Film

Approaches to Feminism by Way of Shirley Jackson and a Black Beauty Pageant

At Sundance, Shirley and Miss Juneteenth explored ways women claim control of their own narratives.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley (all images courtesy Sundance Institute)

The word “hysteria” comes from the Greek work hysterikos, meaning “of the womb, suffering in the womb.” It was originally believed to be a neurotic condition peculiar to women, caused by a dysfunction of the uterus. Feminists like Hélène Cixous have since appropriated the term as a form of rebellion against the false rationality of the patriarchal order. Several films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival played with this notion of female relationships and desires that don’t seem “rational,” but are refreshing and radical in the way they shake up the status quo.

In Shirley, a fictionalized portrayal of author Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker echoes Cixous’s call for écriture féminine, a kind of feminist authorship that instates the power women have historically been denied, wherein they use their bodies to write themselves into the social fabric. “The world is too cruel to girls,” Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) tells the pregnant Rose (Odessa Young). Rose is the wife of young academic Fred (Logan Lerman), who is being advised by Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). She quits college to be a good wife and mother, then finds herself a glorified housekeeper for Shirley and Stanley in Vermont. Gradually, a writing partnership blossoms between the two women, and they devise a novel about a college girl who vanishes. “Disappearing is the only way anyone would notice her,” Rose tells Shirley.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in Shirley

Both women work constantly while their husbands teach, have affairs, and get petty over academic politics, furthering a subaltern idea of women’s labor. Theirs is a friendship in a constant flux, sometimes flirting with romantic possibility. As is typical of people who can’t allot women into neat boxes, Stanley’s colleagues call Shirley “sick in the head” and are aghast at the horror stories she writes. Meanwhile, Rose feeds and clothes Shirley (first out of a sense of duty, but eventually as acts of intimacy). Shirley sees Rose as a muse, sending her off to run errands and research for the book, only to shout at her for going through the pages of a book she’s helping to write. The women get caught in a cycle of allowing each other power, then running after that power to reclaim it. This psychological and emotional combat reaches its climax on a literal cliff, after which neither of them are the same. In the spirit of écriture féminine, they gain new autonomy. Rose will never again be the good wife, and Shirley is a new kind of author.

From Miss Juneteenth

The ending of Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” asks whether a dream deferred may explode. Channing Godfrey Peoples’s film Miss Juneteenth posits that it does, and into something radical. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) is a former winner of the Miss Juneteenth pageant, a beauty contest for 15-year-old Black girls in Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a competition that operates within contradictions, purporting to celebrate Black pride yet rooting Black femininity in traditional, often white-created standards, such as “Know your soup spoon from your salad spoon” etiquette. When Turquoise’s daughter Kai (Alexis Chikaeze) turns 15, she devotes all her efforts to ensure that Kai too will be crowned Miss Juneteenth.

The film plays out an intergenerational debate about Black womanhood and feminism, done with artful subtlety and immense respect for both sides. Kai is clearly participating in the pageant only because of how much it means to her mother. She wants to perform a dance routine in the talent round, while her mother wants her to recite Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman.” Both are depicted as valid desires. Peoples lets us understand why Turquoise runs a hot comb through Kai’s hair, but also channels Kai’s triumph when she sprays it back into its halo-like fullness. Miss Juneteenth is a rare film that unpacks a lot about being a Black woman in America today. It manages to both find pride in the legacy it examines while also pointing out where reinvention is needed. Through Kai’s assertion of her autonomy, she becomes the author of her own story. As Cixous wrote in The Laugh of the Medusa, “Write your self. Your body must be heard.”

Both Shirley and Miss Juneteenth are currently seeking distribution and will be playing at more festivals in the coming year.

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