Sunday, October 17, 2010

House of Bernarda Alba & sisterhood in films

Spoilers below just in case you ever intend to see the following film.

I recently watched the House of Bernarda Alba, a Spanish movie set sometime in the early 1900s. The father of the family dies, and the mother, Bernarda, declares that she and her five daughters are going to observe 7 years of mourning, and none of the daughters are allowed to leave the house until the period of mourning is up. The daughters are between 20 and 40 years of age, none yet married. And naturally, the older ones despair that they will truly miss their chance of finding a husband. But a ray of light shines in that the oldest daughter Angustias, is lucky enough to have a dashing suitor named Pepe declare interest in her (or rather her money) before they go in for mourning, so their engagement is set; but he can only talk to Angustias through the window for the next 7 years till she's out of mourning. And this is where it all starts to go bad. And I do mean bad. The other sisters are extremely jealous and obsess over Pepe; several listen in to the conversations Angustias has with him, one sister does everything she can to steal him away from Angustias, and of course it all ends very badly and with pregnancy, suicide and attempted murder.

In a culture or time where women are taught that their only purpose in life is to be a wife or mother and that purpose isn't realized, and they were allowed little to no other occupations outside of that; no doubt it was possible for some women to become mentally off-balanced and obsessive over it. Stalkings, obsession and murders are committed by women still today. And of course there are far too many unhappy families everywhere where the home is full of back-stabbing, jealousy and bitterness. And bullying is a serious issue among both girls and boys in schools (although despite all the hand-wringing over "mean girls," there's no evidence it's any more prevalent among the girls than boys).
But my issue is that this is the vision of sisterhood that is presented so often in films. Going by the bulk of these films, it seems that sisters or women friends can't truly love and support each other, but are instead doing everything they can to sabotage or destroy each other, often while they go insane over a man they can't have. Again, I don't doubt that it happened sometimes in the past or that it can still happen today. But I get sick and tired of seeing female friendships or sisterhood portrayed onscreen as this twisted ugly thing that is so far removed from the reality I've witnessed and lived. My immediate family is what I refer to as my matriarchy--I have 6 sisters and 1 brother, and that gender disparity carried over into the next generation with 7 nieces and 2 nephews; and then most of my friends have been women. So I'm pretty familiar with a house full of women. I haven't always gotten along with all of my family or friends, especially when in high school where everyone's cranky and pubescent and taking it out on everyone else, and there have been occasional times of envy or resentment or simply irritation and a need to distance yourself from the others. But you know, not once did we ever try to kill each other. Or steal someone else's spouse or boyfriend. Or attempt suicide because of someone else getting the guy we wanted. Or sabotaged someone's career or marriage. Or spread lies about them so they were ostracized from the family. And you know what else, in my admittedly unscientific observations of female co-worker's and friend's lives, neither have they. Shockingly.

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