How Carol Demonstrates that The Patriarchy Is Bad for Everyone

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This column contains spoilers for the film.

While the awards season buzz for Carol has mostly (and very deservedly) concentrated on the performances of the wonderful Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the work done by Kyle Chandler has been in some need for praise and celebration. The film was about the Blanchett and Mara characters of course (as well it should have been), and it was a gripping and (at times) emotionally devastating story of two women punished and held down by patriarchal values and institutions. It becomes clear though by the end that the film also expresses how those same values and institutions are crippling for men and thus, making matters even worse for women.

In the film, Chandler plays Harge Aird. He is the soon-to-be ex-husband of Blanchett’s Carol Aird, and it is immediately clear that he is struggling with the transition. He comes off as angry child not getting his way, and he is small-minded when it comes to Carol’s desire for a relationship with another woman. As a result, he wants to punish Carol with a gruesome divorce that could result in Carol losing all access to their daughter. He clearly is pushing an agenda that will shatter their family with no hope of finding a balance that works for everyone (or anyone).

This is what happens when a society conditions someone like Harge to expect everything to go a certain way. Everything in his world told Harge that he would be successful, get married, and have children. When his relationship fell apart with a woman who did not conform to society’s heteronormative worldview, he lashed out like the emotionally crippled man-child that he was destined to become. While that would be in no way an excuse for his poisonous behavior towards Carol, it does help to explain it. In the hands of a lesser actor or a more lazily constructed film, the Harge character could have been a two-dimensional villain. In the hands of Chandler and director Todd Haynes though, we get something far more nuanced.

There are various moments in the film that make it crystal clear that Harge harbors no innate ill-will towards Carol (or women just because they’re women). You can tell by the pain in his face at times that he does love Carol the person and wants to be in a loving relationship with her. He is just not equipped to handle the concept that the wants and desires of Carol the person do not match up with his idea of who Carol should be. If not for Carol’s bravery (I’ll let you watch the film to see exactly what I mean) late in the story, the whole family would all be left in an emotional wreckage. By holding down women due to archaic values and practices, everyone suffers (that is not to suggest in any way that women do not suffer more).

The film correctly positions Harge’s story on the fringes and as a mere supporting story to the journeys of Carol and Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet. It adds an important layer though to one of the general themes of the story: the patriarchy is suffocating for all of society. It holds women down and then prevents men from developing the necessary tools required to become an emotionally generous and understanding person. It creates self-involved men who become participants in not only the oppression of women but their own.

 

Carol is currently in theaters and is up for six Academy Awards.

 

Other articles by Michael Thomas:

* Review of the 1966 version of The Hobbit
* 8 Questions After Watching Season 5 of Game of Thrones
* Ranking the Lightsaber Duels in the Star Wars Films
* Top Ten Films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
* 7 Questions After Watching Season 1 of Daredevil
Review of The Primary Instinct

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