Feminist visions in “The Handmaiden” and “The Beguiled”

Natalie Morningstar
February 27, 2018
© The Handmaiden 2017

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for both films.  

If feminism’s third wave was the epoch of riot grrrl,  its fourth wave is the putative age of the hashtag. So too, however, is  its fourth wave perhaps the most hotly and publically contested of the  various feminisms, with the rubric for what makes a ‘good’ feminist  under intense scrutiny  with the likes of the #MeToo movement and its digital forbears. Just as  riot grrrl recuperated political radicalism for mainstream feminism,  then, fourth-wave #MeToo feminism has crucially reclaimed digital space  as a site of feminist protest, to both divisive and galvanising effect.

Yet concomitant with this burgeoning of a digital culture of  accountability, an implicit moral discourse about what makes a ‘good’  feminist movement—and its vigorous redefining of ‘bad sex’—has  also gained momentum. At the heart of the debate around contemporary  feminist politics has been a set of deeply fraught equivocations about  what precisely the rubric should be for a popular feminist political  ideology. From the controversy around one woman’s account of her date with Aziz Ansari, to the left’s lambasting of self-described feminist opposition to the #MeToo movement, to controversial second-wave feminist Germaine Greer’s disavowal  of certain implications in the movement’s revisionist politics,  participants in the contemporary debate around mainstream feminism seem  to agree on at least one thing: that there is no single feminism to  which #MeToo sympathisers and opponents alike can unproblematically  collectively subscribe.

I would argue, however, that the ambiguity manifest in the current  fourth-wave debates around accountability, intention, and discrimination  is perhaps this feminist moment’s greatest asset, for it confronts head  on what we have known all along: that there is not A Feminism, but  rather competing feminisms. If the #MeToo movement has stretched its capacity  for making defensible claims to individual cases of gender  discrimination and sexual violence, it has also forced us to ask: what  might the next move in this highly publicised debate be? What dominant  understandings of A ‘Good’ Feminism might be obscuring the plural  feminisms circulating in debates around the politics of sex and vision  in the pop culture industry? And what feminisms might we fruitfully  reframe at a historical moment in which the politics of the public gaze  is under critical examination?

A tentative answer to these questions can be found through a  comparative review of two potentially feminist films: Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden.  Both are period reimaginings of gender politics and colonial occupation  through the perspective of female characters. Both are high-budget,  award-winning reproductions of already existing films and novels,  extravagantly aestheticised on the silver screen. And both received  highly politicised media attention, with one—the former, made by a  woman—lauded as a landmark feminist achievement, and the other—the  latter, made by a man—fetishised as a piece of erotic voyeurism.

© The Beguiled 2017

But a slight reframing of the grounds on which we consider either of  these works as feminist reveals a more complex story. Ultimately, The Handmaiden productively engages with more defensibly ‘feminist,’ critical, and colonially-aware political ambiguities than The Beguiled.  And the fact that the former was made by a man and the latter a woman  is not sufficient grounds for celebrating the conceptual premise of one  over the other. Unpacking the implicit rubric by which these two films  might be adjudicated to ‘succeed’ or ‘fail’ as putatively feminist  pieces of work unsettles assumptions about what feminism could or should  be. These films and their comparison open the door to a critical  recognition of feminism’s plurality. They provide insight into the  contingent ways in which the various feminisms may be deployed to  leverage, justify, or curtail radically different political projects.

* * *

When I first saw the poster for Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled,  a period adaptation of the book and film of the same name, I could  barely distinguish the three leading actresses in the advertisement.  They were all dewy, well-groomed, and jealously tending a man whilst  dressed in essentially identical colonial attire. The image immediately  struck me as at once aestheticised and fraught: a bizarre, racially  inert just-post-antebellum transfusion of Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, one that would probably serve as yet another demonstration of the director’s lush visual language.

But then Coppola became only the second woman in history to win the Best Director category at Cannes. Reviewers claimed The Beguiled  as a victory for feminism, and for sidelined female film directors the  world over, so I saw the film. I was curious how this dynastic female  filmmaker—talented surely, but well embedded in the film industry and  with a reputation for creating films as insular and patrician as her  social milieu—could be the recipient of such a prestigious accolade. I  wondered how the honey-hued images of white women languishing in the  Confederate south during one of the most racially violent periods of  American history could be justly described as feminist (rather than just  racially and historically problematic). And whether, if feminism and  gender are really at stake here, how her winning the award in the first  instance could be considered a landmark achievement for feminism, as the industry and mainstream media seemed want to portray it.

