Posted by: vanhoff | April 9, 2008

A Patriarchal Struggle: The Women of North Country

A Patriarchal Struggle: The Women of North Country

 

North Country is a gripping, provocative movie that reveals the struggles of women contending with abuse and oppression both in and out of the workforce. Based on the book “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law,” the movie allows its viewers to feel the oppression that was dealt by the dominant identity, by which male oppressors of the mine portrayed throughout the movie. The movie generates a thesis to the viewer by capturing what oppression means to a marginalized workforce. The dominant, sexualized and gendered ideals that men have placed upon women and marginalized groups have all but inhibited a growth and thus a development for equality within a working society whether that be a capitalist or socialist. Hence, the movie outlines the types of sexual harassment women face on a daily basis, thus allowing for a discussion on the gender dynamics between male and female conventions.

 The movie begins with Josey Aimes (played by Charlize Theron) who moves back to Minnesota after leaving an abusive husband. As a single mother of two, desperate to find an adequate paying job, she turns to the only predominant source of employment in the region; the iron mines. For generations the mines have provided a livelihood for the community, and though the mines are dangerous, the pay is good. Aimes not concerned about the danger nor the harassment that may follow her employment; she seeks only to improve and stabilize her family financially.

The movie speaks loudly to women around the world who have suffered male oppression and the deviance from male patriarchal activities. For Josey and her co-workers, the mine was but a pit of physical and psychological sexual abuse. The various incidents portrayed in the movie can be divided into two specific categories. The first called “Quid pro quo” sexual harassment, which happens when an employer or other decision-maker promises a type of benefit in exchange for sexual favors or threatens employment benefits if the employee does not submit to the gestures at hand. The number of complaints and instances of this type of harassment are extensive, and usually involves a woman in most cases. Almost from the moment she arrives, Josey encounters an atmosphere of intimidation and this type of harassment from her male co-workers, which is expected as “part of the job”. One example of this type of harassment would be her ex-boyfriend from high school, a long time employee of the mine, eager to harass Josey and the newly employed women of the mine.

Bobby, played by Jeremy Renner, is Josey’s ex-boyfriend who controls the pit of the mine house. Belligerent and sexually deviant, he has complete control over the women’s duties in the pit. His patriarchal position granted him rights to the women’s locker room, where he and other male employees would sexually harass them by vandalizing property and using vulgar graffiti to scare or coerce them into quitting. The “Quid pro quo” that Bobby uses to his benefit blatantly defies the meaning of equality. This type of harassment portrayed in the movie has been highly documented for many women, and the movies highlights why women face such harassment. A part of the problem for Josey was that her female co-workers failed to recognize that the sexual harassment was an actionable offense, hence reluctant to move forward and lay claim to actions made by male co-workers. This is very common even in the workforce of today where women and the marginalized do not question rather give way to such offenses.

Another blatant use of patriarchal behavior, engrained by most of the males employed at the mine, was portrayed when Josey spoke in front of the union members. The hackling, name-calling, and abusive mannerisms these men used on Josey were unethical for any human to endure. Though never physically abused, the psychological trauma endured was enough to break anyone. This psychological attack was to break her down and to suggest that sexual harassment is “just part of the job.”

The second category of sexual harassment is a “Hostile Environment.” This is where sexual conduct in the workplace creates an uneasy and unpleasant working environment for the employee. The movie heavily portrays the mine as “hostile,” where the majority of women miners constantly feared rape and sexual harassment. Throughout the course of the movie, tensions among both male and female employees of the mine were high. Tensions however escalated out of control when Josey began to make complaints to superiors concerning the harassment that her female co-workers where experiencing. Bobby’s character is another perfect example of creating a “hostile environment” for its employees. When Bobby choked and threw Josey onto the bed of coal, the prowess of his sexual nature turned aggressive, as he feared for his job. In turn, Josey began to see that the hostility of her work environment was too dangerous to stay employed.

When Josey decided to press for a sexual harassment lawsuit by hiring Bill White as her attorney, the traditional ideology that Glory (her best friend), Alice and Hank Aimes once held as nothing but convictions soon began to break. The characters individualistic experiences from Josey’s struggles soon affected them both at home and at work. For Glory, she was tough and built of armor when handling the harassing male co-workers harassment. Glory was able to build respect from her male co-workers, but respect was limited. However tough she was, it still did not break the traditional patriarchal thinking when representing the women miners of the union. The men laughed, turned heads, or questioned the validity of her concerns at the meeting. Hank and Alice, parents to Josey, began to experience their own struggles. For Hank, his role to the male miners was to protect the assailants due in part to their similar male-dominated characteristics.

However, when there was clear evidence of harassment towards Josey, his own duties as a male miner became sympathetic to the inequality that his daughter was experiencing. The father had all but given up on Josey due to past sexual deviances that the town laid claim against Josey, but soon his own convictions were all but broken when the truth of her past was revealed in court. Many believe that once convictions can hold true in court or in superior setting that the conscious male(s) will then understand the validity of the harassment in question. For many cases of sexual harassment the validity of claim in question, is if the defendant has been deemed sexually open. This was not the case for Josey, and once realized by her father, his duties to protect his kinship with his daughter took precedence.

Throughout the movie, the gender dynamics laid claim to a patriarchal thought. The women of North Country were supposed to be the dutiful homemakers who submitted to the male oppressors. The men worked at the mine, and the women stayed home to tend to house chores. Their identities were established early in life and clearly, the men dominated the workforce. In the mine, men outnumbered women thirty-to-one; however, the women broke boundaries when strategizing to bargain with their male co-workers. Though the movie did not portray any racial characters, I believe that the instances of harassment would have been racial than sexual. I say this due to the amount of white workers within the mine. The mine was blue-collared white America. The actions by the miners were comparable to that of white southerners who for generations were taught to be patriarchal.

Overall, the movie highlighted the oppression that is still problems for marginalized societies of today. At the mine, Josey has no idea how thick her skin will need to be. This is not just teasing and innuendos, this is ritual humiliation and degradation, advances made with underlying threats. The waste smeared on the locker room wall is all but a violent reaction to women given their rights as females. The perpetrators are few, but when a bully relies on his “brothers” to stick up for him, all it takes is a few to make every day at work hell. Sadly, this is the case for many women today, and not until the landmark case, that Josey won successfully the oppression would still be built deep in the fabric of male dominators within the workforce. I was very impressed with the movie as it captured the horror that so many women still face at their employment.

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