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

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.

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’1Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, p.47.. 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.

References   [ + ]

1. Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, p.47.

Natalie Morningstar is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores contestations over public space in the 'late capitalist' urban landscape, as well as the relationship between independent art, radical politics, and speculative development.