In Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, there are three available options to the Mennonite women who have been subjected to a collection of mysterious nighttime sexual assaults: they can do nothing, they can stay and fight, or they can run.
These options are put to a vote — singular experiences are forced to become a collective one. And while one (especially if one is a woman and has, as women in all likelihood have, experienced some form of sexual violence) may have their own personal preference of response, it’s hard not to empathize at least slightly with each option.
The “same” thing has happened to all of these women, and yet they do not have the “same” responses — they occasionally fold in on each other because of these differences, and accuse each other of not responding as others feel they “should.” Why do you overreact where I remain calm? Why do you remain calm where I overreact?
Women Talking is a cinematic drawing out and attempted rationalizing of what one struggles with in that specific, splintering moment of sexualized trauma. More or less, it’s: do I stand here and take it, do I beat the shit out of this fucker, or do I flee? There is no wrong answer, and yet none of them ever feel quite right. We are not socialized to know the answer or to trust ourselves. Instead, we are socialized to be polite, to not make a scene, and to disbelieve ourselves if men tell us to, as Mejal (Michelle McLeod) so mournfully explains after one of her panic attacks during the film.
The circumstances of the women in Women Talking are even more acute than most of our own: raised in a willfully and religiously founded patriarchal space, they are told to accept any and all treatment from a man, who “knows best” — or, if not best, at least better than them. To agree to stay and fight or to flee (the options most voted upon, the options eventually parsed apart by a small collection of women from major families) is to risk the very foundational tenets you have been raised upon.
No assault is shown in Women Talking, only the horrific aftermath: bloodied sheets, the spitting out of loosened teeth, the accessing of antibiotics for a girl as young as five years old.
Women Talking, in its varied responses — in the winding, impossible issues posed and picked apart again and again in the quiet of the barn meeting — seems to, more than anything, point out that women do not have the same responses to events that are similar, simply because we are unique individuals, because we are human. We were never, ever meant to be a monolith, never meant to have all-encompassing ideals projected upon our diverse bodies, minds, and spirits. And yet, in times of immense crisis, in times where connection and communication are both exhausting and essential, the film posits that women still find a way to both hear one another in full and function as a collective. It is as beautiful as it is unjust.
Perhaps, as Women Talking’s ending suggests, there are better alternatives on a distant horizon, ones in which we detach ourselves from the way things work now and distance ourselves from the way we are asked to accept life as it is. Horizons where we hear each other and move forward with the collective goal of living better, fuller lives — not just slightly more acceptable ones. Women Talking’s complicated but successful management of the immense and impossible stakes at its heart make a future like this seem all the more possible.