Trigger warning: this post features a video that stages sexual violence.
Posted for only a week, Eléonore Pourriat's 2010 short film Oppressed Majority (Majorité Opprimée) has reached over 3.3 million views for its English-subtitled version on YouTube. Oppressed Majority is a detailed and poignant look at sexual harassment and violence that Pourriat achieves by turning the tables: "On what seems to be just another ordinary day, a man is exposed to sexism and sexual violence in a society ruled by women."
The man, Pierre, faces condescension, street harassment, and assault at knifepoint by a group of women after he rejects their unsolicited "compliments" and violent advances. The film follows him to the police station where a female cop questions his accusations ("Broad daylight…and no witness…") and Pierre's own wife blames him for the attack--he shouldn't dress so provocatively with his bermuda shorts and half-sleeved shirt.
The film hits home pretty hard for plenty of women who have learned to expect this sort of treatment and these attitudes of everyday sexism. At the same time, however, there's a bit of a caveat that I think is important to explore.
It's only a small part of the film, but it's significant: the scene when Pierre leaves his child at a daycare run by a man named Nissar, who is wearing a headscarf. At this point, the film falls into that same old way of framing Muslim clothing. Basically, we are told that Nissar's outwardappearance is dictated by his wife's demands, and when his concerned white (read: normal/everyman) friend asks him if he feels trapped by it all, Nissar says no, not at all. The viewer, however, is not supposed to take Nissar's word here; instead, this scene in the film's context presents Nissar's denial as a dismissive way to avoid facing his own oppression. Yes, the film shows the protagonist receive criticism for his clothing as well, but it's for the way he chooses to dress. Nissar, on the other hand, is the submissive Muslim spouse whose clothing is necessarily representative of oppression, not of choice. Pierre's choice to wear flip flops doesn't suddenly free him from society's matriarchal bullshit, either. The film clearly shows that, but it fails to be aware of the other side of the coin.
Including the narrative of a Muslim dressing in a particular way as inherently oppressive opens a whole new can of worms that the film is not there to address. Just dropping it in there is a micro-aggression, especially when placed in the socio-political climate of France where the film is made.
I certainly don't want to diminish the impact of the film. I know what I'm scrutinizing is only a moment in the film, but it's important to take a closer look--in fact, maybe a feminist film like this is the best place to call out this portrayal. Here we have an incredibly effective visual representation of a role reversal in order to spread a crucial message that needs to be internalized. But sometimes even the best intentions can cause misrepresentations based out of ignorance and misunderstanding.