Published in the Toronto Star
Women are being silenced, violated and gaslit. And not just in Sarah Polley’s brilliant, Oscar-nominated film, “Women Talking.”
In recent weeks, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced their resignations, citing, in part, the toll that being viciously trolled and attacked was taking on their lives.
Here at home, Gov.-Gen. Mary Simon’s office announced the closing of all comments on her social media accounts due to an increase in abusive, racist and violent threats. And BC MLA Melanie Mark cited similar treatment in her decision to resign.
Like the dilemma faced by the women on whom Polley’s film and Miriam Toews’ equally powerful book was based, the decisions these women are making are not free choices: they are lesser-evils necessitated by self-preservation.
Watching the film, it’s crystal clear that the women being driven from their homes by abuse do not enjoy basic democratic privileges. But we need to understand the continuing exodus of women from public life in Canada as a threat to our own democracy.
Decades of research make clear that ensuring women’s voices are integrated into decision-making in every arena — from science to business to policy-making — delivers better outcomes.
“Women Talking” complements that research with rich emotional context. Although the story reflects the particular circumstances faced by a colony of isolated and illiterate Mennonite women, its message — demonstrating the heartbreaking consequences of being denied influence and autonomy — is universal.
At a time when violence against women, both online and off, is rising, the story’s broader relevance is impossible to miss. And the power of this explicit “act of female imagination,” as both Polley and Toews labelled it, comes from privileging women’s perspectives in every frame.
Many of the vivid scenes of sexual assaultor domestic abuse written and shot by men reinforce and normalize the violation of women’s bodies. But this film’s depiction is completely centred on the women’s emotional sense-making and the consequences they’re trying to survive.
The violence is evoked solely through aftermath: footage of women and girls shot from above, awakening in their beds bruised, bleeding and disoriented, calling out to, and then being comforted by one another. And it’s utterly devastating.
Some viewers raised on a diet of action flicks may spurn a movie so-up-front about its focus on talking. But they would be wrong to conclude that watching a group of oppressed women discussing, debating and coming to consensus by envisioning a shared future would merit a pass. Because the film is, in fact, a riveting and emotionally gripping roller-coaster.
In contrast to the world it depicts, women in Canada do have a voice. But we still hold less than a third of the seats in Parliament. And we’ve had to march in the streets, to demand every bit of equality: to be able to vote … to own, versus be, property … to be paid what we’re worth … to be protected from sexual harassment or assault, whether we work in mining or the military, health care or high-tech.
As recent events make clear, we’re not remotely there yet.
Canada currently lags dozens of other countries for women’s representation in elected office. We rank 61st in the world because governments from Sweden to Mexico have taken deliberate measures to ensure women hold a balance of power.
Informed Opinions, the organization I lead, recently conducted research to document the paths they’ve taken to achieve parity. It’s not rocket science; the steps are clear and replicable. What’s required is political will.
“Women Talking” surfaces issues we should all not only be talking about, but acting on. We need a balance of power in this country. And to achieve that, politicians need to adopt measures that will deliver meaningful change.