'Widows' Isn't the Feminist Triumph You Think It Is
Mainstream media still struggles to accurately portray the impacts of racial and economic oppression in the lives of women.
Image via Regency Enterprises
Widows’ diverse, all-women cast was expected to break the glass ceiling of the heist genre: The film has been critically lauded, with heavy praise doled out for Viola Davis’ lead performance and director/co-writer Steve McQueen, as well as best-selling novelist and co-writer Gillian Flynn. Based off of a 1983 ITV series of the same name, it tells the story of the widow of a renowned thief and the high stakes robbery she must commit in the fallout of his death. The film touches on gentrification in Chicago, the patriarchal abuse of power in politics, the militant policing of black people, and urban and sexual violence. It was expected to earn a few Golden Globe nominations, yet on Thursday’s announcements, the movie was shut out of every major category.
Even with all of the feminist talking points that McQueen and Flynn layered into Widows’ script, I can’t help but think of how much more another women-led heist film, Set It Off, advanced the concerns of women onscreen. In the 1996 drama starring Jada Pinkett Smith, Vivica A. Fox, Kimberly Elise, and Queen Latifah, four women resort to robbing banks due to economic circumstances affected by police brutality, unaffordable childcare, and racism in the workplace—issues that still impede the lives of American women today. Director F. Gary Gray (who helmed Straight Outta Compton) and writer Takashi Bufford masterfully captured the ways classism, racism, and sexism intersect in the lives of these black women in Los Angeles.
A similar conversation could have been had about Widows, too. Instead, in the lead up to the film, I read countless interviews about Davis and Liam Neeson’s on-screen interracial relationship and opening-scene kiss, as if this alone were proof of the film’s groundbreaking appeal. Is that really news in 2018?
Although Flynn delivers on her big twist (I gasped) and the film is aesthetically pleasing to watch (McQueen and his longtime cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, cast a cool undertone to the unfolding drama), Widows flounders in bringing about any real discussion about the realities of American women, despite Davis’ best efforts to rally #MeToo solidarity during the film’s promo. “All we want from women is for them to be pretty, and for them to be kind,” she told The New York Times in an interview published the day before the film’s release. “We always feel like the predator’s prey. We always feel that boot of male influence and power. That’s what #MeToo and Time’s Up is all about.”
Rounding out Davis’ crew is Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki. But as the women talk themselves into pulling off a $5 million heist, their dialogue starts to read like promotional materials for the newest brand of Feminism Lite. They’re doing this heist “because they don’t think we have the balls to do it,” Davis’ character, Veronica, proudly says. And Rodriguez’s Linda wants her kids to know that she “didn’t just sit back and take it.”
Widows would have you believe that feminism is simply about inhabiting traditionally male roles, but that narrow definition of feminism overlooks the racial and socio-economic oppression that many more women face. The most important feminist concern in these characters’ lives is not that they must now become the provider. Rather, it is that they all are so desperate for money, despite being business owners and holding multiple jobs and having had well-off husbands—that is, despite achieving some part of the American Dream—that they still must risk going to prison, just to stay afloat.
In Set It Off, the illusion of any dream is burst within the first few minutes of the movie, when Frankie (Fox) loses her job as a bank teller after her boss falsely accuses her of being an accomplice to a bank robbery involving two men from her neighborhood; and, later, when Stony’s (Pinkett Smith) brother, a recent high school graduate, is shot and killed by the police in a case of mistaken identity. There are no rich husbands’ debts to move the women here; only the tight grip of racism and classism imposed on black communities for centuries. But this, too, is what it feels like to be a woman.
Before her brother is killed, Stony trades sex for money with a neighborhood guy who likes her in order to pay toward her brother’s continued education. And after Frankie is fired, she joins her three friends as low-paid nighttime janitors who are verbally berated by their male boss. In this film, sexism preys as it does in real life: weaved into everyday interactions in the workplace, lurking beneath “romantic” courtships, hiding in plain sight in underprivileged communities. The thought of robbing banks becomes palatable to these women because it is the only option they seem to have. In contrast, Widows reveals little to no backstory for any of the women, except that they were taken care of by their husbands, and their motives for the heist meander from needing money, to wanting to stick it to the patriarchy. Indeed, Davis’ only drive for the heist is that she needs a large sum of money in a short amount of time. Part of me wondered if the other characters wouldn’t have been better served just applying for a good job with benefits?
When it comes to having a real conversation about the power structures within which women truly exist, Widows falls short. The film comes at a time when the solidarity of #MeToo rings hollow as women of color, working class women, and many more fail to hear their voices in the movement. This is a tale as old as feminism: Affluent white women dominate the narrative in the fight for women’s equality. Set It Off does not capture every single threat that women face—no movie can—but it at least acknowledges the intersectional lives of women. Widows was fun to watch, but I wonder how many women will actually see themselves reflected on screen.
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