The fragility of Coppola’s feminism becomes especially apparent when  we consider what it omits from its feminist imaginary. As several  critics have highlighted, Coppola has yet to convincingly justify the exclusion of all of the black characters present in the original book and film. Nor has she been able to explain away the conspicuous absence of any substantive reference to the slavery  that buoyed these upper-class southern ladies to their state of  perpetual candy-coated indolence. Aside from embroidering, taking French  lessons, and complaining about not being able to play the violin, the  women do very little, until the dashing but duplicitous Corporal  McBurney arrives. At one point, they tend the garden, but the scene is  so well choreographed and their white costumes so pristine, you are made  immediately aware of the artifice of labour. So too does this highly  curated, nostalgic image of aristocratic malaise make ever more forcibly  apparent the invisible lives and labour on which the decadent lifestyle  of the white leisure classes historically depended.

To omit this deeply racialised history does violence to more than  historical factualism—it obfuscates the politics of class and race that  fundamentally facilitated the perpetuation of a colonial elite. And it  veils the insidiousness of the role aesthetic nostalgia clearly plays  for Coppola in justifying her racially neutralised brand of upper-class  white feminism.

Yet, even if it were the case that Coppola had engaged with the  overtly elided institutionalised slavery grounding the film’s narrative,  it could still be argued that The Beguiled ‘fails’ under  certain classically feminist rubrics. For one thing, the narrative  agency of most of the women in the film hinges utterly on contestations  over who is most worthy of the sexual attention of their putatively  powerless guest, a reading of female agency that surely would have been  met with strident discord by the likes of Betty Friedan, Simone de  Beauvoir, and other progenitors of first- and second-wave feminism.  After the arrival of the Corporal, every action feels staged merely to  necessitate an encounter between these eternally idling women and the  mysterious man in their midst. Yes, they eventually chop his leg off,  but only because one of them jealously pushes the philandering Corporal  down a staircase and fantastically compound-fractures his leg. Not sure  that chalks up to some sort of symbolic feminist castration, as certain critics proclaimed,  nor am I convinced that castration is particularly feminist or  symbolically effective as a thematic or conceptual representation of  women’s emancipation. For me, the sexualised power play orbiting around  the central male character merely functioned as Freudian melodrama. This  all makes slightly more sense when we consider that Coppola is  reportedly unfamiliar with the Bechdel test, that entrenched and widely discussed metric for gauging the gender bias embedded in a film’s narrative structure.

It was thus hard for me to read the plot as obviously feminist by any  popularly or historically accepted standards, yet other critics  continued to applaud Coppola’s efforts to refigure a familiar narrative  from the perspective of its (white) female characters. The film  industry and considerable segments of the mainstream media seemed to be  saying that to be feminist, a narrative just needs a woman in it saying  something about women, even if it’s a woman evading nuanced  representations of race and class.

* * *

Enter Park Chan-wook. He’s a man. And this year, he released his period drama The Handmaiden,  also an adaptation of a novel, about two women subject to a man’s  violent sexual treachery sumptuously shot in a colonial landscape.  Despite these basic thematic parallels between the two films,  Chan-wook’s film is absolutely nothing like Coppola’s in almost any  other sense.

The Handmaiden is a difficult film to describe.  While exiting the cinema, I overheard one audience member comment that  he had no sense of the duration of the film, and I realised at that  moment that neither had I. I returned to see it two more times, as its  multilayered structure and intentionally ambiguous treatment of gender,  desire, and vision left me with more questions than answers. But it was  precisely this ambiguity, the way the film consistently walked a thin  line between self-conscious critique and voyeurism, oppression and  subversion, titillation and unease, that I found so compelling.

