In September I wrote a piece about Debra Granik’s excellent Winter’s Bone (2010) examining the film through the prism of what the theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza calls ‘Kyriarchy’. Kyriarchy is a concept designed to move discussions of prejudice and social dominance beyond the kind of simplistic oppositional dynamics that have for too long dominated this area of political discourse. According to Kyriarchy, dominance is not a question of GLBT vs. Straight, Black vs. White, Male vs. Female or Catholic vs. Protestant but rather a patchwork of ever-changing power relations between all kinds of different groups. According to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, the face of human oppression takes myriad forms. It is always changing and yet always present. Winter’s Bone demonstrates not only that women can be complicit in the oppression of other women but that men can also find themselves forced into a particular social role that they may personally find oppressive and intolerable. In Granik’s Ozark mountains, men are violent and psychotic because that is what they are expected to be. If you are not violent and psychotic then you are not a real man and if you are not a real man then you might as well spend your time playing the banjo.
As it deals with the poorest of the poor, it is easy to characterise Winter’s Bone as a depiction of a life that is particularly and unusually hard and so to conclude that the patterns of social dominance represented in the film are somehow an exception to the more normal and healthy gender relations that characterise the rest of society. This is simply not the case. The Ozark mountains may well make social dominance a matter of life and death but the same patterns of social dominance present on those bleak mountainsides play out all across our society. Right up to the top. The universality of Kyriarchal rule is elegantly demonstrated by the sexual politics of Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right.