Faded Signs

White Womanhood at the Movies

The proper way to watch Sophia Coppola’s new Civil War slice-of-life flick The Beguiled is as the sequel to Jordan Peele’s thriller Get Out, with a sprinkling sensibility from Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.

Released earlier this year, Peele’s film exposed the layers of exploitation that mar even well-intentioned interracial social relations, culminating in a Black protagonist’s desperate attempt to reclaim his freedom. The Beguiled (unintentionally) picks up that bitter baton, showing us the drab world that Blacks left behind in their search for greener pastures beyond the plantation. Coppola’s decision to write a prominent Black character out of her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel The Painted Devil is a cowardly one. But the absence of Black life in this film reads as an unwitting endorsement of all that African-Americans bring to the country’s cultural table. 

Just look at how colorless life is in Coppola’s film. Now that the whites are left to themselves, the garden doesn’t till itself. Interpersonal conflicts that were once smoothed over by Black care labor are suddenly suffocating. Children cry with no mammy to console them. White women who used Blacks as a buffer against responsibility now absorb the brunt of a society torn asunder by war. In the parlance of Cornel West, Coppola shows us a world where white women come close to being “niggerized”; a world where the deflation of privilege is experienced as a kind of oppression.  

Coppola’s camera in The Beguiled lingers on a gaggle of white gals who have to hoe their own soil because the slaves have left. Is she asking the audience for sympathy, or a laugh? One can’t be too sure with Coppola. Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, and Bling Ring were each so shallow they were deep. When people of color weren’t entirely absent Coppola’s best work, they were the canvasses on which the anxieties of white characters were inscribed. The Beguiled follows in the footsteps of these films. In it, the complicating presence of a well-etched character of color would detract from what Coppola does best: capture the vapid fragility of a certain section of white life so accurately that her films will survive as cultural anthropology, if not as art. 

But as a sequel to Get Out, The Beguiled isn’t perfect. Sure, the plantation belles are depicted at their lowest lows, groveling to Union soldiers for attention and sex, taking out on one another the aggression and spite they used to deflect with slave labor. But the movie projects only the fallout from the unsustainable highs of white supremacy, not the climb to the top. We see what it means for whiteness to shatter, but little of how it was constructed in the first place. To that end, Jenkins’ action flick Wonder Woman fills out the picture.

A primer on white female heroism, Jenkins’ film shows us how exactly we got from the manipulative tactics of Rose in Get Out to the desolation of The Beguiled. It’s the creation myth of modern white womanhood—the prequel in a trifecta of films that follow the establishment, peak and eventual dissipation of a strand of White femininity founded on exceptionalism and exploitation. Where The Beguiled shows us the end of white supremacy’s female incarnation, Wonder Woman shows us a white female protagonist discovering her power through impeccable costuming and certitude about the purity of her intentions.

In her quest to impose her version of reality on others while shielding herself from scrutiny, Wonder Woman is every white teacher in a public school whose own kids attend a private one; she’s the millionaire running for public office as a symbol of female empowerment, convinced she can solve the racism and economic distress suffered by citizens whose struggles she’s never known; she’s the white academic who’s made a career out of recycling the insights of scholars and activists of color who died broke; she’s the white female cop who earned a spot on the force thanks to affirmative action quotas, then proved her worth by gunning down a Black body in the street. While Wonder Woman asks us to identify with the fierce woman-ness of its female protagonist, this same character’s whiteness goes unquestioned.

Wonder Woman makes the titular character’s dangerous worldview—so rife with religious fundamentalism and unquestioned ritual—part of her innocent charm. And yet, when wielded against those who would interfere with the imposed vision of white women who’ve seized power and glory for themselves while pretending to represent everybody else, that innocence is toxic.

“When we defend ourselves, white women look at us with the utmost fragility,” writes Aisha Mirza in her BuzzFeed essay “White Women Drive Me Crazy.” Mirza continues: “They claim access to emotions such as fear and pain without missing a beat, before we can even dare to consider that we may be frightened or hurt, too. Their eyes rattle in their sockets, saying, ‘Why do you punish me for having such a big heart?’”

One leaves Wonder Woman, Get Out, and The Beguiled profoundly pessimistic that race will ever cease to be a determining factor in the lives of the American people. If the problem of “The Color Line” described so eloquently in the postbellum period by Frederick Douglass can’t be solved through concerted effort, perhaps the solution will be found in the casual separation of fate and resources: not quite a divorce, but something equally conclusive, because it will be inscribed implicitly in custom and habit, if not explicitly in laws that couldn’t eradicate racism anyway.

Intentionally or not, The Beguiled shows whites trying to take care of themselves without taking up the space of others. Its characters have no one to exploit but one another, opening the door to a world where the Brahmins atop America’s racial caste adjust downward to a life without obscene amounts of unearned advantages.   

“The slaves have left,” says Kirsten Dunst’s character in The Beguilled. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how to dispose of the masters.