The Beguiled by Sofia Coppola, tells the story of 7 women cloistered in a women’s school during the American Civil War. Their monotonous and peaceful existence is disturbed when a man shows up: a wounded soldier who, despite belonging to the enemy, is welcomed and helped by those women until he’s cured. The arrival of the soldier brings curiosity and interest for the youngest ones, and excitement and romantic fantasies in the oldest women. Each one of them plays her cards within the limited possibilities and modesty imposed to women that time. He plays with all of them, knowing the desires and aspirations of southern women. (Warning, spoilers alert!). When his double game of the soldier is revealed, you have a typical scene of screams and confusion that finishes with his accidental fall off the stairs. The aftermath: he’s unconscious and badly injured. In front of a mouldered leg, the school’s director (a stolid, almighty and fantastic Nicole Kidman) decides to amputate the soldier’s leg.
Amputation, as symbolic castration, also annihilates the seductive charm of the male character. When he wakes up, the soldier is no longer gentle and flattering, but a desperate and violent man. He accuses two of the women of having intentionally amputated him as a revenge for he having not satisfied their sexual desires, explaining something that seems to be insinuated in the initial scenes: they would rather prefer him wounded, dependent and therefore submissive. The soldier, seeing his amputated body, affirms that he would “rather be dead” and that those women once surrendered to his charms, now “look at him with disgust and compassion.” This challenge to his masculinity, which is explicit when he shouts “I am no longer a man”, leads him to undertake other mechanisms of women control: before there was flattery; now there is physical coercion. He grabs a gun and threatens to kill them.
His rage is only eased when one of them is locked with him in a room and shows him she continues to sexually desire him. Sexual intercourse acts therefore as a return of lost masculinity. The soldier then seems to control his anger and restore the peace. However, the rest of the women had already agreed on how to end the story (and this time they prepared a revenge without uncertainty), so he’s poisoned and die.
A lot of critics were written about this movie, mostly valuing thee female characters’ construction. However, I am more interested in debating the drawing of masculinity concerning the functional diversity. As in many other films, it seems that when the male character experiences a “disabling” body change, his role as an active sexual being is no longer possible, or at least not as before. Think of the main characters of Mar Adentro, Me Before You, or Le Scaphandre et le Papillon: before the accident, they all have an active and pleasurable sexual life; and after it their sexuality turns into platonic relationships. It seems that those can only be carnal if are paid, either through sexual therapy (think about The Sessions) or prostitution (Born on the Fourth of July or Nationale 7, only to name the most famous).
This representation is simplistic and capacitive because it perpetuates the stereotype of asexuality and undesirability that weighs on functional diversity, and is being subverted by current representations (see post on Yes, we fuck! or Vivir y otras ficciones). And it’s also sexist because it shows a masculinity that only exists as being active, as having a purpose, and as demanding, embodied by a capable, young and healthy body. This image of masculinity, oppressive to so many men, is the reverse of a construct of femininity equally rigid and sexual. Gender roles are binary and relational, so that traditional masculinity defines (and is defined) by a passive, objectified and demanded femininity.
Let’s write other stories in which seduction is not marked by the active desire of a (non) man, nor by the repressed desire of nineteenth-century girls.
This post was originally written in Spanish. Click here for the original text.