Women Talking’s Pop Feminism Can’t Confront the Messy Reality of Women’s Oppression

Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking depicts the brutal true story of rape in a Mennonite colony. It’s a poor fit for the oversimplified, “you go, girl” feminist message of its framing.

Jessie Buckley as Mariche in Women Talking. (Michael Gibson / Orion Pictures)

Most of the reviews of writer-director Sarah Polley’s Women Talking are full of reverent praise, which every critic knows is the required response to a beautifully shot film that takes on the evils of patriarchy. It’s based on a horrifying true story involving the repeated drugging and raping of Canadian women in a Bolivian Mennonite colony.

This was the inspiration for Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name. The film adaptation features a sterling cast of actors including Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand. McDormand also produced the film, working once again with a female director as she has in most of the work she produces, such as Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), Amy Berg’s Every Secret Thing (2014), and Lisa Cholodenko’s miniseries Olive Kitteridge (2014). She’s dedicated herself to using her producing power to foster the careers of women in the film industry, which is most impressive, like pretty much everything McDormand does.

Because the film represents a serious and committed effort on the part of the filmmakers, I wish I could like it more. But I groaned just watching the preview, and it was all I could do to sit through the film in its entirety. Why did I have all this dread for seeing a depiction of oppressed and abused women?

“Because you know it in your bones already,” a friend told me. And indeed, there’s such a dreary quality of preaching to the choir in these experiences. Women dutifully show up to buy tickets to watch other women enact a drama of their suffering, and then comment to each other about how important it is to bear witness, to pass on the knowledge of trauma and injustice to the next generation.

I suppose so. But there’s a form these depictions tend to take that I find debilitating. As soon as I see the title Women Talking, I think, this film is supposed to be radical in that women will be represented as finding their voices that have been long denied them under patriarchy. But any radicality will be blunted by the predictable form it takes.

The characters in Women Talking don’t tend to resemble any real human beings you’ve ever met, because they’re actually stances and arguments and didactic points dressed up and parading around in costumes, declaiming. In a Twelve Angry Men structure that might be called Eight Troubled Women, most of the narrative of Women Talking is taken up with the debate eight representative women of the community are having up in the hayloft of a barn, while the men are off in the city bailing out the women’s attackers. Their choices are: “Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.”

Frances McDormand as “Scarface” Janz. (Michael Gibson / Orion Pictures)

Of course, it’s ultimately going to be “leave.” It’s hardly even a spoiler mentioning this, it’s so clear even from the preview that’s how it will end.

“Do nothing” is obviously going to be regarded as unacceptably passive, demeaning, and depressing. This stance is represented by McDormand’s severe character, “Scarface” Janz, who’s so thoroughly immersed in the community’s religious belief system, she’s convinced that her way to heaven will be barred if she in any way resists the dictates of the sect’s male elders. She’s stiff and repressed and dressed in forbidding black, manifestly enduring a life of such misery it’s made her into a monster of oppression herself. And she bears a big, livid, Y-shaped scar on her cheek that would be excessive on Boris Karloff in an old horror movie, but it’s got to be highly visible to announce the damage done to her in subsuming her whole being into this patriarchal community. Needless to say, this doesn’t make her position very persuasive, and she soon abandons the debate and rejects the group altogether.

“Stay and fight” would actually mean taking possibly violent action of an unpredictable kind that makes it exciting to contemplate, but it’s far too militant for our toothless contemporary ideology. This stance is represented by Foy as Salome, who lashes out furiously at the women arguing for the other options. But her unchecked, scattershot rage virtually guarantees from the beginning that she’ll never persuade the others. There’s very little suspense about the debate.

“Leave” is pretty quickly the main argument being made by steady, placid Mara as Ona, who maintains a smiling positivity in her vague “a better world is possible” advocacy — though she’s carrying the child of a rapist — that steadily brings the others around to her point of view. She’s one of those sweetly smiling fantasy women, infinitely nurturing, patient, untiring, and incorruptible.

Last of the women to be convinced is Ona’s opposite, Mariche, played by Buckley, whose marriage to a brutal abuser has soured her nature and inclined her toward cynicism, impatience, and venting all her sardonic anger on the other women.

You have to sit through the entire movie to get to this obvious “leave” end point of current pop feminism which plays like fantasy. It’s a kind of uplifting literalization of the tired phrase, “You go, girl,” as the women gather at dawn to pack up the horse and buggies and supplies they’re taking from the community, ending with the caravan rolling off in triumph toward a sunny future.

It’s worth noting that Toews, author of the novel Women Talking, was raised in the Canadian Mennonite community but left at age eighteen. The far messier story that catalyzed her novel, and then adapted here by Polley, has been smoothed out and rendered far more ideologically clear-cut. The horrifying abuses the women endured are only obliquely represented in the aftermath of attacks that leave blood and bruises. But the conclusions of the book and film are made inspirational as the women come to the conclusion to leave the horrors of patriarchy behind and strike out on their own.

In the Toews/Polley versions, the rapists are caught when two young women wake up during an attempted assault and identify them, which leads to the arrest of a group of men, presumably because the other women in the community summon the police. All the other men in the community but one head to the city with bail money to get the attackers released, giving the women only a few days in which to decide their own fates. It’s these few days of debate that are dramatized in the film.

Ben Whishaw as August, Rooney Mara as Ona, and Claire Foy as Salome. (Michael Gibson / Orion Pictures)

In the real-life Mennonite colony in Bolivia, it seems the terrible situation developed along less predictable, more complicated lines. It was a group of male community members who followed up on the women’s initial accusations, tracking the night-time movements of one of the accused rapists until they caught him sneaking in a window, and got from him an admission of guilt and the names of the other predators. This led to their arrest. The convicted men were given sentences of twenty-five years.

But ultimately, the women didn’t leave their community. They’re living there still, in God only knows what state of mind, as the date of the release and return of their attackers grows nearer.

As soon as you read that account of grim reality, you feel with a dull sense of certainty that it would never be written or filmed that way in a mainstream North American novel or movie. At least now these days. Instead, a tiresome pop feminist logic overtakes the film. The women of the community are the victims of outrageous abuse, the men — barring one token “salvageable male,” — all side with the male attackers. And the women almost uniformly liberate themselves in leaving the community because, in its own way, this is the “feel-good” story dictated by current ideology. That it plays as preachy and contrived is perhaps part of the reason why the film is doing very badly in its theatrical release.

There’s certainly a case to be made that such a film is valuable in its lesson-learning structure as we see how the women define such knotty terms as “freedom,” and what that would look like for them in a brave new world of their own making. It’s a teacher-friendly movie that seems bound to wind up in classrooms, generating student discussion points. It would be great material for an adaptation class as well, tracing the shifts from real-life accounts to novelization to film.

But the proudly didactic film never has been a favorite experience of mine. Maybe it’s my imagination, but it seems like we see a lot of this kind of thing, even down to the details of present or future worlds that are somehow overtaken by the belief systems and practices of the past. The Handmaid’s Tale and Don’t Worry Darling are other examples of narratives that encourage an immersion in monstrous patriarchal abuses associated with the past, with the overt intention of sounding an alarm — it can all happen again! But there’s something avoidant about them, too.

There aren’t such clear-cut lessons to teach about the complexities of feminism in our twenty-first-century world, and I can’t help noticing a certain nostalgia for eras of constricting clothing and legally accepted forms of abuse when it comes to dramatizing the struggles of women in American media.