I’ve just got home from seeing Thelma and Louise at the Prince Charles Cinema in London. I’m emotional and angry, and it has nothing to do with the film itself. Thelma and Louise, which celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year, was showing as part of the Bechdel Test Fest: an ongoing celebration of films that pass the Bechdel Test. (Works of fiction are said to pass the Test if they feature at least two women who talk about something other than men. Although limited and fallible, the test remains a useful and interesting tool that reflects the level of sexism in the media.) I had never seen the film before and didn’t know anything about it, but overall I really enjoyed it. The screening was followed by three flash talks given by four women. The first was given by Kate Muir, a film critic who writes for The Times and who was reflecting on the film having seen it when it first came out in 1991; the second by Laura Snapes, a journalist who writes for the likes of The Guardian and Buzzfeed, who was seeing the film for the first time, and the third by Grace Barber-Plentie and Maria Cabrera, two-thirds of the Reel Good Film Club, which celebrates films created by women of colour. Unlike the first two speakers, Grace and Maria were critical of the film. They rightly argued that it was filmed through a white lens, that there were hardly any black characters or characters of colour, and that the only black characters (a detective and a cyclist smoking weed) had no speaking parts. So, Thelma and Louise – though hailed as a major feminist film – is difficult to identify with for non-whites because its protagonists are middle-class white women. They also argued that the film didn’t deal with trauma well. I agreed with a lot of what they were saying, but not with everything. However, that isn’t the point of this post; their arguments were valid and they would have made excellent springboards for later discussion.
Unfortunately, three people in the audience felt as though they had the right to interrupt Grace and Maria’s talk to offer their opinion. (Note that this was not a Q&A session.) The first was a white man who waved his hands in the air and shouted “I’m a man and I’m able to identify with the main characters.” Thank God a white man was there to remind us all that he was a man, we might have forgotten otherwise. Maria and Grace tried to continue with their talk, in spite of how caught off guard they must have felt by this rude interruption. But within seconds a white woman had raised her hand (under the guise of politeness, perhaps, but she didn’t wait to be given permission to speak ) to make two shockingly ignorant points: first, that the main characters in Friends were all white and nobody complained about that (err, where have you been?!), and second, that there were no people from Liverpool in the film (set in the American South), and that she wasn’t offended, implying that Maria and Grace were making a fuss over nothing. Again, they tried to continue what they were saying, but lots of the audience members were beginning to leave the theatre, talk amongst themselves, and were being generally rude. Another member of the audience tried to butt in a third time, but Maria cut them off to remind them that she was still talking. YES ❤
It was a horrible five minutes, a terrible way to end a positive event. Afterwards, my friends and I went up to Grace and Maria to express solidarity and outrage at what had just happened. I spoke to Maria, who was, understandably, shaken (she’s also lovely). I tried to convey my feelings at what had happened but I want to reiterate them and elaborate on them here.
To Maria and Grace:
I’m sorry about what happened tonight. I’m sorry that we have to put up with this, and that you had to put up with this tonight. It always takes courage to stand up in front of a large crowd and express your opinions. It’s even harder when you know that your opinions might be unpopular. Harder still when you’re a young, black woman and you know that the world does not take you seriously. When the world claims that your realities aren’t so. I want you to know that I and others saw that courage and bravery, and that we find it inspiring. I can only imagine that if someone interrupts you when you are speaking in public, carrying on is a momentous task. If I were you I would probably have forgotten what I was saying, become a nervous mess, and felt super intimidated. But you carried on with eloquence and grace. I would have felt as though everyone in the audience shared the opinions of the people who had interrupted. But this isn’t the case. I know that you are incredibly smart, aware women, but I want you to remind you not to doubt yourselves, because it is so easy to doubt yourself when the world wears you down like this. The people who interrupted you were ignorant, arrogant and small-minded. Rather than, say, write you an e-mail or send a tweet with a productive critique of what you had said, they barked over you in a public place. They tried to embarrass you, but all they did was embarrass themselves. Finally, I want to congratulate you on your talk tonight, and for making the best of a bad situation. I know you will, but continue to voice your opinions in a world that hates women who interrupt the status quo. There are lots of people like me who appreciate it, who need it. Thank you.
I also want to express what I would have said to those who interrupted had I had the chance, and I want to explain why what they did was so wrong, in case it isn’t clear:
Don’t be fooled into thinking you’re an enlightened feminist if you deign to interrupt women of colour on stage like this. True feminism is self-reflective, inclusive, and must evolve with the times. Feminism is about justice, not just equality. I’m reminded of a useful pictorial analogy that explains the vital difference between these two concepts. Equality is giving three people of different heights the same sized box to stand on to see over a fence; the shortest person is still too short to see over the fence, but the taller people are able to see. Justice is giving these same people three different sized boxes so that when they stand on them they are all the same height. In other words, justice is a level playing field. As a white, heterosexual man you have privilege. You’ve heard this word before, I’m sure, but do you understand it? Do you understand that your perspective is different from that of a black woman because her lived experience is different from yours? You will never know what it is like to not see yourself in films, TV shows, books, politics, business, etc., because the world is created to convenience you. You do not see a problem because the problem does not directly affect you. Some people say that by talking about white privilege you prevent white people from having an opinion, but this isn’t the case. If it were, your opinions wouldn’t dominate. One of the first things you learn as a child is not to interrupt people when they’re speaking, and yet here you were, interrupting, butting in, talking over these women. This is erasure. This is racism. This is sexism. And when anti-black racism and sexism merge they form a powerful cocktail that has been dubbed misogynoir: the particular blend of sexism directed towards black women. To the white woman who made the ludicrous comments about Friends and being scouse: wake up, people have been complaining about the whitewashing of mainstream TV shows for years! As for the latter point, it is perfectly reasonably for Maria and Grace to hope to see more than two people of colour in a film set in America in the early nineties/late eighties.You cannot compare this to expecting there to be people from Liverpool in Thelma and Louise. I can’t even believe I have to spell this out, but scouse isn’t a race, and why on earth would there be an abundance of Liverpudlians in the American South?
Finally, tonight’s events reinforced the notion I already held that racism and sexism are not things that exist in some distant land. It’s not just in the US, and it’s not just outside the West. Blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more exist in places as seemingly cosmopolitan and integrated as London. It also reminded me of the arguments that such things are only said online, where people can hide behind a screen, but this isn’t true. Marginalised people experience micro- and macro-aggressions both online and in the real world, and we must stop pretending like this isn’t the case.