Working-class Masculinity in North Country


I'll admit to being behind the times on this one. The other night I watched North Country (2005), which included brilliant performances from Charlize Theron, Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins.

As you know, it's about a woman miner, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), who in Minnesota's Iron Range battles sexual discrimination and sexual assault in a struggle for equal treatment on the job. Aimes sues the company for damages to force it to change its practices and policies. Unfortunately the union sits idly by and refuses to lift a finger to protect Aimes. (Though it should be noted that labor unions historically have been leaders in the fight for gender equality in the workplace, though as this story indicates that position had to be fought for and won by women workers and their allies.)

I don't want to review the whole movie here or elaborate fully on its plot, nor do I want to spoil it. So if you haven't seen it, stop now. Rent the movie and then come on back and let me know if the following analysis is on point.

I want to focus on one important dimension of the story that I think gets sidelined by the story's biggest themes and emotional catharsis. And that is the story's rape subplot flashback.

A high school teacher catches Josey and her friend Bobby Sharp (played by Cole Williams as the young Bobby and The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner as the adult Bobby) drinking on the football field during school hours and remands them to detention after school.

After the detention is over, the teacher sends Bobby home and detains Josey and rapes her. During the assault, the diminutive Bobby returns to the classroom and witnesses the physically massive teacher's actions, but fails to either intervene directly or even to go call the police or other authority figures to stop the teacher.

Josey becomes pregnant because of the rape and, due likely to her strict Catholic upbringing, abortion isn't even raised as one of her options. Her father (played by Richard Jenkins with his usual reserve of emotion and tension) blames her and is deeply angry at her, not knowing she had been raped and mired in a kind of cultural conservatism that targets women to wear the "scarlet letter."

Her father's anger lasts for years, even up to the final scenes of the movie. It is only one degree away from the hostility much of the town holds toward Josey because of her supposed immorality.

This distorted "sexual history" plays a role in the court drama at the pinnacle of the film as the company's defense lawyer uses her apparent sexual indiscretions against her to undermine her claims that the company looked the other way as the male workers sexually assaulted her. A woman with her history was asking for it, the defense argued.

So the rape is the dividing line of the story. The lie surrounding it leads to the barriers against solidarity a father (and worker) should feel for his daughter (and co-worker). Instead of helping her in the workplace, the father is a looming absence. He abandons her much like he had after he found out she was pregnant. (Josey's mother [played by Sissy Spacek]intervenes to change that, but that leads us in another direction.)

The rape subplot, and this is really why I wrote this particular rant, also reveals a vital contradiction in how men are taught to see themselves and women in our society and popular culture. In a wonderful, terrible court scene, Josey's lawyer (Woody Harrelson) elicits from the adult Bobby a confession that he not only witnessed the teacher raping Josey but that he failed to intervene, most importantly he failed to get help for Josey. Indeed, the lawyer's point is not that Bobby, a child, should have physically stopped the teacher, but that he should have stood up for Josey by getting other authority figures to help her. It is important that the lawyer extracted the truth with charges of Bobby's cowardice, not for failing to physically attack the teacher, but for failing to stand with his friend.

Bobby, shamed by his apparent lack of power in that moment, spends the next several years distorting the memory of what he saw and claims that Josey had appeared to consent to the sexual encounter (still a rape) and enjoyed it. Bobby's false recollection helps fuel the claim that Josey's immoral choices are likely the cause of the sexual assaults in the workplace.

This portion of North Country should not be forgotten. In our society, men (mostly straight men, but not exclusively) are bombarded with stories, images, and narratives that try to teach them that their masculine identities are tied to violence. That problems are solved violently. Bad people are dealt with violently, and that other solutions are feminine or cowardly. And many of us believe this, or at least find alternatives to violent imagery or language difficult to imagine. Hence, the pervasive acceptance of militarism, violence against women, and so on.

Even among progressive men, militant fights and battles are constant in our language and metaphors, likely for similar reasons.

This story both helps reveal this contradiction AND it helps show a better alternative. Young Bobby was trapped in this violent masculinity that told him he should have intervened to help his friend. But this teacher was too big, too powerful and Bobby ran away and said nothing. Isn't it likely that if Bobby's masculine identity included the belief that he could help his friend with words, by telling the police or some other adult nearby what was happening to Josey, that he would have done so? If his words in defense of his friend were deemed as courageous as a violent response would have been, would Bobby have been afraid to use them? The answer is probably no.

Significantly, the same masculinist culture that often justifies or laughs at rape silences Bobby when it came to standing up for his friend. This violent, distorted image of what it means to be "masculine" blocked Bobby (and the other male workers) from feeling the need to stand in solidarity with Josey when it mattered most. Indeed, this division on lines of gender were used to keep the male workers subordinated to the authority of the company, which seemed to the men like an ally rather than their exploiter. Because of the nature of this masculine identity, harassing the women workers seemed like a more pressing need than strengthening the union through solidarity or demanding the equal treatment for all of the workers. The men, in a sense, were also imprisoned by their masculinity – no doubt a prison with velvet covered bars.

A redefinition of male identity is in order. A "revolution of values" as Dr. King, a proponent of non-violent social change might put it, is needed, especially for progressive men who insist that solidarity of and with all is vital to social change. We need masculine identities that relies less on violent imagery and language and more on the necessity of the unity of people against oppression. Our liberation

I know. I've managed to transform a story about a woman's struggle into a story about men and what they need for liberation. But I think we all can use the lesson: we need better tools to protect and be protected by our loved ones, our communities, and our working class.

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  • Bravo for the great analysis!

    Men must do a lot of reflecting on their relation to gender oppression, as people's concept of masculinity is largely responsible for continuing that oppression.

    Of course, key to doing this is men's willingness to listen to women and relinquish control. The means and ends are one and the same here.

    You shouldn't worry about "transforming a story about a woman's struggle into a story about men". Socialized as men, it isn't really our place to speak for women (nor could we do so adequately).

    Women are ready for change. We must listen.

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 02/08/2011 12:52pm (8 years ago)

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