Feminists, Film and Women in Power

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?

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  • Joey

    Nurse Ratched was evil in her actions and character, not because she was a woman in power. She was fake, cold and deceitful, as well as a manipulative bitch who was indirectly responsible for the suicides of 2 of the patients (Cheswick and Harding). Apart from that, McMurphy is not a rapist, nor did he ever confess to be. He was simply a man-whore, and promiscuity in those days was viewed as a mental disorder.

    • Andrew Campbell

      Yet the Doctors didn’t find McMurphy “mental”. Ratched Nurse said that she could “cure” him. She wasn’t curing him, he didn’t need to be cured. She labotmised him in the end up. By the way she was a nurse, why would she be holding therapy sessions? Aren’t Doctors not meant to do that?

  • Brenton

    Nurse Ratched should have been admitted herself, she had obvious psychopathic and sociopathic traits. This is probably what the author was getting at.
    For a start, she was abusive of her power, she often did more harm than good for the patients. She was ultimately abusive of the patients, in this case adults being treated as children. She was prohibiting any potential recovery by exacberating the situation constantly through fear and manipulation. For example, rather than trying to calm down the patient asking for his share of the cigarettes, she called security and made the situation worse through escalation.
    Now, about her psychopathic behaviour, take the example at the end of the film where she harasses Billy. Billy has overcome his speech impediment after sleeping with the woman, which is a very short-lived high point in this scene. This high point is quickly smashed as Ratched attacks Billy resulting in the impediment showing itself again. Any good professional would jump at the miraculous development shown by Billy in overcoming his problem, not Ratched though. Her pride is so great that she cannot admit that through the actions of McMurphy, Billy took a step closer to recovery. She must tear this down, blinded by her own emotion and deluded sense of morality and honour. She ultimately killed him, she even knew how vulnerable he was as she acknowledged his suicide attempts previously. What did she expect to happen? Billy running off happy and dancing after what she said?
    After all this was over, she had no remorse. She simply said, “Carry on with your day as if nothing happened.” Literally that in fact. She took no responsibility, she probably blamed Billy’s death on Billy.
    After being strangled by McMurphy, did she stop to question her actions as to why such a thing would happen? Oh no, she decided the best course of events was to demoralise the patients even more by lobotomising their leader and the person who ultimately put them on the path to recovery.
    About McMurphy being a “rapist” is incredibly incorrect. The connotations that surround rape are far, far worse than what surrounds statutory rape. By using the word “rape” you created an automatic bias against McMurphy. Have you read the novel “Salem Falls” by Jodi Picoult? The teacher in that novel is also accused of statutory rape, I won’t ruin it for you if you havn’t read it, ultimately though he is a good person.
    I could define what rape is, but that is fairly obvious. Statutory rape is simply having sex with someone under 16 (the age of consent). He also said the girl lied to him about her age, she told him she was 18 which could’ve been believable. Not much information other than what is given to us.
    Basically you are blowing things out of proportion, it appears you have no idea what statutory rape even is, simple because you think you can generalise it as “rape” and compare it to some Texas gang rape.
    You make him out to seem like some sort of monster, oh he is a rapist, a statuotry rapist at that makes it sound a whole lot less intimidating doesn’t it?