This week I finally saw the Oscar-winning film Women Talking, which masterfully depicts women problem-solving how to respond a gigantic situation of systemic sexual abuse and assault by men in an isolated religious community. Today I want to take some of the tools of my trade—communication theory and narrative theory—to explain why I saw the film as an excellent expression of #AssertiveSpirituality on so many levels. Thanks for giving me a few minutes to see how I saw so much narrative of possibility and healing in the film.
My Standpoint, and Why I Was Nervous about Watching This Film
Okay, so as always, I’m approaching this analysis from my standpoint as a former pastor’s kid in a right-leaning moderate denomination who went on to get a PhD in Communication.
Specifically, I was also coming at this film as someone coping with spiritual/religious trauma, so I was wondering whether it would be triggering for me. Sexual abuse is always a difficult topic, too: I was concerned that might be difficult to take in as well.
Relieved that Neither Concern Was an Issue for Me—In Fact, I Found It Healing
I was pleased to find that I didn’t have problems with the handling of either of these key elements of the story.
Instead, what I found was a captivating act of “female imagination,” as the film itself puts it, that seemed to open up a space for healing, empathy and new possibility and understanding for so many.
I was impressed.
A Brief Spoiler-Free Overview of the Story and Its Context
I’m going to try to avoid too many spoilers, but let me briefly tell you what the movie’s about and why I got so excited about it, both personally and professionally as well as in light of this #AssertiveSpirituality project I’ve been doing for more than 5 years now.
The movie is directed by Sarah Polley, and is based on a novel by Mennonite Canadian novelist Miriam Toews. The story in both was originally a response by Toews to a real news story in which a group of isolated Mennonite men in Bolivia were caught drugging and raping the women and girls in the community. The book (which I’ll admit I haven’t read yet) imagines what might have happened if women in a slightly different but similar setting in a different place sat down and worked together to try to puzzle through how to respond to such a situation together.
Women Talked in the Film—and That Definitely Wasn’t Boring
While this film had occasional very brief visual references to the sexual abuse and its impacts, it largely centered on what the title suggests: Women Talking.
The ensemble cast was masterful in creating a powerful set of tensions and dialogue that illustrated both extremely natural emotions and impacts that this kind of trauma may create.
Working on the Best Possible Solutions to Difficult Systemic Problems
The movie Women Talking sensitively allows for all of this to flow, and to simultaneously rationally and emotionally work through the various options and limitations the women have to figure out what to do next in their situation.
I was reminded many times of the ways that I seek to create the ability to have healthier, more democratic, small group discussions in my classroom as I watched. Various problems and their solutions are worked through carefully in the circle of women and girls during the course of the movie.
As I Said, I Felt More Healed by the End!
Again, I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but by the end of the movie, the women reach a decision and act on it.
And as they did, I felt like I had been myself taken through a healing, integrative process. By the end, I felt ready for more #AssertiveSpirituality action.
I also felt my tolerance for other healthy perspectives and the emotions that naturally come with them had been increased as part of the healing process.
In Which I Nerd Out on Narrative Theory in a Highly Relevant Way
Let me briefly explain how this could be. See, as a variety of narrative theorists collectively tell us, we often seek out more extreme stories for ourselves, at least in part, so we can get advice on how to safely navigate more extreme situations that may pop up in our lives. (Or, perhaps, those that already do.)
And, as narrative theorist Jerome Bruner suggests, fictional stories are often the best in helping us to break us out of our personal and societal stuck spots (as trauma researchers call it, our freeze stress response) into the narrative of possibility and action.
As narrative theorist Mikhail Bakhtin notes, another thing that well-written (and acted) stories do is provide a healthy tension among viewpoints, allowing a space for resistance of authoritarian narratives. Even the ones we carry inside ourselves.
Feeling What a Good Well-Told Story Can Do
Women Talking managed to enact all of this beautifully. At least for me. And that doesn’t mean the women made all the same decisions I would have done. It just means it helped me feel more healed and integrated and empowered for doing what *I* can do where I am with what I’ve got by the end.
How The Story Illustrated this Project for Me
In short, I felt like the film refreshed me and helped me more ready to do what I’ve been envisioning assertive spirituality to do since the inception of this project.
That is, to sort through the challenging societal problems I and others are facing, and assertively work toward helping myself, others, and especially vulnerable populations work toward healthier solutions to real-world problems, trying to meet as many needs as possible along the way.
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I wish more people would watch this film.
Strong Women Talking About Important Things in Powerful Ways
This movie takes on an important subject—how women should respond to abuse by men who gaslight them about it—with strength and humanity. By only having one straight cis male character speaking in the film, it manages to allow the women in the film to work through the problem-solving around this issue with tension, emotion, yes. But also frankness and empowerment.
So Many Crucial Topics, Many of Which I’ve Touched on Here
The women’s voices broach a lot of important topics that they clearly grieve about not being able to fully solve in the film. They talk about spirituality and religion and its abuse (I’ve talked about that particularly here), about the use and abuse of forgiveness in situations like these (I’ve talked about that here), how to deal with the extremely unhealthy systemic and personal effects of patriarchy and toxic masculinity (I’ve talked about that a bit here) and how to educate the next generation toward change where possible. And so on and so forth.
Grieving that There Are No Easy Solutions, Yet Choosing, and Moving Forward in the Best Way Possible
What is clear by the end of the film is that there are no easy answers to difficult situations. Nonetheless, difficult choices can be made to move forward.
Importantly, the choices these women make may or may not be the right ones for others in different situations. But they are clearly ones of integrity for these women. And that’s important.
This Kind of Narrative Is Soul Food—May We Seek It Out
It should be clear by now: I hope some of you choose to seek out and watch and/or read Women Talking. I see so much in it that is assertively integrative, that is healing, that can allow us personally and as a society to see our way to healthier recognitions around really difficult situations like these.
Whether you choose to see it or not, I hope you find this kind of narrative opens up new understanding and spheres of healthy #AssertiveSpirituality action for you.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap and move toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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