One of my seminar groups is made up of around ten female and three male students. This week we were discussing Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which evolved into a discussion about how far gender equality has been achieved in general. One of the male students pointed out that, in an English Literature undergraduate course at any rate, there are more women than men, and another man replied that he’d noticed that the few men in every seminar still speak for at least half of the class discussion. At that point I wanted to contribute ‘That’s because women are socialised to not express opinions’ but before I could speak, the third man in the room said “Perhaps women find it harder to express their opinions?” These three men began to form a tight and confident circle, their arguments flying back and forth with no breaks where anyone else could speak, as they discussed feminism in front of twelve (counting the professor and teaching assistant) women who weren’t included at all. We still have a long way to go before men and women are equal, they concluded. Women don’t speak up so much in seminars because they’re socialised not to trust their own ideas, not to speak up, not to argue with others, they lamented. It’s terribly sexist that women’s voices aren’t heard enough, at university or elsewhere, and something really should be done, these three men, speaking in front of twelve silent women, decided.
There was possibly some irony in that situation which went undetected.
Here’s another of my seminars, last year: we were talking about the legacy of slavery in literature, and the tutor showed the trailer for Django Unchained, which had just come out in cinemas. Everyone agreed, based on the trailer, that it looked like a terrible, racist film, making light of slavery that way. I was the only person in the class who’d actually seen the film, and I wanted to say that they were wrong, but didn’t (OK, not speaking out in seminars is a recurring problem for me, and one that’s partly caused by my own introverted nature rather than internalised sexism, although I do think the two are connected). Django Unchained was my favourite new film of last year, and what I liked about it at the time was that I thought its attitude to race was more thoughtful than Quentin Tarantino writing the n-word in every line to be ironically shocking again. I thought that the character of Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) was quite a clever satire of a certain kind of white liberal, in film and real life. He starts the film as firmly anti-slavery, but nevertheless willing to buy Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to further his own goals. He may see that slavery is wrong, but he isn’t completely committed to eradicating it because he doesn’t see slaves as people who are as complex as himself. “Do most slaves believe in marriage?” he asks Django on hearing he’s married, as if all slaves must think or act in the same way. I thought one of the film’s many references could be to Driving Miss Daisy, another film criticised for depicting racism from a white perspective, since Schultz teaches Django how to read. And when, later in the film, he and the audience see the full horror of slavery at Calvin Candy (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s plantation, and how determined Django is to defeat Candy, he is appalled to realise that he is no longer in control of Django’s fight.
However, I saw 12 Years a Slave last week, and as well as being a stunningly powerful film in its own right, it forced me to question my attitude to Django Unchained and other films about slavery. In a bizarre reversal of Marx’s famous quote, the history of slavery has repeated itself twice in cinema in as many years, first as farce and second as tragedy. I still think Django Unchained is terrifically witty, thrilling and well-acted, but honest about the realities of slavery – no. Seeing 12 Years a Slave with the earlier film in my mind, I had a bizarre urge to nervously giggle a couple of times, because its imagery of dapper Southern gentlemen in white plantation houses and rows of slaves labouring in the cotton fields so strongly recollected Django Unchained. When’s Foxx going to ride up in his frilly blue suit and kill the bad guys?
The answer, of course, is never. Instead 12 Years a Slave shows the many atrocities of slavery with far more honesty than Django Unchained managed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I now find Django Unchained offensive or distasteful, mostly because I don’t believe in censoring any story or how it should be told. But since Birth of a Nation became the founding text of American cinema – and presented the Ku Klux Klan as heroes – cinema has shied away from the truth of slave-owning society. 12 Years a Slave breaks new ground by depicting the horrors it inflicted – the beatings, the rapes, the families torn apart – with sober and angry truthfulness, and makes Tarantino turning them into a quasi-comic background for bloody pantomime morality seem just silly and pointless.
12 Years a Slave is also unique in the surprisingly obvious step of allowing the slaves to develop as proper characters with voices of their own. Previous films, such as Amazing Grace and Lincoln, have tackled the subject at an angle, by depicting the lives of anti-slavery activists such as Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce. In these films, slaves are either visible as symbolic but silent images, such as Wilberforce’s tormenting visions of captives in a slave ship or Lincoln’s photographs of plantation labourers, or as minor ex-slave characters, such as Olaudah Equiano and Lincoln’s housekeeper, who exist as cheerleaders to the white protagonist’s liberation efforts on their behalf.
In contrast, 12 Years a Slave shows its protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and other major characters, such as his fellow slaves Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), as having complex, developed individual consciousnesses which are both shaped by and independent of slavery. They struggle to develop strategies to preserve their own survival and dignity, and argue with each other about the right way to do so; they have their own fears and desires, flaws and virtues, that make them unique individuals under a system bent on crushing the individuality out of them. And, oddly, so do the white characters. Solomon’s ‘masters’, whether they are the would-be humanitarian Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) or the sadistic Epps and his wife (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson), aren’t in any way excused from their deep complicity in slavery, but their choices within a slave-owning society, and the psychology behind them, are held up to a scrutiny which makes them understandable. Crucially, the film is made from the viewpoint of the oppressed, giving both a full view of their lives and a far more honest view of the lives of the oppressors than is ever shown the other way round. And of course, it can’t be a coincidence that 12 Years a Slave , the first film about slavery to put the slaves and their sufferings at the heart of the story, is the only film I’ve discussed to have a director (Steve McQueen), several major actors and a screenwriter (John Ridley), who are all people of colour, as well as the man whose life the film was based on.
