Sarah Polley Is Sick Of ‘Women Talking’ Jokes Too
Take my "women talking" ... please!
Open up Letterboxd, the social media application dedicated to logging and reviewing films, and you’ll find men making fun of Women Talking. So many reviews for Sarah Polley’s Academy Award-nominated 2022 film respond only to the title and often in some kind of snarky way. They are not all from cis-gendered men, but it does seem to be a trend. (Heck, even my own review uses the title to make a meta-joke, but I’m different and special and perfect.) And if that wasn’t annoying enough, according to an interview with Vanity Fair on the “Little Gold Men” podcast, men make those jokes to Polley’s face as well. Women Talking should be an innocuous title; so let’s unpack what the heck is going on.
David Canfield’s interview with Polley on the podcast includes an anecdote from Polley about traveling from Toronto repeatedly to promote her film. Every time, she said, male customs officers asking why she’s in the country make some kind of snide remark about the title of her film when she offers it.
“[I was met with] this sort of range of eye rolls and ‘I don’t need any of that in my life!’ and ‘I get enough in the basement!'” she tells Canfield.
“It was just so extreme. And I finally kind of snapped after this happened about 20 times, I think it was in Boston […] I just went, ‘If I told you there was a movie called 12 Angry Men, would you go and see it?’ And he was like, ‘Maybe.’ I said, ‘Well, I just want you to sit with that.’ He was like, ‘Do you want to have a conversation?’ I said, ‘No, I want to get into the country! I just want you to sit with that!’ I was, like, yelling as I kept walking—and I just went.”
First of all, as a former Bostonian, hats off for popping off at Logan. That’s a heck of a place to cause a scene. Second of all, “12 Angry Women” is also a popular joke review on Letterboxd. But it is wild how hyper-focused people get on this title, as if the very concept is offensive.
“It’s not called Women Shouting, it’s not called Women Scolding—it’s called Women Talking,” Polley continues. “Nobody blinks at the title of 12 Angry Men, which is a far more confrontational title. It’s a really interesting thing that we have to examine. I don’t even think it’s just men responding to the title that way.”
Women too, she says, have told her that they were hesitant to watch the film because they assumed it would be tiring. Internalized misogyny is a hell of a drug!
Women Talking is not tiring
The film is emotional, but not oppressively hard to watch. It’s about a group of women in a Mennonite community who have experienced horrific sexual assault and gaslighting at the hands of the men in their community. But the violence is in the past. The danger has, for the moment, subsided. It’s a conversation, and a compelling, stimulating, at times frustrating, and at other times uplifting one at that. The film includes differing perspectives of cisgender women from a few generations, as well as one cisgender man played by Ben Whishaw, and a transgender man played by August Winter. It is actually quite light and funny in moments. (Do you have any idea how sick I am of assuring folks that feminist art isn’t humorless?) Women Talking doesn’t deserve men joking.
And don’t get me started on Mark Wahlberg calling the film Women Are Talking at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. He probably wasn’t making a joke, but that simple change in rhetoric is so dismissive and upsetting! It’s the type of thing that feels disrespectful, but you can’t articulate exactly why without worrying you sound crazy (derogatory), and that’s the worst feeling.
Why are mostly men, but also women, so scared of these words? Why is the first instinct to mock? There’s another 2022 film that’s about getting women to talk in the aftermath of sexual assault–Maria Schrader’s She Said, about the journalists who broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the women they talked to. That title is evocatively vague as well. But that title didn’t inspire all this eye-rolling, sarcasm, and vitriol. What gives?
To me, “women talking” means so many things
Those two words, particularly as they pertain to sexual violence, evoke a few things. They can refer to the whisper networks by which women warn each other about dangerous men, organizations, and situations. They can also refer to how women statistically do not report assault. Finally, they can refer to hush money, gag orders, and nondisclosure agreements that keep women who do report assault from speaking publically about what happened to them. Women talking is a radical concept.
It evokes feelings unrelated to sexual violence as well. Women are told to be quiet from a very young age. It doesn’t matter that we’re not in danger. We get “talks too much” on our report cards in elementary school. We get light threats from teachers that they’ll separate us from our friends if we don’t stop chatting. As we grow up, women are criticized for vocal fry, uptalk, and filler words. Look at the reviews on iTunes for any podcast with a female host and you’ll see. Women get tone policed all the time. What do feminists do? Rant. What do wives do? Nag. Talk, talk, talk. Remind me: what do people, and men in particular, always say about Gilmore Girls? “They talk so fast.” “They talk so much.”
I’m not at all surprised that men make these jokes about Women Talking on autopilot. Men react to the title as if it was Women Shouting or Women Scolding because they expect women, especially feminists, to shout or scold every time they open their mouths. Have you ever felt like you were fighting that uphill battle while talking to a man before? Like no matter what you said, they were going to assume you were angry? Because I have.
It’s not funny. Jokes passed between friends or on social media may not be as actively sexist as those rude AF customs officers that Polley had to deal with, but that’s not the point. It’s not because the film is too serious business to make light of, either. It’s that you wouldn’t think twice about something called 12 Angry Men, Mad Men, All The President’s Men, Men in Black, A Few Good Men, Grumpy Old Men, or what have you. Making fun of Women Talking just reinforces every insidious little thing in our society that keeps women from talking in the first place.
(featured image: Amy Sussman/Getty Images for WGAW)
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