Arrival Provides a Blueprint for Facing Trauma
Warning: spoilers ahead!
“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?”
This line, from 2016’s sci-fi film Arrival, hit me to the core. Feminists, I believe, are critical optimists; we challenge what’s wrong today to create a better tomorrow. And we’ve made strides, but whether we look at history in broad strokes or in specific detail, we still feel overwhelmed by what’s still to be achieved.
I came to feminism through witnessing domestic violence in my family. What’s more, as I learned more about feminism, I began to not only recognize this trauma in my own life but in my sister’s past, my mother’s past, my grandmother’s and even her mother’s. As your feminism develops, you begin to recognize trauma even in previously-familiar relationships like partner or father.
The more activism I get involved with—the more I see these and related traumas initiated, repeated, and normalized—the more I feel the burden of generational trauma on my shoulders.
“If you could see your whole life laid out in front of you, would you change things?” Dr Louise Banks asks in Arrival, a poignant sci-fi film urging communication, patience, and tolerance. As Arrival plays, its focus switches from a global scale to the individual, as Banks works out how to keep countries from each other’s throats, but also reflects on her own life’s choices. (If you want to read more about the film specifically, I recommend Jessica Lachenal’s review here on TMS.)
In the film, linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tasked with learning to communicate with newly-arrived aliens. As she begins to understand the aliens’ nonlinear language, she also starts perceiving time non-linearly, and we discover she can effectively predict her future. We learn that Banks’ daughter (who we see die from an unavoidable terminal illness in the film’s opening) has yet to even be conceived. Banks’ question then becomes “do I go forward with having this daughter when she does not get a happy ending?”
Every Arrival review published mentions the film’s timing with the US election results. The entire election campaign barraged the world with racist and xenophobic rhetoric, the excusing and normalizing of sexual assault and the non-stop coverage of whatever content came out of an orange turnip’s mouth or Twitter feed. Arrival’s urging of communication, patience and tolerance offer a reprieve from the news cycle; however, it was Banks’ question that struck me as more important.
How do we go forward into the next four years knowing what trauma awaits so many? As so many activists and journalists like Feminista Jones and Sarah Kendzior have explained, we go forward fighting.
Then I think about the generational trauma the women in my family have faced, and the trauma so many other families and individuals have faced. How did they go forward?
“Do you wanna make a baby?” Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) asks Louise Banks. Arrival shifts from facing xenophobia on an international scale to Banks’ decision to bring a doomed child into the world.
The expectation of parenthood is something many feminists grapple with. Personally, I’ve felt excited, overwhelmed, terrified and even angry at the prospect of parenthood. I worry what kind of environmental devastation they will have to face due to my and previous generations’ passivity; I worry how, rather than whether, the government will impede their rights; and I am absolutely terrified at the prospect of my family’s trauma repeating itself yet again.
Had my great-grandmother known the trauma her daughter was to face, would she have had a family? Would my mother? Should I?
Dr. Banks can see both the bad (her daughter’s illness and difficult death, her failed relationship with Donnelly, the resulting failed relationship between father and daughter), and the good (happiness, warmth, comfort, compassion shared between mother and daughter). As hokey as Donnelly’s on-the-nose question is, Banks’ enthusiastic “yes” brings Arrival’s optimism into individual lives as well as the global crisis around which the rest of the plot revolves.
Elizabeth Logan of Glamour writes how Arrival “seems to have an underlying pro-life message, not in an antifeminist way but in a pro-living, pro-people, pro-heartbreak, pro-humanity kind of way. Literally, it is for life.” This theme is not unlike Up, as Lachenal also points out, which argues that the journey is more valuable than the destination.
Arrival poses these questions to us, and while it doesn’t deliver answers, it does offer hope and optimism that there’s life after trauma. Value your present, fight for your future, and know that there’s always hope for a better tomorrow. After all, it’s our idealistic optimism pushing us feminists to create it.
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Sarah Rowe is a wannabe film critic who thinks a lot about comics, video games, TV and books. She’s written for Insatiable Booksluts and hosts & produces the feminist podcast Yeah, What She Said, which updates monthly. Follow her on Twitter @StegoSarahs.
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