In the Blog
Going down the road that leads me on!
As feminists, if we want anything from film, it’s strong and powerful women characters. Tired of cinema’s portrayal of women as passive victims (or the related image of powerful women who always meet a tragic end), we want our women characters to stand up, to act, and to survive - all the things we find ourselves doing everyday.
So when a film like director Andrea Arnold’s Red Road jumps off the shelf at me with some mumbo-jumbo sales copy about a woman having no choice but to confront a strange man, I sure as hell rented it.
The film follows Jackie, a quiet, withdrawn and clearly unhappy woman who works as a CCTV operator in Glasgow, Scotland. She never smiles. She is almost always alone. When Jackie leaves a big family gathering, it is obvious that she is unable to be close with anyone, not even her family. From the very start, her relationships with men seem strained and difficult.
Much of the early part of the film focuses on Jackie at work, where she patrols Glasgow streets through the power of closed circuit surveillance. I watch Jackie watching. I watch the screens too - and the disorienting screen flips and camera zooms reveal a dark, gloomy city. Crime seems to be around every corner: Jackie views and reports a youth gang stabbing incident, and also watches a lone woman dealing with a group of men late at night on a street corner, her finger poised to dial the police. All this makes for an edgy, uncomfortable closeness with Jackie. As I watch, she is my only ally in a very scary lonely world.
So when one night Jackie sees a young man, Clyde, on her screen whose appearance causes her sudden distress, my back gets up right away. Right away I am sure Clyde is a big jerk. All I discover is that Clyde has just been released from jail, and that Jackie somehow knows him. Since Jackie spends most of her time alone, that easy plot device of conversations between characters doesn’t give you clues to what she is thinking or feeling. Instead, all I can do is watch Jackie act - and try to guess what has happened with Clyde. What is this woman’s story?
For me, a film is powerful when it encourages me to question my relationship to the characters in the film, and to question the way I react and choose to ally myself with the faces on the screen - after only glimpsing into their lives for a few short hours. In Red Road, the filmmaker artfully sculpts my alliance with Jackie. So of course, when she starts to act to regain control of whatever has caused her such sadness and anxiety, I am rooting for her. As a feminist, I am rooting for her.
As Jackie starts stalking Clyde, what do I want her to do?
Jackie looks behind to see if you, feminist viewer, are following along with her.
OK, I admit it. I want her to mess with him. Humiliate him. Scare him. Then I want her to kill him. I felt that frisson of fear that she would kill him, but still I want it. As they become closer, and sexual tension builds, I start feeling a bit unsure of what Jackie is doing. I want her to explain to me why she begins acting so weird. (Strangely, I don’t think she is acting weird when she seems to want to stab him earlier. Huh?) As Clyde makes some daring and dirty come-ons, I hate him for not recognizing Jackie. The whole time, I wonder what the heck is going on - but even with that not knowing, I’m on her side, without a doubt.
Then, things change again. As Jackie fakes a rape, I feel betrayed. I don’t want to be on her side anymore. While the feminist me got hopping mad that this film shows a rape fabrication - contributing to that stubbornly persisting lie that women commonly exaggerate their experiences of rape - another part of me is embarrassed because I was on the side of a crazy person. Who am I calling crazy? Most definitely, I am calling Jackie crazy - because she starts to do things that I don’t agree with…things I judge as wrong, no matter what Clyde might have done to her in the past.
You don’t find out Jackie’s story until the very end of Red Road - so obviously it would be unfair to reveal it here.
What is so fascinating about this film is the way it drew me to Jackie’s side. I became so committed to Jackie’s quest to right some wrong, that it was a real shock to realize that I made some big assumptions according to the limited view that I was permitted to see - through the CCTV screens, as well as the screen of the filmmaker.
Of course, it is our human nature to make judgments. But what Red Road revealed to me is that I not only jumped to side with Jackie, but as soon as she acted in a way that I felt was inappropriate, I was pretty quick to judge her - even when I still had no idea what had really transpired between her and Clyde.
This realization clanged a big bell in my brain. As a feminist, I spend so much of my energy encouraging women to act, stand up, take a stand - and then when Jackie does, I have no scruples about deciding for her what is just and right.
As the viewer, I took the power to decide what should happen. How presumptuous of me! It reminded me of how I judge other’s actions in dealing with their oppressors when we have no idea what their experiences have been.
How do I decide what amount of violence is acceptable? Looking at judgments from my past: How do I decide if anti-poverty activists should steal from the rich? How do I decide if it is right for native people to block highways to raise the issue of unresolved land claims? Let’s consider the larger question operating here: How did I decide I had the power, or the right to decide for other people? I am pretty aware that that my decision to uncritically assume this power is bound up in my own sense of privilege as a white woman, particularly as a Western European-descended white woman whose ideas of justice are enshrined in our legal system. As a white woman whose history is made meaningful by many cultural signs around me. I am only now starting to see all of those signs.
Red Road is a loaded, tense film that taught me something about my ideas and desires of what makes for meaningful feminist action. I hope it can do that for you, too.