A Feminist Critique of Movies About Genocide

In addition to all of the research I’ve been doing about teen pregnancy (it’s coming, I promise), I was also examining movies about extremity this semester.

There are a number of truly great films on this subject, and I’m not here to diminish the stories that ARE told through these films.  These stories are powerful and heartbreaking, and I have the utmost respect for all of the survivors of tragedies such as the Holocaust (I’m Jewish, remember) and the Rwandan genocide.  What the characters in these films go through is of course extraordinary, and this is not to diminish the suffering that is depicted in these works.

There are, however, stories that are left untold by Hollywood and popular media, and those are the stories I want to talk about.  The following is an excerpt from Visualizing Extremity: The Framing of Human Cruelty and the Experience of the Survivor in Film, on the almost exclusive focus of cinematic works depicting genocide on male characters:

The result of this is a normalization of the experiences of men as the general experience.  This is not necessarily reflective of lived realities, but nonetheless represents the understanding of extremity conveyed to viewers.  Conditions in women’s camps were not necessarily the same as those in men’s camps during the Holocaust, for example: many women’s camps utilized different sorts of labor, and women were not necessarily treated the same as men.  Because women are often expected to be more docile and were in many cases less exposed to hardening experiences such as violence prior to internment, their ability to cope may not have been the same as men’s, or they may have utilized different coping mechanisms than men.

Moreover, many women in conflict or crisis situations experience gender-based violence, often on a large scale.  For example, rape has often been used as a tool of war: in many genocides, this has been cited as a source of trauma, a means of tormenting communities with the knowledge that their women are not safe.  With the exception of one momentary reference to “Tutsi prostitutes” in Hotel Rwanda, where it is clear that the women are being abused, there is little depiction or discussion of the ways in which women’s bodies become a site for conflict or torment during times of violence and social breakdown.  The omission of these experiences removes them from the public eye and reduces a demand for meaningful discourse on the subject.

Because film and popular media serve as an important access point, what is included as well as what is excluded influences the popular discourse on any given subject.  Having read and done research on the Holocaust before, I have encountered other accounts of women’s experiences, and have seen through these testimonies indication that, at the very least, further investigation into women’s experiences during the Holocaust is certainly warranted.

It’s not just the Holocaust though-~-and to be frank, it often frustrates me that when genocide is discussed, only the Holocaust seems to be our go-to example of human cruelty.  There have been endless examples of atrocities committed-~-genocides were committed by the Khymer Rouge in Cambodia, against the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, in Haiti, in Guatemala, against the Kurts in Iraq, against the Tutsis in Rwanda, in Uganda…the list goes on.  We rarely even TALK about some of these genocides (I literally just learned about the Guatemalan genocide for the first time last week), and when we do talk about them, it is in terms of numbers and statistics, in terms of death.  We talk about genocide in a de-gendered manner that presents the male experience as the norm.

But we know that, for example, sexual violence is frequently used as an act of war.  In the Congo, and in Sudan, even today, hundreds of women have been raped as a part of the ongoing conflicts there.  It is used not just to harm the women, but to undermine morale and especially the morale of the men, who feel they have failed to protect the women.  Sheryl Wudunn and Nicholas Kristoff discuss this in their book, Half the Sky; one character even says that their community will send women out to find supplies, because they will be raped while a man will be killed.  Clearly, there is a gendered aspect to conflict that deserves to be recognized and discussed, not just within the scholarly community, but by anyone who is willing to discuss these conflicts to begin with.

Part of the problem is a discomfort with the subject of sexual assault.  Because the issue itself is taboo-~-we don’t even like to really talk about it in the United States-~-it becomes difficult to bring it forth in the debate about ethnic conflict or civil war.  Moreover, it seems likely that such a subject would be unappealing to viewers, meaning Hollywood has no incentive to feature it in films.

Nevertheless, these stories ARE important, and I am grateful that journalists like Kristoff and Wudunn took the time to recognize this suffering and to examine the role sexual violence plays in these conflicts.  If anyone reading this blog is at all interested in the matter, I recommend taking a look at their book, as well as Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women in the Holocaust, a publication of the Women’s Media Center that is apparently available in Kindle form.  The experiences of men who undergo extreme circumstances like this of COURSE deserve recognition, but so are the experiences of women.  It is time that we stop normalizing the male experience and ignore the experiences of women as we struggle to make sense of historical and social events-~-these stories matter, and it is time people started caring that they were told.


~ by Randi Saunders on December 17, 2012.

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