I’m finally going to explain how all this relates to the story of my seminar – because men discussing the effects of sexism, however pro-feminism they are, and excluding women is the same problem as white people making films about slavery, a grotesquely racist crime, and excluding the perspective of people of colour. Ultimately, they’re not really the expert. Their viewss aren’t the ones that matter here. And saying that goes against the effects of a lifetime’s socialisation. A nifty perk of being in a privileged position in society is that you create that society’s media, and therefore, in a self-perpetuating cycle, send and receive a bunch of message telling you how important you are. When the panels of politicians, journalists, business leaders and scientists we see commenting on Very Important Issues in the media are predominantly male, it makes it seem like the Very Important Opinions, the ones that are right and serious and worth listening to, come from men. When the majority of aspirational lifestyles presented in advertising show white couples or families enjoying this luxury product, it promotes the idea that to live a life that’s classy and comfortable and worth pursuing, you have to be white. When all romantic films and pop songs outside a ghettoised few depict straight couples falling in love, it implies that heterosexual love is the norm and gay couples are weird, sinful, sexy, or Poor Oppressed Dears, but not people whose relationships are just as diverse and valid.
If you’re looking at all this and you’re not male, white or straight, it’s a constant fight, like swimming against the current, to resist the feeling that you are small and meaningless – and perhaps it was harder than it should have been for me and the other women in the seminar to take over the men’s discussion because we’ve been receiving the message, over a lifetime, that their opinions are more important than ours. If you’re looking at this and you are, then taking your place in the cacophony of discourse which is almost entirely made up of people like you feels easy and natural – which perhaps explains why the men in the seminar group didn’t seem to see anything wrong. If the world was built to make it easy for you to express your opinions and get them listened to, then you must be pretty awesome. And if you do manage to hear the few voices who are speaking against this, who are pointing out everything that’s sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, classist and ableist about our society, then of course you’re shocked and angry, but that just makes you even more awesome. If you do the less-privileged the huge favour of caring about them, then why shouldn’t you speak out, whenever and however you can, about what you think of what’s being done to them? Why wouldn’t anyone want to listen to what you had to say?
This isn’t, to be clear, a criticism of the men in my seminar group, who I know to be perfectly kind and intelligent individuals, who have a right to participate in discussions on their course, and who were genuinely being supportive of feminism. Nor is it a criticism of films such as Django Unchained, Amazing Grace and Lincoln – like I said, I enjoyed them, and I don’t believe in censorship. I think the impulse to discuss a form of oppression that you’ll never be on the receiving end of, whether in a factual discussion or from a work of fiction, comes from a good place. It comes from empathy, from intellectual curiosity, and, frankly, from the desire to tell a story. Writers are a little sadistic. We’re fascinated by terrible things, because writing about both the victims and the perpetrators makes for a great story. And something as hugely and horribly wrong as racism or sexism creates a lot of terrible things and a lot of stories. There are few things more powerful than the urge to write a story once it’s caught your imagination, and a writer in the grip of that urge just won’t listen to people telling them they’re not helping by speaking out.
The third impulse to write this blog post has been that, in the past week, I’ve been struggling to write a piece for Mslexia magazine’s 200-word ‘Pen Portrait’ slot, on the theme ‘a widow’. I read in a newspaper story about the recent bombings in Russia that there have been several cases of the widows or sisters of former Chechen rebels becoming suicide bombers. From that, I really wanted to write about the widow of an Islamist extremist becoming a terrorist herself. But writing about someone from an often misunderstood and discriminated-against religious background which isn’t mine is tricky territory even for an accomplished writer, which I’m far from being, and the restrictions of the ‘Pen Portrait’ slot made it more challenging. With a 200-word limit I couldn’t write in specific detail about the character’s culture – something I wouldn’t know about without doing extensive research anyway – and I felt it was better to set her story in a fairly vague, Westernised background and focus on the universal emotions of her story, such as loss and anger, since those are what I do know. But I did need to make it clear that I was writing a story about Islamic extremism, and with the world limit, I couldn’t think of a subtler way of doing that than giving the character’s husband and daughter clearly Muslim names (the character herself remains nameless). This of course had the effect of my story using Muslim names as shorthand for ‘terrorists’. I finished the piece, but I’m uncomfortable with my ethics in writing it.
So, I’m not going to say that people can’t speak or write about the lives of people who are less oppressed than them, because I couldn’t without being a hypocrite and because advocating censorship is counter-productive. But I do think there’s something wrong when a discussion about feminism is only among men, or every film about slavery is made by white people. Because if there’s one topic in all the world that you’re not an expert on, it’s this, and if you speak for the people who are experts – because they’ve suffered this directly – until your voice drowns theirs out, then you’re perpetuating and profiting from the very dynamic you wanted to examine and criticise.
So I do think that, without censoring themselves, people need to check their privilege, and part of that is acknowledging the topics on which they can never be experts. Because if the people who are the experts are made the subject rather than the leaders of the discussion, then that discussion is stunted and ultimately somewhat pointless. This is a principle I don’t always live myself, as the story about my story above proves, but it’s one I believe is important. In the discussion in my seminar, how cool would it have been, how good an example of living the principles they wanted to support, if my classmates had realised that they were speaking so loudly and confidently about this issue because, as men, that’s what our society had taught them they could and should do, not because they actually knew about it, and if they’d headed off the discussion by saying “Yeah, I’ve noticed more men than women speak in seminars” – then turning to the room full of women and saying “Have you noticed, too? What do you think about that?”