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Sleater Kinney + “The Gift,” Subtitle: Another Movie where Men play games using Women’s bodies

by Joshua B. Hoe The album Sleater Kinney by Sleater Kinney

Yesterday was my birthday. and I had a wonderful night with friends.

After a really great dinner, someone suggested that we go see the new psychological thriller and horror movie “The Gift”

*SPOILER ALERT * - if you have not seen the movie and want to, this will spoil virtually all of the ending

It had something like 93% approval on Rotten Tomatoes and I had heard it was genre bending...so, what the heck...we went to see it.

I was pleasantly surprised through most of the movie, the casting was inspired, the jolts were real...the acting was really great...And there was a really clever twist on the genre in that the protagonist was less likable than the antagonist.

All of that said, because of the last 25 minutes, I could not recommend the movie...I actually found it troubling, unfortunate, and psychologically misogynistic (in a way that even horror movies rarely are). After seeing it I was upset and sad.

Sleater Kinney “A Real Man” + The Gift

Sleater Kinney is one of my fave bands, they released a really powerful eponymous album including the song “A Real Man” in 1995.

These are the lyrics to Sleater Kinney’s song “A Real Man”

Don't you wanna feel it inside

They say that it feels so nice

All girls should have a real man

Should I buy it? I don't wanna

I don't wanna join your club

I don't want your kind of love

I don't wanna join your club

I don't want your kind of love

If you had it in your thighs

You'll see that it feels so nice

You wait, you'll cum every time

I'm not that dumb, I don't wanna

I don't wanna join your club

I don't want your kind of love

I don't wanna join your club

I don't want your kind of love

Don't you wanna feel it inside

They say that it feels so nice

All girls should have a real man

Should I buy it? I don't wanna

For so much of my life, the narrative was simple, men and women both had one thing in common (yes I know this is hetero-normative..it was the dominant narrative) they wanted to meet up and marry and procreate.

The idea that women might actually not want to join ‘that club’ was understood (at some level) in the 70’s and 80’s but certainly not embraced or enthusiastically supported.

I loved this SK song, when I first heard it, because it was truly radical (and still do)...It was the opposite of quietly marching a separate path...it was saying, women don’t have to embrace the idea of being sex objects for men...or even sex with men...They have the right to exist as themselves...They had the right to not be ogled or pawed...They had the right to their own space and personhood without permission, apology, or sexual motive.

It was about saying fuck anyone who doesn’t let me  be who I want to be.

It is/was about the radical idea that women have the right to agency (A thought that should not be radical, but sadly, is….as we shall see in ‘The Gift”).

Robyn, the main female character in the Gift (Rebecca Hall) wants to have a child, the movie intimates that she was so depressed when she and her husband Simon (Jason Bateman) lost her last child that she turned to drugs and disconnection.

It is a little too easy to make her main motivation (given she had a successful career she is leaving for the Cali reboot) pregnancy...But, there is nothing wrong with choosing that route (and I emphasize choosing).

Robyn and Simon move to a beautiful house in California where he has a new job in sales at a successful computer security start-up. Soon after, we learn that the reason for the move (and her leaving her successful career) is to get a new start with Simon and for them to try to have a baby again.

Robyn is, unquestionably, the ONLY main character in the movie that shows love and caring for all of the other characters. While she does (once) steal a few pills from a friend, at the time she steals them she is being (potentially) stalked by an unhinged friend of her husband.

She shows uncommon grace and even love to this obviously damaged friend of her husband.

Simon runs into this ‘friend’ Gordo (played by the movie's director Joel Edgerton) almost immediately after moving back to town (Simon is originally from a small town near LA where he and Gordo went to high school). And, at first, it seems like Gordo has an unhealthy obsession with Simon and Robyn...He almost seems like he is becoming a dangerous stalker.

Later we find out that Gordo’s mental instability was almost entirely caused by unbelievable cruelty and torture carried out by Simon on him while they were in high school (The really interesting and compelling thing about this psychological horror movie is its inversion of the protagonist and antagonist).

Simon made up a story about Gordo being gay and about saving him from being molested...He then uses this story to humiliate and ostracize Gordo so badly that he suffers years of abuse from classmates and even his own father. It turns out Simon was a pretty terrible person and over the course of the movie we find out he has not changed much at all.

Unfortunately, instead of letting the antagonist just become protagonist and the protagonist just become the antagonist...The movie chooses instead to let them each become antagonists involved in a terrible game with Robyn as the sadly literal object of their ongoing struggle. She is not even allowed the agency to become the protagonist in their sick game.

During this game play, Robyn becomes pregnant (pretty much the only thing keeping the husband and wife together).

As her pregnancy progresses, she, through her own industriousness, starts to uncover the duplicity and cruelty of her husband toward Gordo.

But, just about the time that Robyn learns enough about her husband's’ true personality to decide that she “doesn’t want his kind of love” and just after she tries to make him truly apologize to Gordo….We find out that Gordo might have gotten his revenge on Simon by impregnating an unconscious Robyn (after she passed out from drugs and an anxiety attack earlier in the movie).

So, Gordo got revenge on Simon through Robyn? The only character in the entire movie who treated him with care and dignity and with compassion through the entire movie?

What?

What?

What?

I know that there is intentional ambiguity in the movie over if Gordo really rapes her...But, even the home invasion and recording of the event that Gordo sends Simon constitutes an assault and makes her the object of gross violence created by both men.

I am so tired of every movie and television show only being able to communicate horror through violence against women.

And in this case it could not have been more unnecessary, Edgerton could easily have let the inversion play out...I could even have seen an ending where a pregnant Robyn is forced to kill Simon to save Gordo.  That would have been just as shocking.

Robyn would still have been caught up in the violence, but her body would not be the object and she would not have been the vessel for the violent struggle between the two men.

