Sofia Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, is as frothy a delight as the pastel-colored macaroons featured in her earlier Marie Antoinette. But whereas Marie Antoinette — a film notable for setting its story against the French Revolution without including any commoners — was booed at the 2006 Cannes, partly for its apolitical content, The Beguiled earned Coppola Cannes’s Best Director award, despite the fact that The Beguiled is an equally, if not more, unapologetically apolitical film. That Coppola would win the greatest honor at the same film festival a decade later should not surprise us, when we consider that what she evades is not the plight of the French masses, but the experience of black women.
The Beguiled reimagines Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, which itself adapts a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. The media was quick to connect Coppola’s Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to actress Jessica Chastain’s call for more complex portrayals of women in the film industry. As many have noted, however, Coppola’s reimagining involves removing any black characters from a story that takes the Civil War as a starting point. It’s a dramatic exclusion that led to immediate criticism, even against the backdrop of the praise the film has received.
Inclusion alone, however, is not enough or even the point. Including black women characters in the name of realism does not necessarily make a story compelling to a black audience. If The Beguiled is, like Marie Antoinette, partly a fantasy — not actually about the Civil War, but rather a fantastical and imagined psychic landscape — what it ignores is that black women too might like frothy delights. The Beguiled troubles not only because it erases black women’s history. It erases their fantasy lives as well.
When my mother, as a black teenager growing up in the Dominican Republic, read another Confederate tale, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, it was Scarlett O’Hara she idolized. She neither saw herself in nor looked up to the many caricatures of black subjectivity that populate the novel. That Scarlett was the best heroine my mother felt she could hope for is a cultural omission that couples troublingly with the fact that Margaret Mitchell would have likely felt she did include my mother: in the odious caricature of black female adolescence, Prissy. A girl “given” to Scarlett, Prissy is described repeatedly as a “simple-minded wench” and a “black wraith” who “smells abominably.” Why would my mother—or anyone—identify with this non-human caricature?
And why would my mother, even if she weren’t too young, identify with Mammy, a surly bully created by Mitchell’s white racist imagination? Perhaps there is room to read Mammy’s—and the enslaved household staff’s—perpetual disdain and terroristic disciplining as thinly veiled subterfuge. Perhaps Mammy and Pork—another “loyal” servant—allowed the O’Haras to mistake their blinding hatred for tough love. But no matter what veiled subterfuge Mammy got up to, the main narrative effect of her perpetual surliness and physical heft was to allow the idealized white mother to float about, wearing a veil of endurance but always whispering strength in the O’Hara girls’ imagination. The novel’s first page presents us with the good cop/bad cop binary of Ellen’s “gentle admonitions and the sterner discipline of [M]ammy.”
I surmise that while these interpretations come easily to someone well-versed in U.S.-based critical race studies, they may not be immediately available to a teenaged reader looking for diversion and with limited awareness of how the history of colonialism and Atlantic slavery had shaped her place in the world. I don’t wonder that my mother harbored Scarlet fantasies.
Scarlett, the often obnoxious, selfish, and hot-tempered anti-heroine, is so seductive as an icon of feminine recalcitrance that my mother named me after her. (Like Katie Scarlett O’Hara, Scarlett is my middle name.) As a fifteen-year-old girl hungry for a freedom that her strict family did not allow and covetous for books, my mother idealized staunch individualist Scarlett O’Hara. I was only called by this name, Es-CAR-let in Dominican pronunciation, until I was eight years old, but immigrating to the U.S. in the early 1990s meant that I had to officially go by Dixa, my first name as it was written on my birth certificate. Though the phonetic relation to Dixie is a coincidence, I nevertheless ended up with the most strangely Confederate set of names that ever graced a Caribbean birth certificate.
When I recently sat down to read Gone with the Wind for the first time, the 1,000-page book not only threatened a new flare-up of my tendonitis but also sparked a very early memory. As a bookish little girl in the Dominican Republic, like my mother had been, I remember in my bones the ineffable joy of holding a new book in my hands. I realized that this book became beloved to my mom not only because of its sassy heroine, but also because it was very, very long. So long that even if she plowed through 100 pages a day, hundreds of pages would await her the next day.
