”The slaves left”: White Womanhood in The Beguiled
When looking through the filmography of Sofia Coppola, two things stand out: the fact that her films almost exclusively focus on young women, and that these women are exclusively white. While the first fact is commonly lifted to characterise Coppola’s films, the second fact – that of whiteness – is not as often pointed out. One occasion that it was, however, was in the midst of the release of The Beguiled in 2017. Coppola’s sixth feature is also the second adaptation of the novel by Thomas Cullinan, the first being Don Siegel’s film from 1971. It centers around a small girls’ school in Virginia during the civil war in 1864, that takes in and hides a wounded solider. In the novel as well as in the first film adaptation, there are slave characters, but in Coppola’s script these have been taken away; a choice that has been wildly discussed and criticised.
This essay is occupied with one line from the film: “The slaves left”. This line marks a lack in the film; a lack of black characters in the diegesis and a lack of perspectives other than that of white people in the narrative. In this essay, I aim to deconstruct notions of whiteness that are conveyed, and to engage with the marking of absence and its implication for the racial politics of the film. By doing so, I hope to draw attention to otherwise invisible ideas of normalcy connected to whiteness. I will engage with the theoretical framework on whiteness articulated by Richard Dyer, and moreover assess Sofia Coppola’s position as a storyteller in relation to Linda Alcoff’s discussion about speaking for other.
What Dyer does in his ground-breaking book White, is to critically establish whiteness as a racial category. He argues that our world is built upon a racial imaginary, and in order to properly grasp and deconstruct this imaginary, the invisible norm of whiteness must be made visible and its particularities dissected. Whiteness can be difficult to pin down since it is seldom talked about – it is much more common to stumble across terms such as African American, black, Asian, Hispanic and mulatto in relation to people of various ethnicities or skin colour – and that is exactly the point. Whiteness is seen as a colourless colour. Dyer argues that notions of whiteness are seldom deliberately emphasised, but nevertheless present, whether or not the author intended it. Although difficult to make generalisations, Dyer finds that whiteness is often associated with Christianity and its emphasis on corporeality. For women, the Mother Mary-figure is prominently referenced in popular culture, which ties into a second trope, namely, whiteness as associated with heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is the reassurance of a “continued whiteness”. The Mary-figure therefore bears an impossible ideal: both passive and asexual, but also the carrier of “white blood” through maternity and reproduction, embodying the classical whore-Madonna-complex.
As a southern gothic, The Beguiled draws on myths of the South. In contrast to the Western, a genre built upon a romanticising narrative of the victorious conquest of lands historically inhabited by native Americans, myths of the South signal loss and nostalgia. This is done so partly in the framing of landscape. In the Western, the open landscape connotes endless opportunity, whereas the murky marshlands and woods of the South connotes a backwardness, mirroring the historical defeat of the south in the civil war. In The Beguiled, the surrounding nature is depicted as beautiful yet overgrown, and it has an almost mythic quality to it. Moreover, the film ties into Dyer’s notion of whiteness as associated with heterosexuality and corporeality. The seven girls and women in the school live by a Mother Mary-ideal of sorts, often dressed in white, careful to practice kindness and compassion. However, as the narrative unfolds, the solider John McBurney trigger different “forbidden” reaction in the girls and women – lust, passion, jealousy. After having symbolically amputated McBurney’s leg, stripping him of manliness and agency, they kill him. While the film on one hand confirms heterosexuality as a norm, it also challenges it. By killing McBurney, the women destroy any hope for reproduction with the only male character in the film, prioritizing their independence over motherhood. In this reading, whiteness is undermined in a double sense: both with the knowledge of the South losing the war, and in the women killing the only hope of reproduction.