It is a story of triple betrayal, elegantly embedded in a  Kurosawa-style tripartite narrative structure. A skillful Korean conman  posing as a Japanese nobleman, Count Fujiwara, approaches the young  pickpocket Sook-hee with a proposition: that she enter into a noble  household to work as the handmaiden to the beautiful and wealthy Lady  Hideko, who the Count plans to seduce, swindle, and abandon in a mental  asylum. Lady Hideko spends most of her time reading from her Uncle  Kouzuki’s collection of Japanese erotica for an audience of noblemen,  for whom the Count agrees to counterfeit copies of Kouzuki’s precious  collection in order to get closer to Hideko. Meanwhile, however, the  Count has also promised Hideko that it will be Sook-hee who is cast off,  leaving Hideko to assume the identity of a lower-class Korean  handmaiden for her escape from her tyrannical and depraved uncle. To  make things even more complicated, in the midst of all this treachery,  Sook-hee and Lady Hideko fall in love, only to discover they have been  pitted against each other by the Count, and that Hideko’s Uncle’s grasp  on her fate is more constricting than either of the women had imagined.

I won’t completely spoil the plot, but neither the Count nor Kouzuki  fare very well in the end. It is only after Sook-hee and Hideko connive  their own labyrinth of betrayal internal to the deceptive plot  engineered the Count and Kouzuki that they are able to escape the tangle  of power in which they are initially mired.

This palimpsest of power, intentionality, and desire plays out  formally in the structure of the film. Reiterative images of Sook-hee  and Hideko, often dressed or composed almost identically, as if  reflections of each other, invoke the presence of an anonymous male  voyeur. Mirrors and internal framing constantly mark Sook-hee and Hideko  as one step removed from observation, as if to suggest that the women  being viewed are themselves aware of being more of a vision than a  woman. This extra layer of mediation is made perhaps most apparent in a  theatrical scene in which noblemen imagine an erotic BDSM encounter with  a character in one of Kouzuki’s erotica, personified in each man’s  sado-masochistic fantasy by his own oneiric vision of Lady Hideko.

This formal elision of power and intention is reproduced in the way  language and symbolism are reiterated through layered citation  throughout the film. Several lines are contextualised and  recontextualised, often repeated verbatim by different characters but  with intentionally distinct subtext. Various thematic elements,  especially motifs related to sweets and hunger, are refigured in the  context of the tripartite narrative, so that two different characters  can and often do lend diametrically opposed valences to the same  consumptive act. The Count bursting a ripe peach and Sook-hee feeding  Hideko sweets are visual and narrative moments that thus draw from the  same thematic language whilst usurping this parallel imagery for  entirely distinct purposes.

It is in this sense that the film both formally and thematically  builds a cogency that contains its own foil. Desire is always  embroidered with possession, the delectable with the bitter, vision with  power, lust with perversity. And just when you think you have stumbled  upon the root of this network of deception, the narrative deftly twists  and turns beneath you, and another layer is laid bare. You are  repeatedly seduced with candied images of Sook-hee and Hideko in various  states of sublime aesthetic, only to be made simultaneously aware of  the role of spectacle in the visual production of gender and eroticism.

Despite its conventionally femme images of lesbian sex, the film  still manages to produce a much more inter-subjectively nuanced  portrayal of two women’s relationship with sex, desire, and violence  than Coppola’s attempt at the same feminist project. Female agency,  desire, and power are enacted internal to a narrative structure  ultimately puppeteered by men. The cinematography presents two women  absorbed in each other as they are seen by men, and they only  ever subvert this sexualised vision by subsuming and refiguring it. Even  their ultimate escape is facilitated by one of the women dressing in  drag, as if it is only by invoking masculine power that that selfsame  oppression can be thwarted. In this sense, the film takes stock of the  idea that power and agency, especially in relation to the politics of  sex and gender, are very rarely played out in a structural vacuum. To  take this line of argumentation even further, Chan-wook seems to accept  that the very concepts of agency and structural power quickly elide our  conceptual grasp, and to suggest that the extent to which we invoke  sexual and personal choice is always and inevitably, to varying degrees,  potentially decided for us.

This is what makes the film and its images of beautiful, apparently  agential, intelligent women simultaneously alluring and disturbing. It  creates the same unease and self-doubt that is so characteristic of the  perpetually observed feminine archetype. It makes it triply apparent, as  Berger so eloquently wrote, that: ‘Men act and women appear. Men look  at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’1.  Chan-wook deftly builds the audience’s desiring vision into the duality  of the visual operation that is seeing and desiring a woman on screen.

He seems to say to us: “Look, by all means, but remember, my film looks back.”

