Water and Trouble: Bringing Women Into View

Firstly I’d like to apologize for being so awol – it’s been a combination of a number of things: being mentally spent, adjusting to being back at work after the holidays, having to work on the train instead of write, and having one of my episodes of serious writer’s block. Writing is often rather exhausting for me, and until I get to the point where it comes easier I’m afraid there’ll be dry spells. I just hope that they don’t happen at the same time that eloriane is unable to post as well! But this past weekend I’ve been a little better rested (and the sun is actually OUT) and having just given myself a break from even trying to write, I now feel able to give it a go. I’m not going to fuss about this too much so I apologize ahead of time for wonky grammar and half-formed ideas 🙂

Anyways, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is read Trouble And Her Friends, as recommended by eloriane last month. As eloriane points out, one kind of needs to be a bit forgiving of sci-fi that takes place in the near future as it’s nearly impossible to get it right. In that post I’ve just linked to she writes how William Gibson’s book Neuromancer was so acclaimed, but in reality not all that well written, whereas Melissa Scott’s book Trouble has characters that you care about and can relate to, but it’s now out of print. I’ve really been enjoying it – and I wonder how much of that has to do with seeing myself reflected in the book. Of course, it’s also mainly because it’s well written and has “exciting virtual-reality shootouts and car chases” as eloriane puts it (lesbian cyberpunk hello!). But I do think that a part of it is because the main characters are lesbians. Scott doesn’t hit the reader over the head with the fact of their homosexuality – mostly it’s just a function of who they are. Trouble and her friends are almost all queer, and as such, inevitably the characters deal with other characters’ reactions to that fact. But they also just think and live as queer folk do, talking about their lives as we all do. It isn’t hidden, or brought up just during a plot point. The two main characters are also female, and the same thing applies with regards to sexism – they think about and respond to the way other people will perceive them because they’re female, because of the way they’re dressed, because of what skills (or lack thereof) women are expected to have.

But this is not Scott trying to make some kind of political point with her book – though she might have been, who knows – but rather this is just how life is like for lesbians, for women, for queer folk, or for folk of any oppressed minority. There are all these little and large ways in which we have to deal with those with privilege and bigotry. We have to walk around aware of it and them, and move in ways to make ourselves safer. One of the things that I’ve been enjoying about Melissa Scott’s book is seeing that reality in print, described as just occurring within the daily goings on of the character. There are lots of ways in which we subconsciously change our behaviours to be safe, ways in which we stray from fidelity to our own sense of self. Scott’s writing illustrates that, bringing to life aspects of my own experiences.

One of the other things I’ve been doing since I haven’t been able to write is to watch some movies. The most notable of these has been Deepa Mehta’s Water. This is the last of her Elements Trilogy, the first two being Earth and Fire (and yes, note Fire is about lesbians! w00t). Water is a gorgeous gorgeous film, focusing on the lives of widows forced to live in poverty in India during the time of Ghandi. Women (and girls) who survive their husbands are deeply marginalized in conservative Hindu culture; they are pariahs and their options for survival are limited. The film opens with the death of an 8 year old girl’s husband and her subsequent shutting away to live a life of penance. This is conservative Hinduism I believe, for I seem to recall reading of feminist readings of Hindu scripture. Hinduism, like Christianity, like Islam, like Judaism, has extremely patriarchal and misogynistic aspects – but I really and truly believe that western patriarchal religions aren’t any better (I say this to stop in their tracks anyone saying crap about those “backwards third world people” and shit – is India the third world??).

The movie centers around the child and a few of the other widows, as well as an idealistic, upper caste male follower of Ghandi. Being about women, the camera obviously focuses on their reactions to events. But somehow this movie felt different to me than other movies about women. It’s clearly a feminist film, although it’s never preachy or obviously Making A Point. It’s a feminist film because it takes seriously harms done by patriarchal traditions and it recognizes how a woman with restricted rights is a human rights issue, that her suffering is important.

I keep trying to think of how it accomplishes this sense I had of women’s experience of the world being central to the film. Obviously there are many films where there is a female protagonist and her experiences are central (all those “chick” flicks) – but Water felt substantially different, and not just because of the subject matter. I kept thinking of the subtle ways the camera focused on her face rather than his, even when he was talking sometimes? I’m not even sure, now. I’m kind of processing aloud – forgive me. There were subtleties in where the camera (thus our eyes) are focused – on a woman’s face, on her feelings. Something happens and we are made to experience through her, as if we are her. Even when characters make excuses for some sexist behaviour or tradition we see how women feel about it, how it grinds them down.

It seems to me that there are ways in which to write/film female characters that won’t have this woman-centred focus. Of course sometimes it’s just subject matter – a movie that shows a liberated woman choosing to forgo career (and voting!) to go back in time to be with her boyfriend isn’t really showing us what life is like as a woman. It’s showing us how to behave as a woman. Water shows us what life is like – and in that way alone, it is a feminist film. Trouble And Her Friends is the same way – it shows us what life is like for lesbians, for the marginalized. Both of these works speak about the marginalized among us to some extent. They both show us their lives, and by putting it down on paper, by filming it, makes it kind of Real.

More and more I believe that just speaking our truth, as women, is a feminist act, as almost the entirety of our culture is dominated by the male perspective and the male gaze. So even when a film has a woman as its central character it can still feel that women aren’t in view, you know? I hope that all of you that have studied film or storytelling (whether academically or casually) will pop in with your responses because I’m feeling somewhat unable to get out what I’m trying to say. There is the chance that the fact of these two works being feminist are in and of themselves enough to create this difference that I’m trying to describe, but I keep thinking that there are also subtleties in what the camera/narrator focuses on, differences in technique that makes things so different.

This is one of the things that I think are so great about Trouble And Her Friends and Deepa Mehta’s Water. There are female characters and women’s lives are in view. Water is, of course, also just a brilliant bit of film-making (which you should all go and see, though the ending will break your heart and may be a bit triggering to some). And Trouble is a fun little sci-fi book with engaging characters. But also, in them, women’s lives – our lived realities – are finally in view.

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