Few bookstores and libraries populated the Santo Domingo of mine and my mother’s youth. She had to rely on her well-read uncle’s personal library and I cherished a worn-out set of Little Golden Books that I couldn’t read (they were in English) but whose essential book-ness imbued them with an irresistible aura. From a practical standpoint, its sheer length helped ensure that Mitchell’s epic would powerfully imprint itself onto my mother’s mind.
My fifteen-year old mother was able to admire Scarlett’s rebellion against the social norms that constrained wealthy white women in a way that a 34-year-old scholar of race, gender, and colonialism — me — cannot. I am much too aware that enslaved black girls and women were neither allowed the fainting and solemn femininity of Scarlett’s frenemies nor the coquettish and hardheaded charm that Scarlett embodied. As Mitchell’s epic amply demonstrates, even when being worked to their death and used for their wombs and the milk of their breasts, the black “wenches” of the Plantation South were always lazy and incorrigibly stupid. Gone With the Wind‘s inclusions, its fantasies, are not mine.
Coppola’s erasure of enslaved and free black women in her version of The Beguiled annoys me for two main reasons. The first is that it rests on the assumption that genteel, white Southern femininity — or any femininity — was separate from the subjugation of black women and men. And, second, that the inclusion of black women characters requires dealing with “serious” and “political” stuff that is incongruent to a pulpy, Southern gothic bodice ripper (a bodice is literally ripped at one point) or to a more symbolic, even fairy-tale like, representation of “women’s” desire under patriarchy. Black women are excluded from the movie’s history, and also from its fantasies.
Scarlett O’Hara and the main characters in The Beguiled (as played by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning) could be icons of feminine grace because black women were forced to do the dirty, animalistic, and gruff work of satisfying white men’s (and, frankly, many women’s) sexual, economic, and political desires. Black women were seen as simultaneously genderless (i.e., not feminine) and full of sex (e.g., through their reproductive organs) in a broader national imaginary so that white, especially Southern, women could focus on the assortment of admittedly constraining social expectations. The resulting gender norms were so seductive that it obscured the violence and brutality that was Old Dixie’s beating heart, and not, as Coppola and others seem to consider it, an expendable chapter or appendix.
While Confederate white women and girls, like those in The Beguiled and Gone with the Wind, shuddered at the (understandable) fear of being raped by Union soldiers (and, though it goes unmentioned in Coppola’s movie, black men), the entire edifice of Southern Plantation slavery in actuality relied on the profitable and perpetual rape of black women and girls.
The Beguiled focuses on a few weeks at a seminary for girls in an 1864 Virginia reeling from the Civil War when several white women and girls face the challenge of remaining chaste and proper Southern ladies while confronted with the strapping masculinity of injured soldier Colonel John McBurney. The presence of a swarthy foreigner as played by Colin Farrell sets aflutter the eyelashes of several sexually parched, blond heroines.
As a poor Irish immigrant and Union soldier-for-hire, John remains as far from being a white Southern gentleman as he could be while still being white. He remains, nonetheless, the desirable, dangerous, and beastly outsider onto which these Southern ladies can somewhat safely enact their small sexual and political revolutions. For most of the film, the soldier represents an exciting sexual frisson that Coppola’s camera ensures will delight viewers as much as it does the caged-up women in the film.
It is only when the Colonel begins thrashing about like a caged beast, mutilated by an amputation that obviously echoes castration, that the women and girls all decide that he must be executed. (And so emerges the specter of the lynching of black men and boys for doing something as innocent as whistle at a white woman, whether truthfully or not.)
The narrative resolves these problems by elevating the call for “women’s” solidarity above individual sexual and romantic desires. That a group of (white) women work in tandem to eradicate the sexuality a man awakes in them suggests that this solidarity is at odds with unbridled sexual desire. But more alarming is that Coppola’s intent to, as she puts it in an interview for Film School Rejects, “give these women a voice” and to portray “what happens to the women left behind,” is somehow at odds with keeping the two nonwhite characters in the original film and novel.
