Women as Avenging Angels
The children’s publishing industry is currently engaged in discussions over sexually inappropriate and harassing behavior, with this important article based on a survey conducted by author and professor Anne Ursu and a recap in School Library Journal where some of the courageous women have come forward to name the men who threatened and violated them. Despite its noble focus on young people and books, the industry has been slow to reckon with inappropriate behavior.
Much of the problem has to do with the high odds against getting published and the unfair nature of the system, as those from marginalized groups will attest. Under these conditions, those with success and power can easily use their advantages to entice and exploit. Furthermore, professional organizations that purport to help writers go from unpublished to published may abet the exploiters by elevating them to keynote speakers, providing venues where they can meet vulnerable members, and failing to maintain and enforce anti-harassment policies.
Among the comments was an older woman who had not been personally targeted but who, disgusted with the bad behavior and corruption, has decided to self-publish her books. I must admit that I’ve been tempted as well to withdraw from a toxic community. But I also feel that there are more of us who are committed to speaking out and making changes, and I want to be part of that group. I don’t attend a lot of conferences, but I have been in places where younger male authors that I know are placing themselves in potentially troubling situations. Perhaps as an older woman who has experienced sexual harassment and bullying, I need to say something when I see the signs, before it happens to someone else.
Two films I’ve seen recently have inspired my decision to stop being a bystander and to become more engaged. It’s perhaps no surprise that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has become a surprise hit and award contender in this era of #metoo. After all, the Me Too movement emerged after women came forward with their stories about Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein last year. For those who haven’t seen or heard of the film, it portrays a middle-aged woman who puts up three billboards asking why the police chief of her small town has failed to catch the man or men who raped and murdered her teenage daughter. Because the police chief is well-liked in the town, even more so now that he’s has terminal cancer, almost everyone turns against Mildred Hayes. Classmates beat up her son, and a racist cop and admirer of the police chief persecutes both her and her African-American co-workers. Because Mildred refuses to back down, the standoff becomes increasingly violent in tit-for-tat actions, with the racist cop ultimately becoming a surprise ally.
While it portrays an older woman’s agency in the face of a patriarchal (and racist) community that demeans her, Three Billboards is not without its problems. The African-American characters are used as props, and racist cop Dixon’s redemption is unearned — more wishful thinking on the part of the Irish screenwriter than an understanding of the complexities of race relations in the United States. My favorite portrayal of an older female avenging angel is one in a film unlikely to have much audience in the U.S. because it’s from from Poland and subtitled in English. But it’s worth seeking out if you’re looking for sweet fictional revenge against terrible men.
The film is Spoor (Pokot in Polish, which has a somewhat different meaning), directed by one of my favorite directors, Agnieszka Holland, and based on a novel by Olga Tokarczuk that I’ve heard will be published in English in 2019 under the Blakean title Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead.
Protagonist Janina Duszejko, a retired civil engineer and part-time English teacher obsessed with astrology and William Blake, fears the hunters who dominate her small town in Poland’s Kłodzko Valley. After her two border collies go missing and the police ignore and make fun of her, other strange things begin to happen. The police chief dies in a mysterious accident, as does a fox breeder and sex trafficker, and other town leaders with abusive reputations. When Duszejko tries to explain their deaths through astrology, the police throw her out of the station. To them, she is invisible, crazy, a low-level nuisance. In the meantime, she assembles a quirky group of friends — the chief prosecutor’s widower father who has a secret of his own, a young woman trying to escape the trafficker and rescue her little brother from an orphanage, a neurodiverse computer programmer fired from his previous job due to his disability, and an equally obsessive Czech entomologist who has wandered across the border in the course of his research. Not wanting to engage in spoilers, I’ll stop here.
As writers, we have tools at our disposal. I don’t know anything about Tokarczuk, the author of the thriller that inspired this film, but I’m sure that Holland, a pioneering woman filmmaker who began her career under Communism and lived in exile for many years, is familiar with men’s bad behavior. Judging from the commentary on her work, she has attracted haters as well as admirers like me. For young women experiencing exploitation in creative fields, the examples and works of these pioneers can offer solace and inspirations. Check them out!