Controversy has been following Coppola throughout her career. She has, for instance, been accused of distorting history in Marie Antoinette (2006), a film that largely ignores the politics of France’s infamous queen and solely focuses on her punky persona. In The Bling Ring (2013) as well as in The Beguiled she has been accused of whitewashing; in the former for leaving out a Mexican individual from the real life group of teenagers that the film is based on, and in the latter for turning the mixed race character of Edwina into a white woman played by Kirsten Dunst in the 2017 adaptation (I will not engage more deeply with the issue in this essay, let me just note that I believe this to be problematic). Lost in Translation (2003) has in turn been criticised for the way it depicts Japanese culture as alien. It seems not only the slaves left, but also the Mexican and Japanese perspectives.
While the whitewashing of Edwina is one issue in The Beguiled, the question of the left-out slaves has more to do with distortion of history. What critics point out is that by leaving out the slaves, Coppola romanticises history by refusing to acknowledge the horrific history of slavery, undermining other perspectives than that of white people. Romanticising, sure – Coppola has an apparent fascination with the southern gothic aesthetics (and has even said in an interview that she finds the South ‘exotic’) – but racist? The reason that movies like The Beguiled stir controversy is because we as spectators are invested in the idea of truth. The film never claims to be based on true events; it is fiction. Nevertheless, it makes truth claims: it gets historic details “correct” in order to make it believable, in anything from clothing to battle references. Though we know it to be fiction, we seem to expect more from it, assumedly because we know what sort of power film narratives have on our perception of the world and how it can lead to misreading of history.
Although the only mention of the absent slaves is in the line “The slaves left”, their absence is marked in other manners. The garden is overrun, and the girls are forced to conduct all sorts of household work, including heavy work in the garden. In one scene, the young woman Alicia is seen with a rake in her hand. She is giving the work minimum effort, clearly fatigued and bored: this is not something white people of her class usually have to put up with. I believe this scene effectively illustrates white privilege. The girls’ school is barely managing to make ends meet since the slaves left, acknowledging the extent to which the myth of the South is dependent on slavery. In that sense, the film can be read as a deconstruction of the romanticism that it also engages in, and a (critical) acknowledgement of the racial politics of its time. Imagine there were slave characters. Would this be unproblematic? I would think not. In fact, such characters might even have come to reinforce stereotypical depiction of African Americans, who have historically been limited to roles as slaves, servants, entertainers or villains in films.
What Coppola does, in only depicting white characters, is a sort of retreat response, in the words of Alcoff. Alcoff problematises the notion of speaking for others, while also problematising the critique held against people who do so. The problem with speaking for others, simplified, is that it often reflects and reinforces a power dynamic where a colonized subject is made invisible. On the other hand, Alcoff is critical of the presumption that a person’s location is the determining factor for the content in his or her speech. But where do you draw the line? Can I, as a woman, legitimately “speak for all women”, or only for white, Swedish, middle class women aged 27? Of course, there is no simple answer. One “solution” that Alcoff formulates is the retreat response, the refusal to speak for anyone else but oneself in order not to misinterpret or obscure other perspectives. The problem with this strategy, according to Alcoff, is that it can lead to a narcissistic navel gazing that does not bother with taking in other perspectives. It can furthermore be argued that Coppola reinforces whiteness as a defining trait in excluding people of colour from her films, since she obviously has no problem in engaging with the life of a French queen who died 230 years ago, but who was white.
I would argue that this sums up the issue with the absent slaves in The Beguiled rather well. Coppola’s film center exclusively around white women, like herself. Narcissistic – sure. But would we really want her to depict African Americans, or should that task be left to someone else? Overall, Coppola’s choice to exclude the slave characters can be seen as expressive both of an arrogance of her own power position and of a consciousness about it. In this essay, I have argued for the relevance of whiteness as a critical racial category and shown how it can be used to better grasp the racial politics of a film like The Beguiled. When this category is established and applied, I believe interesting reflections of white womanhood begin to show, that Coppola herself might not have been aware of.
Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking For Others”, Cultural Critique, No. 20, 1991–1992: 5–32.
Atad, Corey. “Lost in Adaptation”. The Verge. 20/7 2017. https://slate.com/culture/2017/06/sofia-coppolas-whitewashed-new-movie-the-beguiled.html
Dyer, Richard. White: Essays on Race and Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Shohat, Robert and Ella Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.