Any recognition of this intentional visual ambiguity was almost  completely absent from popular criticism. The only aspect of the film  that seemed to capture mainstream media attention was the fact that two  women had steamy, ‘lurid,’ ‘wet,’ ‘outrageous’ sex on screen. The Atlantic described the film as ‘long, occasionally demented, and intense.’ The Guardian called it a ‘lurid lesbian potboiler,’ an ‘outrageous thriller drenched with eroticism.’ To The New York Times, the film was ‘slippery,’ ‘voluptuous,’ and ‘creamy,’ and for The Wall Street Journal, it was a testament to ‘the perversity of human nature.’ The Telegraph? A ‘male wet dream.’ (Nice.) The Telegraph,  in paradigmatic eloquence, even went so far as to intimate that  scissoring was a previously unbeknownst form of love-making and warned  viewers of what might accost their tender sexual consciousness when they  looked it up Urban Dictionary.

When The New York Times describes lesbians as ‘slippery,’ we  need to have a conversation about feminism and sex. And when Coppola  becomes the benchmark for feminist filmmaking, we need to have a  conversation about what feminisms we are satisfied to see so powerfully  visually reproduced on screen. The point here is that the media  systematically sexualised an ideologically feminist narrative and  simplistically dubbed as ‘feminist’ a narrative that could just as  defensibly be classified as both racist and sexist.

If such politically divergent cases can be made for the selfsame  pieces of putatively feminist work, we have two choices: First, we can  languish in a state of existential despair at the failure of our given  variation on the feminist theme to achieve singularity. Or second, we  can begin to cultivate a conversation about feminism that makes space  for its internal contradictions and plurality. This move will  necessitate abandoning words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to describe entities  as diverse in scale and scope as ‘all men,’ ‘sex,’ and ‘the entire  feminist movement.’ Such a move will thus also require a break with  dogmatism, and a reconfiguration of popular political ideology as a  thing that doesn’t exist in and of itself, but is made by practices of  looking at and speaking of its object.

If fourth-wave feminism is digital fragmentation, we can hope that  the fifth-wave is the a priori incorporation of that ideological  pluralism.

* * *

At stake for me in this debate is a more generalised set of issues  regarding whether the politics of representation offer a sufficiently  robust foundation for a mainstream political movement of whatever  variety. In the context of recent contemporary feminist debates, the  implicit virtue of the movement seems too often be lifting women’s  voices and resituating female presence at the epicentre of popular  cultural power. It is undoubtedly positive that we have more women  giving voice to female experiences of sexism, gender discrimination, and  violence. But at a moment when feminism has, in certain senses, almost  become a form of politically correct mainstream branding, is it a robust  enough feminism that simply asks that we increase the representative  proportion of female presence in the spheres of cultural and knowledge  production? Or do we need to recentre our focus to the implicit  ideologies such a popularised version of feminism purveys? Could it,  indeed, be the case that it isn’t as significant per se that we  have more female film directors and artists—though I don’t know many  feminists who would see this as anything but desirable—so much as that  we ask all putatively feminist forms of production to have more nuanced  critical rigor?

This is, of course, not to diminish the historical importance of  feminism becoming at least somewhat accepted in popular culture debates  about the politics of gender, sex, and vision. It is just to suggest  that the politics of representation may not be enough to propel us into a  more subtle critical conversation about what it means to be feminist,  or to commit to any ideological movement that sees something like social  equality as its objective. It is also to suggest that just having more  women talking about women does not necessarily unproblematically signal  that we are engaging in feminist critique.

By extension, then, a female director’s vision, and her rendering of  her female characters’ agential relations to other women and men, is not  in and of itself feminist. It is a potentially important  political move that could indeed have what one may be comfortable  describing as feminist consequences, or could have been pursued under  the auspices of feminist ideology. But no matter how many times we re-make Ghostbusters, no matter how many sexist films we retrospectively obliterate from ‘the canon,’  and no matter how many women reveal horrific stories of sexual assault  and violence, repopulating public space with women’s (very worthy and  well-overdue) voices and political projects will not in and of itself produce a utopian feminist revolution by corollary.

I remain skeptical of a woman with absolutist claims to A Feminism,  to ‘bad sex,’ and to ‘good politics,’ even more so if her moral  commitment to certainty is so powerfully reproduced on screen as Sophia  Coppola’s. If I have to choose between a film that does something  complex with conceptual approaches to the ambiguity of sex, gender, and  violence, and one that checks all the liberal-democratic boxes, I will  always unreservedly align with the former.

And it won’t particularly matter to me that it was made by a man.



All by
Natalie Morningstar