In this ongoing series Lex explores the portrayal of women in the workplace & the struggles they face in industries often dominated by men.
I think it’s worth noting that Charlize Theron is one of those beautiful female stars who some have disparaged due to her predilection to strip down and play characters who are not traditionally beautiful. Somehow this is used to drag down her contribution to any given film, as in ‘oh she put on an ugly face and won an oscar.’ While it is certainly a Hollywood trope for stars to do this, I feel it is a criticism not as often levied to Theron’s male counterparts. For the record, I think Theron is a solid performer, generally speaking, “ugly” make up or not.
North Country is a dramatization of the real life class-action case – Jensen vs. Eveleth Mines, filed in 1988. It was the first class action suit regarding sexual harassment. The case was ultimately settled in 1998 for $3.5 Million. Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) plays the titular character. Early in the film Josey leaves her violent husband and goes out on her own, her children in tow, to make a life for herself, just like any man. The best job she can get is at Pearson, Taconite, and Steel, an iron ore mining operation. Josey’s choice to work at the mine is supported by no one. The idea that she is ‘taking the job from a man’ is pervasive, as is the idea that her male co-workers should be able to treat their female colleagues as sexual objects because it’s ‘always been that way’.
To watch North Country as a person who has never been subject to this kind of discrimination is shocking. Today, we are lucky enough to find that sexual harassment this perverse is generally dealt with in the western working world. My mother, who was the first female manager at Cineplex Odeon in the 1970’s, has told me some horror stories. One that comes to mind is the time she attended a work conference and was asked by the all male cohort why she had not arrived topless.
At Pearson, Taconite, & Steele, Josey and her co-workers endure a number of disgusting spectacles of harassment which include: their personal items being ejaculated on, sexist words written in excrement on their change room walls, and various instances of unwanted physical contact. Josey is stymied in her efforts to stop this inappropriate behavior by everyone from the owner of the mine to her female co-workers, who are so terrified of losing their jobs, that they refuse to support her. These women have been putting up with this kind of thing all their lives and it doesn’t appear abnormal to them.- upsetting, demeaning, and degrading, but a necessary evil. To point it out is to be a poor sport at best, and a humourless bitch at worst.
In many ways, these other women are the heart of Josey’s struggle. She needs to make enough of a fuss for these women to accept the fact that what is happening to them is not acceptable. That being treated as sub-human in the workplace is not acceptable.
The characterization of Josey Aimes is that of an attractive woman in middle America who has found herself subject to the whims of men she didn’t want touching her, for her entire life. It is only after she leaves her abusive husband and realizes that she can stand alone that the frustration she has experienced forever can be exorcised. Though a court case cannot change a culture over night – her ability to set a precedent for others can.
As a film North Country is a little hit and miss. It succeeds in crafting a very compelling narrative but often feels a little one-note as we are subjected to the abuses felt by these women again and again. It is gratuitous; the film begging for our outrage at every turn when it really shouldn’t need to. We’re already on their side. It would have been far more interesting and thematically relevant to delve into the lives of Josey’s co-workers rather than constantly wonder how everything can be so terrible as these women hold their ground and protect their abusers. We understand why Josey won’t take it anymore – but what about the others? What’s inside them that allows them to take it? Even as a cultural idiosyncrasy it’s not fully explored. Josey’s, mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), turns off the television during the testimony of Anita Hill because Hill uses the word “penis”, and Alice finds it offensive. For a character like Alice we’re, apparently, supposed to take it for granted that she’s from the old world and has learned certain things to be true. From the perspective of narrative and good storytelling this is laughable in its simplicity. In a film that is apparently about a woman rising up and saying no to being a sexual object, North Country’s inability to look closely at the motivations of any other female character is borderline offensive.
When Josey finally triumphs (at least interpersonally) in the courtroom and all the women stand up to support her – I felt like I was watching a silly nod to The Dead Poets Society. It’s a lazy mechanism to vindicate Josey, and the audience. It turns the film from a potentially hardhitting piece of feminist propaganda into a weepie. North Country is, perhaps, an interesting entry into the pantheon of working women films but it is certainly not essential.