuss the doctrine of salvation by grace, they had to hold Bible studies in secret. When found out, they were told that the Bible is for the bishops to explain to the people in preaching, not for them to study on their own. Furthermore, women in particular do not participate in theological debates, although they are present when Ruth’s relatives argue with her about doctrine on her occasional visits. I imported my own experience growing up in an evangelical pastor’s household and assumed that the writers didn’t know religious people well enough, if at all, to understand how they argue, but these women’s experiences were different from mine. Eventually, they do stumble upon the notion that perhaps some other religious leader, or even God himself, could forgive them, so that they could enter the kingdom of heaven even if they left their present order. Still, the theological implications of their actions, at least from their own perspective, did not seem as prominent as it ought to have been among such people. At the same time, the sweet moments of worship and prayer unite the women in their common, but oddly vague, commitment to God.

The film raises other fascinating questions, particularly around the nature of men. I was puzzled by the fact that the only significant male character in the story, August (in a stunning performance by Ben Whishaw), was a very sensitive, tender, and supportive man by personality. He is a lovely and moving character. But what about the more aggressive men? Were there no husbands infuriated to find that their wives and children were being raped? Was there no threat of violence against, or just reckoning with, the attackers by the other men of the colony? A question is asked early on as to whether the men who were arrested are the correct men. There is a looming sense that all the men are dangerous sexual predators. Even in Jean Friedman-Rudovsky’s article—the only place that mentioned the rape of men and boys also—I did not find any follow-up with men – either male victims or the husbands and fathers of female victims. Were they angry? Tormented? Did they refuse to speak to the journalist? Why did no one check on the men? Generally, male aggression does not express itself only in sexual violence but is often channeled into an impulse to protect and shield the weak. Even pacifists can stand up for their wives and children in church, in the courts, and in the community. They don’t need to kill anyone to do that. But here, the options seem to be the rejection of all non-effeminate males or a life of oppression by them. If Polley’s vague setting for the film was meant to evoke the universality of this female conversation, it fails here. There are no men here to defend them or support the women, except perhaps the almost effeminate character of August. But while men may often frustrate us women, so, so many of them have loved us, built us up, defended us, agonized over our suffering, threatened violence, and yes, even carried it out against those who hurt us.

It’s a sign of a great film that it provokes so many interesting questions, moves to tears, disturbs, and even annoys. I’ll be puzzling over it well beyond today, and it’s worth seeing to participate in the inevitable conversations it will evoke.

Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson, Ph.D., is a professor of business ethics, assistant dean of the College of Business, and director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago. She is also a board member for LOVEtheLOU, a neighborhood stabilization ministry in North St. Louis; the Freedom Center of Missouri; and ReThink315. Her new book, co-written with historian Marcus Witcher, is Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.