Pondering ‘Women Talking’: What if Women Left Society?

Sarah Polley’s Academy Award-nominated film Women Talking imagines a world where women and trans people must reckon with intolerable violence perpetrated by cis men. Is it really so different from our own?

(Left to right): Michelle McLeod as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in Women Talking. (Michael Gibson / Orion Releasing LLC)

Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking, based on the novel by Miriam Toews, never depicts acts of sexual assault. What it does is more haunting. For an audience desensitized to violence against women and trans people, Women Talking instead evokes the question: Why would anyone stay in a society that systematically perpetuates violence against them?

The film takes place after women, and at least one trans man, in a remote community have discovered that cisgender men have been systematically raping them and their children, drugging them with horse tranquilizers to render them unconscious for the act and using religion and superstition to explain their array of resulting physical symptoms—from bleeding and bruising to panic attacks and pregnancy. When some of the perpetrators are caught and imprisoned in a neighboring town, the survivors are given an ultimatum by the men in their community: Forgive the men or be excommunicated.

By the start of the film, the survivors have come together to decide how to proceed. Since they are unable to read or write, they create a pictorial voting ballot presenting the three options—leave; stay and fight; or stay and do nothing. When the vote results in a tie between leaving and staying to fight, a group of women are chosen to discuss and decide the fate of the community at large.

Viewers can easily get hung up on logical issues within the story—Where would they go? Would it be better? How will they survive? Won’t the men track them down?—but the provocative work the film does is broader than all these details. The brilliance of the film is that, while watching it, one can’t help but think how unfathomable it is to consider resigning oneself and one’s children to such horrors.

And yet we do.

We might deceive ourselves by believing such violence as remote to Western society—such as how the Taliban has unilaterally derailed two decades of women and girls’ political, social and educational progress or how Iran’s security forces have blinded, raped and killed women and girl protesters. 

But even in the United States, men perpetrate 90 percent of childhood sexual abuse, and homicide is the most common cause of death during pregnancy, mostly by men partners. Men perpetrate 98 percent of mass homicides. It might make headlines when a woman attacks or murders someone, but that’s because it’s simply not newsworthy that men perpetrate violence in society. As the quote inspired by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid Tale goes, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

While watching the film, one can’t help but think how unfathomable it is to consider resigning oneself and one’s children to such horrors. And yet we do.

Not only are these numbers startling but over two-thirds of sexual assault are not even reported. There’s no need to wonder why. We live in a society where a man who trafficks girls gets a “slap on the wrist,” and another convicted of drugging and assaulting numerous women finds a way to walk free because of a loophole. It’s a world where women who speak out can be shamed, humiliated and harassed—or worse.

While a title at the beginning of Women Talking deems it the product of “female imagination,” the gruesome underlying premise of the film was not in fact imagined by women. Rather the story is inspired by the true events in a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia where a group of men from 2005 to 2009 drugged and raped more than 130 girls and women aged 8 to 60 using cow tranquilizers. Such unimaginable violence was indeed conjured by men.

It doesn’t even matter whether you attribute men’s violence to evolutionary biology or societal forces or a bit of both. Men’s violence is a fact of our society—one we’ve either ignored or accepted.

And that doesn’t even begin to address the countless microaggressions, injustices and inequities that continue under the guise of democracy and meritocracy. In the U.S., women earn 82 cents on the dollar compared with men. Nearly half of U.S. states have banned abortion or are likely to do so, rendering childbirth by force a reality. And Women Talking, one of the few 2022 women-directed films nominated for several Academy Awards, garnered no Best Director nomination for Polley. Apparently, the greatness of the film, according to the Academy, cannot be attributed to its woman director.

Our culture often just seems rotten to the core. So perhaps it’s not as preposterous as it first seems to imagine just starting over—somewhere else.

But even in the film, the decision to leave isn’t that simple. As the women ponder their decision, they reconcile with some of these considerations—what about the boys? And trans men or trans women? And what about nonviolent men who love and support women, like the film’s character of August Epp, the male schoolteacher whom the women trust to write their meeting minutes for posterity? Most violence might be perpetrated by men, but most men are not violent. And in a 21st century world where the lines of gender are being blurred, it’s hard to imagine forming Womyn’s lands.

So, we stay. Hopefully, we have at least chosen to stay and fight.

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Michele Meek, Ph.D. is a writer, filmmaker and associate professor of communication studies at Bridgewater State University. She published the books Consent Culture and Teen Films: Adolescent Sexuality in US Movies and Independent Female Filmmakers: A Chronicle Through Interviews, Profiles, and Manifestos, and she presented the TEDx talk “Why We’re Confused About Consent—Rewriting Our Stories of Seduction." For more information about her and her work, visit her website at www.michelemeek.com.