Force Majeure is a Swedish film that explores what happens when a man abandons the traditional male role, and concludes that women want some degree of traditionalism after all.
Tomas is a modern Swedish man. He treats women as equals, is an involved father, and lets his wife, Ebba, have the final say in family matters. But while on vacation in the French Alps the family mistakes a controlled avalanche for the real deal – and Tomas runs for it, leaving his family behind.
To add insult to injury, he acts like nothing happened. When Ebba calls him on it, he claims that her recollection must be faulty. But he left is iPhone video camera running.
Ebba’s revenge is to publically humiliate Tomas every chance she gets, telling acquaintances about his cowardice and showing the video to Tomas’s friend, Mats. She then locks him out of their hotel room with a chicken sticker stuck to the door, and pretends that she and the children are not there as he begs to be let in. Finally she comes out, and as he tearfully apologizes and begins opening up about his feelings she tells him to “shut the fuck up”.
Were the gender roles reversed this would be called emotional abuse and patriarchal control. But the film seems okay with a woman doing this.
The mood is infectious. Mats’ girlfriend, Fanni, says Mats would have been a coward in the same situation, though she has no specific reason to back up her accusation. Mats defends himself by saying that he provides for his children, but Fanni dismisses this because the children live with his ex-wife. Mats notes that Fanni has no children, and asks her how she would feel if he demeaned her because of this. Well, obviously that would be sexist. But Fanni won’t back down on her accusation of Mats.
The film seems to imply that Fanni has a point about Mats being less than a man for going on vacation without his children. Yet, Ebba runs into a friend at the resort who is also there without her children, and she’s having a brief affair with an Italian she just met. The fact that her husband doesn’t know is deemed irrelevant, and Ebba’s quizzing of her friend appears to illustrate to the audience why women should not be shamed for making such choices.
At the end there’s a bus accident, and as passengers panic and stampede for the exit – potentially injuring the children on board – Mats takes charge, restores order (shouting, “Women and children first!”), and directs a safe disembarkation.
But it’s not clear whether Fanni learns anything from this. Does she take it for granted because it’s simply Mats’ responsibility as a man? Tomas too is able to redeem himself when Ebba needs to be rescued while skiing.
Certain questions arise:
- What happens when you raise boys into men with the belief that masculinity is toxic?
- A woman wouldn’t have been shamed for running from an avalanche, and it’s to be expected that a man raised to believe that manliness is bad would run thinking that no one should shame him. Was Ebba failing to be feminist enough?
- Why does the most feminist culture on earth make a film which implies that emotional abuse is only wrong when men, but not women, do it? What would the film makers’ take be if the couple were lesbians?
- Do most women fantasize about men rescuing them? Can a woman be a feminist and still have this fantasy? Are men still patriarchal oppressors when they rescue women, even if women want them to?
Bigger question are:
- The film’s rescue fantasy is about male leadership. In a dangerous situation, do most women want men to take charge?
- Could the fact of governmental authority throughout all of human history being almost entirely male be the result, in part, of women’s wishes?
The bottom line is that there are no feminists in avalaches, or sinking ships, or any other dangerous situation. Women want men to take on life threatening risks, and they’ll go back to being feminists once they’re safe.
The problem is that while women demand the traditional male role, they also demean rather than respect men who fulfill it. As Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young write in their upcoming book, Replacing Misandry: A Revolutionary History of Men, a positive male identity must be one…
But feminism has always consisted of, not only a quest for equality, but also female chauvinism. First wave feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton promoted the notion that, “We are, as a sex, infinitely superior to men”. And Ms. Magazine editor Robin Morgan wrote, “I feel that ‘man-hating’ is an honorable and viable political act, that the oppressed have a right to class-hatred against the class that is oppressing them”.
Third wave feminism is no better. Men who step outside of the traditional male role by opening up about men’s issues are “ironically” taunted with “I bathe in male tears”, which is merely a progressive spin on the traditional/conservative insistence that men be strong and silent. That is, both statements shame men back into the traditional male role.
This is not a criticism of the traditional male role. I’ve written before about the positive role of stoicism. And certainly a man can’t rescue a woman from an avalanche if he’s too emotional – as Tomas demonstrates in Force Majeure.
One of my favourite lines from the film is when Mats says to Tomas (and I’m paraphrasing), “I was in therapy for two years, but it didn’t help. Then I screamed for five minutes and felt a hell of a lot better”.
Finally, this film (unintentionally?) raises the question of whether traditional gender roles were entirely created by men and imposed on women, as feminists claim. I don’t think so. I think gender roles developed from the grassroots and that women played a huge role in creating them.