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.
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“The astonishing thing is not that some people steal or that others occasionally go out on strike, but rather that all those who are starving do not steal as a regular practice, and all those who are exploited are not continually out on strike: after centuries of exploitation, why do people still tolerate being humiliated and enslaved, to such a point, indeed, that they actually want humiliation and slavery not only for others but for themselves?”
So wrote the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich in his book on the psycho-sexual attractions of authoritarianism The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933). Nowhere is this question more salient than in considering man’s oppression of women. Indeed, the question is not why would a woman cut off her partner’s penis and throw it out the window of a speeding car but rather why it is not a daily occurrence. A partial answer can be found in the concept of Kyriarchy. ‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by the Harvard theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. This concept, designed to clear some of the clutter from the road to clarity, reflects the fact that society is far more complex than a simple dichotomy of power between men and women. In truth, society is structured by an ever-changing swarm of inequalities that reflects the dynamic nature of our civilisation. Yes, a man may well have an easier time rising to the top than a woman but at the same time a lesbian woman may well have an easier time of it than a trans man and a black man may lead a harder life than an asian woman while a one-legged Baha’i woman may find doors opening to her that have previously been shut in the face of a HIV+ Catholic. Humanity’s inhumanity to Humanity takes myriad forms. We are ruled not by a Patriarchal father but by a Kyriarchal lord and the shape of that lord is forever changing.
The dynamic nature of human oppression goes some way to explaining the extent to which women can be complicit in the oppression of other women. This is a theme that cuts right to the heart of Debra Granik’s cinematic adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone (2006). Set in the Ozark mountains, the film tells the story of a seventeen year-old girl as she navigates the terrifying network of hatreds, fears and obligations that holds together her impoverished rural community.
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