The True Horror of The Gift

The violence against Robyn is only the tip of the iceberg.

Arguably, the movie is saying that The Gift is the baby.

I am not saying that the POV of the movie is some anti-abortion “every life is a gift” type storyline.

I am saying that the title could intend to describe Gordo’s act as ‘The Gift’ he gives Simon through his use of Robyn’s unconscious body.

Yes, I know it is a horror movie...But that is just wrong.

I just cannot explain how deeply this made me feel sad, sick, and like by watching this movie I had just participated in something ugly. I felt like I needed to take a shower after I left the theater.

I get that Gordo is unhinged, I get that Simon is a bad person, but women’s bodies are not vessels for men to use to give rewards or punishments.

Why can’t we ever tell a different story?

Why do we always have to tell this story?

Even if Mr. Edgerton (or the writers) are trying to say that is a horrific and terrifying concept - they are using the concept themselves as the twist of the movie.

What else are they saying?

What else could be the movies POV?

Don’t do bad things or bad people will hurt your wife?

And how is that exactly innovative? Most horror movies for 30 years have used women's bodies as the site for violence to play out on the screen.

Wouldn’t it have been much more innovative and radical to let the violence play out between the men or at the hands of the woman.

Think of Kill Bill, a woman is beaten and left for dead by her lover after she decides to leave him (jealousy)...And, in order to protect her child, she gets rid of every single person tied to the crime.

It’s still violence, but at least she gets to be a protagonist and defend herself.

I said to one of my friends after the movie, “wouldn’t it be nice, just once, if Ronda Rousey was the wife and when violence came at her she just obliterated the whole notion of the passive female victim of violent men?

One More Thing

Even if everything  I just said rings hollow for you.

If you have seen the movie, you have to admit that Robyn is the ONLY good character.

Why make her the victim when we could certainly feel catharsis seeing Simon answer for his crimes and while Gordo was a victim at least he was part of the threatened and actual violence?

Why not at least allow her to be the protagonist instead of an unconscious and unaware vessel for Gordo’s revenge? Let her at least defend herself for God’s sake.

That is just gross, fiction can be a way to raise the discourse, not reward our worst impulses.

At the end of the movie she is in the baby ward holding her baby totally oblivious to the terrible machinations of the men in the movie. Without even the right to know what has happened to her own body.

For god’s sake at least give her agency.

Why, If I had Known, I Would Never Have Watched

Yes, I totally get that it’s a movie, and that in fiction, bad characters do bad things etc.

But, when you create stories, you make choices, and those choices can be revealing of who you are or at least what lines you draw on where you will let your muse take you.

Sure, you have the right to make a movie where the most sympathetic character ends up blissfully ignorant of potentially senseless and cruel violence perpetrated against her to “gift” someone else.

But why would you want to exactly?

Is there dramatic impact to having her be the victim of a cruel game, sure...but, with all due respect, we have seen that movie before (a million times).

I know Nazi analogies get overused, and I certainly am not implying that Mr. Edgerton is a Nazi..

But (always a but - the point isn’t that he is a Nazi it is that you should not reward shiny delivery systems for bad messages)

Lani Riefenstahl made incredible movies with great visual impact...but, unfortunately, they were propaganda films for Hitler.

Was the artistry of the visual presentation of her movies worthy of awards, unquestionably...But, would you want to present her the award?

Joel Edgerton made his directoral debut with this movie, and he obviously has a great deal of talent. He could do great things.

The Gift is a really well made movie, with a great cast, really impressive direction, and a powerful story….But that is its problem, that powerful story is a terrible one to endorse.

My Letter To Joel

If I could write directly to the director I might say:

Mr. Edgerton,

I am certainly not perfect, I have made some terrible mistakes, and done and said many things I am ashamed of...But, I know this.

“I don’t want that kind of love.”

And neither should you.

Let Those Without Sin...

I have been on both sides of misogyny throughout my life in pretty shocking ways.

I have both been bullied and abused and been abusive and bullying to others in my life. I have stood up for women's rights and been prosecuted for saying terrible things online.

I know things that I have done were wrong, I try to make amends every day, and I have spent years learning everything I could learn to understand and address my own issues.

Now I try to help others and myself become better every day.

At this time, I understand two things:

  1. People are inherently complex and even contradictory, they can believe things deeply and do things that totally contradict their deeply held beliefs.
  1. It is very important to take your experiences and apply them critically to the things that you see throughout the rest of your life. You should not sit passively and just tacitly let bad thinking pass unchallenged. When you see things that are wrong, say that they are wrong.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it would be wrong to watch a movie that has a questionable point of view and not call it out.

Let me clarify that I do not think argument is the same as censorship. I would never expect, as the result of any comment that I (or anyone else) made...that it’s makers should be shamed and humiliated…and do not worry, I have no illusions that my writing would reach anyone important. But, my words could reach someone who is thinking about these same things and make a difference for them.  That is what is really important.

What I do believe is that when someone raises critical issues, that those issues should be discussed and we should use those discussions to move public discourse forward….In other words, instead of politically correct policing, I believe in the power of conversation and discourse to change how we approach ideas and choices in the future.

I believe in trying to be persuasive, to change minds through words - not through public shaming or through shouting the people we disagree with down.

In my perfect world, Joel Edgerton would engage in a dialog about his motivations and we would talk it out. I would learn about his real world view and motivations and he would learn about how his work was perceived.

Is this idealistic, sure..

I believe in the Marketplace of Ideas and the power of discourse.

Also, before I continue, I used to be a feminist who didn’t always live up to his ideals. Now, I am all about living up to my ideals (and yes, I think women should be equal and treated equally..yup).

What did you think of "The Gift" - agree or disagree, I would love to hear your perspective, leave a comment!

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