Growing up a woman, I’m not immune to chick literature, and chick cinema. I’ve read Amy Tan, Rebecca Wells and other authors that specialize in women-bonding stories. My favorite author on the topic of women friendship amidst patriarchal politics and economics, is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (lives in the US but is originally from India).
However, in recent weeks, I finally succumbed to reading Lisa See’s (Chinese-American author) touted female bonding novel, “Snow Flower and the Fan” and while so many others sang praises about this novel set in late Imperialist China, I found the story maudlin and contrived for the most part.
Yes, the author built up a friendship between two Chinese girls, a girl from a wealthy family whose fortune turns for the worst, and a girl from a modest family whose fortune turns for the best because she has perfect lily feet (compliments of the painful foot binding process these Imperialist Chinese girls underwent to assure a good marriage). The reversal of fortunes proves intriguing, but I felt little empathy for the characters. I felt exhausted reading about one tragedy after another, war, a refugee camp in the mountains, the wretched foot binding which the women, not only accepted, but past the tradition onto their daughters. This scenario reminds me of female circumcision in Africa where women do the ritual on young girls, and despite the pain these girls endure, not to mention death, if they survive, they pass on the ritual to their daughters. Yeah, thanks a lot, mothers.
Perhaps, See’s story just felt too tragic to me and then the author kept piling on more tragedy, such as cancer, regret, betrayal, etc… How much can a reader take? However, in the center of the story, the girls begin their bonding as pre-teens, and they endure the foot binding process at the same time, were both born the Year of the Horse so they became sisters for life.
A better example of young women bonding appears in the French-Tunisian movie, “Wedding Song”, written and directed by Karin Albou. Promoted as an erotic movie (for whom, women or men?), the story centers more on the theme of women living under the weight of patriarchal traditions, politics, war, economics, and religion. One girl is Jewish with a widowed mother and the other Moslem while the story takes place in Nazi-occupied Tunisia. So you can imagine that the story has tension and erotica by a female director who provides more of male fantasy than a female one. This is typical in cinema directed by women, but having said that, of course, the men control the sex in this patriarchal world. It amazes me that these young girls get any pleasure out of it at all. But the love-smitten Nour does, even before marriage while her Jewish friend Myriam avoids sex at all cost with her much older husband (both arrange marriages).
The story isn’t about sex however, but about the way the patriarchal world pits women against one another through religion, lack of education for women, suppression, politics and economic circumstances. Besides, this story takes place in 1942 when women globally, not just in Tunisia had few rights. After all, it’s a man’s man world.
Wedding Song provides an unsentimental gaze at a type of sisterhood that can exist between women of different religious backgrounds and mindsets. Even when, Khaled (Nour’s husband) comes between the women, the sisterhood bond outweighs the husband’s rules and demands. The bittersweet ending pulls more punch than Lisa See’s entire novel. The filmmaker also keeps to an intimate setting with a focus on the girls at age 16, because, See provided an epic that spanned decades. One story focuses on sociopolitical while the other one take a historic long view. I prefer the more intimate gaze with ensemble characters.
Many women lament these days that politicians, the media, and the corporate world are attacking women and suppressing the Divine Feminine, but when has this not been the case? I think what’s happening is that more women have begun to notice violence of various stripes towards women because they are less preoccupied with supermodels, celebrities, and other escapism provided by the patriarchs who prefer to keep women in the competitive mode so that they don’t question oppression. Will this cause more women to go to the polls and vote? Will this invite more women to step up to the plate and develop courage to shine in the world despite outer circumstances? If that’s the case, then the men have done us a great service. I would love to see the return of a true sisterhood and a true brotherhood. My question remains, “Why can’t we just get along?”