Content note: this piece discusses filmic representations of traumatic events.
In light of the thrall of accolades and sweeping, resounding praise for the most recent adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dialogue has been broached, somewhat intrepidly, on the essence and importance of dystopian-centered narratives and texts. Specifically, feminist dystopias—despite how ferociously contested the term or connotation of “feminist dystopia” has become—have emerged as the fulcrum of discussion, particularly as to whether or not they are pertinent tools of critique and commentary. Well-intentioned, pseudo-feminists distractingly decry the piece as unhelpful hyperbole, citing the extreme direness of the story’s narrative as distraction from more pertinent realities that cis women and other individuals ostensibly face.
And yet, The Handmaid’s Tale is hardly the first feminist dystopian story to challenge us on the screen. In fact, the draconian measures and punishments inflicted upon the women of The Handmaid’s Tale resonate with a haunting familiarity to the breathtakingly bleak, Peter Mullan-directed film, The Magdalene Sisters. Before we are ever introduced to the young women whose wretched plights we will watch throughout the film, we witness a scene of specific violence, a consequential disruption, and an inexplicable condemnation that centers around the castigation of femininity. In the opening scene, the camera interposes between extreme close-ups of an impassioned priest ruefully singing “The Well Below the Valley”—which, portentously, is a morose murder ballad steeped in tones of incest and sexual licentiousness—and a sheepish and beautiful woman, rapturously whispering with her relatives and friends. The camera follows her as a male relative whispers in her ear, leading her away to a secluded room so they can be alone. The viewer, particularly female viewers, can sense the danger imbuing the dusty room. The man kisses her—she, reviled, pushes him away. Disturbingly as expected, the scene escalates, and the man rapes the woman. The camera then cuts away to the wedding and the woman divulging the foul act of aggression to her female friends. It is from here that the scene devolves. Hushed information is shared, damning glances are exchanged. In the scene immediately following, we see the woman, asleep in her family home, abruptly awoken and unceremoniously rushed off by men.
This furtive skirting-away is the transition into a world of horrific abuse and condemnation that resembles the atrocities chronicled in Atwood’s dystopia. And yet, the gruesome world the women of The Magdalene Sisters are thrust into is not at all fictitious or perceivably hyperbolic. The film recreates the lives and experiences of the women who occupied, predominately against their will at the behest of their “ashamed” families, the Magdalene Asylums run by the Irish Catholic Church. Designed to be homes for women whose alleged grave “sins” were promiscuity or prostitution, the quite literal prisons for “fallen women” operated as laundries and often housed women whose families were burdened by their having a child out of wedlock or their functioning as a sexual being at all. The Magdalene Sisters closely examines the lives of three young women: Margaret, the young woman from the opening scenes (Anne-Marie Duff); Bernadette, a women punished for the attention she receives from men (Nora-Jane Noone); and Patricia, a woman deeply in love with her newborn baby born out of wedlock (Dorothy Duffy). Each woman—and the other women held, more or less, against their wills in the asylums—is forced to do grueling physical labor daily, fueled by meager sustenance while living in relative squalor. The women must operate in frightened silence, lest they invoke the snarling rebuke of duplicitously mild-mannered Sister Bridget (or one of her equally vile cronies). Continually, the women are beaten, lambasted with derogatory slurs and language (if not by the nuns, then by family members, like one girl’s father who berates her as the “killer” of her whole family because of her sexual activity), and threatened for their alleged, heinous “sins.”
But it is the essence of these “sins,” the true reason the women are abused, degraded, and violently depersonalized that is devastating. It is what gives the film, and the true stories of real women who inspired and informed the film, a dystopia quality—but unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no hyperbole or imagination aside from the reality of human cruelty. The women are targeted, made out to be sources of shame, maligned, and tormented because they are women who use their bodies, women who reproduce normally, women who are attacked but have the misfortune of being women in the dynamic world (because, certainly, no man is ever punished or chastised for his involvement or deeds). Put directly: they are punished because they are women. They are secluded and abused for their femininity, specifically for their biological and reproductive functions. Most apparent is the character of Crispina (Eileen Walsh), a woman with a developmental disability who is abandoned at the asylum by her family for having a child out of wedlock, and, presumably, for her disabilities. Not only does Crispina heartbreakingly cling to her icon of pure religion, but also she is the most tormented, as she is frequently sexually assaulted by the patriarchal beacon of corruption, Father Fitzroy (Daniel Costello). Crispina is abused because of her femininity and because of her perceived weakness or unwillingness to report a member of the church (or, worse, her inability to fully grasp the extent of her abuse). What is even more despicable is that the majority of the abuse is perpetuated, internalized, and regimented by women. The nuns repeatedly dehumanize the women of the asylum, including an awful scene depicting a “contest,” in which the nuns evaluate who has the most abundant pubic hair, who has the smallest breasts, and other repulsive criteria, as the women are forced to stand naked. The nuns represent the internalized misogyny and hatred of femininity that is systemic and crippling in our society, and the way that it results in outlandish violence when it is indoctrinated.
The Magdalene Sisters is exquisitely shot, with dank, grim lighting and often features close-ups that capture the inexorably dreary claustrophobia and hopelessness of the women and their prison. Each actress, particularly the agonized and embittered (yet deeply compassionate) Ann Marie Duff, captures the savagery of resentment, confusion, and petrification of the women made hostages simply for being women in a community and environment that condemns their very nature. Films like this one, gorgeously and relentlessly crafted to show the depths of human depravity and human resilience, attest to why seemingly hyperbolic feminist dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale are crucial. They are not hyperboles—they are explaining the logical conclusion to horrendous human behavior. They exist to try and expose the wretched history of abuse women have, and continue, endure.