I wrote a while back about secretly liking things that you know are not feminist – in that case, Eminem. But what do you do when you find out something you thought you liked is sexist? What if you’re not sure?
I’ve been a fan of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest since an English class I took in high school. I liked Ken Kesey’s writing style, and I liked the rebellious spirit of the book. Defying the society that oppresses you? Hell yeah! I found it a little weird that we kept talking about McMurphy being “emasculated” but didn’t think much of it.
And yet, when I saw the film recently for the second time, I found myself troubled by it. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it focuses on a prisoner, Randle Patrick McMurphy, who is transferred to a mental institution. We find out that McMurphy is pretending to be mentally ill in order to escape work duty. However, it turns out that the mental ward is just as oppressive as the prison, if in a different way. The ward is ruled by the merciless Nurse Ratched, who keeps the men in line through bureaucracy (e.g. rationing the patients’ own cigarettes), guilt trips, and medication. The drama and humor of the story result from the meeting of these two larger-than-life personalities.
Nurse Ratched is revealed to be cruel, manipulative and oppressive. She represents the system McMurphy is rebelling against. But she is also a woman in power.
We are supposed to sympathize with McMurphy because he is forced to do what Nurse Ratched tells him to do. And why is McMurphy in prison to begin with? Oh right, because he’s a convicted and confessed rapist.
I’m not saying we should sympathize with Nurse Ratched (although I would love to see a Wicked-esque version of her side of the story). Her emotional abuse has its own victims. The orders McMurphy is made to follow are at best petty and perhaps harmful. But I do think we should question the power dynamics.
1) Why are we asked to sympathize with a rapist? How is this narrative paralleled in recent news coverage, like the Texas gang rape case from a few months ago?
2) How do the filmmakers expect us to react to McMurphy’s crime? The audience I was with laughed when this information was revealed, because of the way he described statutory rape. Was this the filmmakers’ intention? Do they actually find rape humorous?
3) Is Nurse Ratched portrayed as evil purely because she is a woman in power? Are her actions extremely out of line from normal mental institution practice from that era (the mid-1960s)?
4) How were the book and film affected by the context of the women’s movement and women joining the workforce? The book was published in 1963 and the film released in 1975.
5) Finally, what is it that people about like the film today? Do they sympathize with the idea that men should not have to obey women — and should do anything to undermine the power they accrue? Why was the film chosen for DC’s Screen on the Green series?
These are genuine questions. Although at times the film felt wrong to me, I can’t say for sure what it means. Is it just the character Nurse Ratched who is evil, not women in power generally? Wouldn’t true gender equality require that some female film characters be portrayed negatively? How do we decide that one portrayal is sexist, and another a sign of progress? Did the plot require these gender dynamics? Perhaps all mental wards were segregated by gender or that all nurses at that time were women. Am I reading too much into this film?
My instincts say no. As my English teacher taught us, there is no such thing as over-analyzing a novel. Or in this case, a film. The author made choices and everything happened for a reason. Have any of you read the book or seen the film? What are your thoughts?