Les Miserables d’les Feministe

Guess what movie I just got back from seeing?  Seeing as we had an earlier blog post about Anne Hathaway’s interview regarding her role (and the asshole sexist response to that and how she handled it — Fuck Yeah!) and I’ve already done a review/analysis of another book by Victor Hugo, I only find it appropriate to dissect the popular musical sensation adapted from a similarly brilliant novel.

For starters, let’s look at Hugo’s intentions — at the time of writing, the average life expectancy of children of French working class parents was two years (! — Two years? Just… !!!!!!)  Apparently, 1830’s France had Tea Party assholes, too, who said it was the fault of the parents… or that it was inevitable.  So, Monsieur Hugo realizing that it was NOT the fault of parents or something completely beyond any control that children were dying at such a horrible rate if the parents were working class, decided to write the book.  It shows in the miserable conditions that most characters lived in within the book — made even better in this particular movie adaptation with every single solitary centimeter of dirt, decay, rotting filth (Especially the climax in Parisian sewers — I heard a simultaneous groan come up from the audience when a seriously wounded Marius was bodily submerged, wound and all, in sewage)  It’s hard to miss the grisly detail of how awful the conditions of poverty were for these people.

But, more importantly, there is a kind of sexism in the theories of Hugo’s contemporaries — especially in the ideas circulated that it is the fault of one’s own actions, or just an inevitable outcome.  The character of Fantine begins working in a factory in order to support her child, Cosette, because the child’s father abandons them.  The situation is completely beyond Fantine’s control, but she is then punished for the father’s bad behavior — the factory supervisor (A woman in the book, a man in the movie albeit egged on by a whole crowd of Fantine’s gossiping coworkers) finds out that Fantine has had a child out of wedlock and dismisses her.  Because, obviously, it was her fault the father of her child didn’t stick around, and therefore she must be a slut (and a prostitute, the women in the movie insinuate, because, they reason, how else could she make any money?  And since she’s already done it, she probably has no problems doing it again and being paid for it.  This is the age of REASON!) and is therefore unfit for the job.

Well, of course.  After all, I know all of my old coworkers who were fired obviously were dismissed because they did a poor job at work from all the sex they got (Or mostly because they were caught shoplifting from the store — I know it was one of the two.)

So, what happens to Fantine after being fired for (gasp!) having a functional uterus that has been put to use?  She is driven in desperation to become a prostitute — and the movie illustrates the descent and the coercion of most low-income women into sex work beautifully (or horrifically, depending on how you want to think about it).  The next time you have a mansplaining asshole try to tell you how women in the sex trade could OBVIOUSLY just leave if they really wanted to, just show them the sequence from this movie.  Even the singing is tolerable in the context — I’d daresay it makes you empathize and take the situation all the more seriously.  And, while out on the job one night, she is harassed by a stranger on the street and decides she’s not going to take this crap — there’s the obvious feminist perspective, in that just because she’s a sex worker doesn’t make it okay to be rude or harass her or throw slushballs at her (actually happens — and, really, think about it: Just because the waitress is on the job and “serving you” that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to be rude to her.  She’s still a person, dammit.  No, I’m not bitter, why do you ask?) but there’s yet another angle when Inspector Javert comes by and arrests Fantine for hitting the man.

Yeah — she’s the one who was harassed, defends herself, and SHE’S the one arrested.  Gee, that doesn’t sound like another case we had, ourselves, this year, does it?

Given that Javert is shown, frequently, to be in the wrong — pursuing Valjean despite the fact that he’s a changed man who’s actually helping more people than he’s hurting than ever before, insisting that “Once a thief, always a thief” of not only Valjean but other criminals, and believing that the law is always right, above everything else — we in the audience are not meant to sympathize with him, and are meant to disagree with his arguments.

And that’s just the first volume of Les Miserables — there’s more breaking down and deconstructing of sexist notions and ideas in the next four volumes.  There’s the issue of Cosette when Marius “falls in love” with her — or sees her, thinks she’s pretty, and decides to have a friend of his stalk her for him.  It’s contrived love at first sight — apparently even a great master like Victor Hugo was not above the dumbass conventions applied to Hollywood.  It’s made explicitly clear in the book that both of them are in love, and she has no objections to it, at all, but it still comes off as inordinately creepy.

And, on the final note of Eponine, there is a tiny note of Eponine’s main role in the plot — the majority of her character is tied to how she relates to Marius and the fact that she is in love with him.  The main difference with her is related to how she differs from the expected norm of a woman with unrequited love, especially given that she has moments that seem to follow the pattern — she pines, she mopes, she tries to hide a letter from Cosette to Marius… and she also protects Cosette from the Thenardiers (her own, birth parents, to boot) at her own expense — her father threatens to beat her (and, I think, the threat of rape is implied, but don’t quote me on that) and for what?  Because Marius loves Cosette?  Because Cosette and Eponine grew up together?  Or maybe because it’s the right thing?

The whole point is how issues are handled and dealt with in this story.  Obviously, the characters who abuse and mistreat characters such as Fantine, Cosette, and the later inversion of Eponine, are treated more disdainfully by the author and narrator.  The characters who live en misere are treated mostly sympathetically — even, to a slight degree, the other prostitutes who take part in pressuring Fantine into the work — because they were all not in control of the circumstances that led to their situation.

The story is perfect for discussing these issues with someone who might not understand the issue of privilege and how reality really does impact those in a less advantaged situation.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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