That “Southern women during the Civil War” is a category that is, first and foremost, composed of white women and that black women — enslaved and free — are somehow disposable to this larger narrative underlines how nonwhite women are often alienated from efforts that supposedly speak for the whole. While some recent efforts have done their best to address this problem, others cannot seem to remember that “women” might also be black, Latinx, Asian, Native, queer, trans, etc.
On the second point, that including black characters opens a proverbial can of worms, Coppola states that she “didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” Instead, her film is “really about the power dynamics between men and women that are universal.”
Key questions emerge about how cultural producers and commentators deal with the afterlives of slavery. Can black women in films such as these also be coquettish heroines, owners of their own sexuality, whose poplin underthings and pearl earrings accessorize their games of seduction? Is this impossible for the simple reason that white men were de facto, when not de jure, allowed to rape black women, and when the latter were often prohibited from wearing and enjoying certain fripperies?
Ample scholarship has shown that many enslaved and free black women and men took pleasure in sartorial and performative style. Coppola’s The Beguiled however relegates, once again, the realm of fripperies and frivolities, of romance and lust, of macaroons and pretty lacey things, to a (white) femininity that is inaccurately considered raceless. In an interview for The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Coppola remarks that “you can love beauty and superficial things, but also have depth.” Not if you’re a black woman, it seems.
Part of this depth, which Coppola seems unable to discern, is that the violently enforced separation between how black and white women could perform femininity is inseparable from definitions of femininity, gentility, grace, and even sexual awakening as they have operated in the U.S. imaginary. Can an enslaved black woman even go through a sexual awakening or revolution as the women in The Beguiled do, or does the fact that she has likely been raped preclude it?
I grudgingly accept Coppola’s decision to avoid telling the story of a nonwhite woman altogether, especially an enslaved one, because I reckon that her portrayal would likely induce major side-eye. Do I really want Coppola to include the character of a black enslaved woman named Hallie (and played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 film)? What would have been an appropriate and universally pleasing portrayal? Coppola and others can, and should, tell the stories they feel they are on this world to tell—stories that may not include nonwhite women—but then perhaps they should not proclaim that their aim is “universality,” the excuse for telling white men and women’s stories above anyone else’s.
Though I relish being named after one of the greatest anti-heroines in literary and filmic history by a daydreaming adolescent girl, I happen to also be a black Latina immigrant. This is awkward, to say the least. Part of me wishes I were named after stubborn anti-heroines like Guadeloupian Veronica Mercier in Maryse Condé’s Heremakkonon, mixed-race Helga Crane in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, or any of the pompous and perennially bored Antiguan heroines of Jamaica Kincaid’s ouvre. None of these works, however, were readily available in Spanish to my mother in the early 1970s.
But they are available to Sofia Coppola. And, although I don’t know if she has read them, they show no trace in her movie. So I find myself looking elsewhere for an exploration of the fantasies my mother and I desired. It’s worth mentioning that Beyoncé’s Lemonade is a cultural product that satisfies exactly this desire, felt by black women and girls throughout the Americas: the desire to be the heroines of our own stories, even in a Plantation and post-Plantation imaginary; of making anew the images that have so represented violence against us; and of saying “fuck that” to the idea that black femininity is too much of a pain to deal with. But Beyoncé, along with her sister Solange, are not the only cultural producers creating and remixing landscapes for black femininity. We can now read and see works by irreverent, funny, absurd, and interested-in-style women like Roxane Gay, Samantha Irby, Issa Rae, and many others for whom blackness and frippery are not mutually exclusive.
Dixa Ramírez is an Assistant Professor at Yale University. Her book, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present, is forthcoming in 2018 from NYU Press.
As a Portuguese woman writing about the Samoan and Portuguese cultures – so often no represented in literature – I found this fascinating and informative. I was going to take my part-African American, part Samoan 18 year old niece to see this movie and now think better of that idea. Your writing is insightful and I hope is shared to mainstream readers as I’m so tired of not being part of “universality” and directors, writers and producers need to become more aware of why inclusion is so important – for all of us
Great piece! I love the exploration of what black women’s fantasy would even look like in an antebellum setting.
One thing, though: could the editor please correct the name of Hattie McDaniel (no “s”) in the captions?