She’s Talking: On Female Connection In Adaptations

These powerful film adaptations based on true stories showcase how women can help each other survive and overcome trauma.

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A young woman comforts her friend on a green couch.

Trigger Warning: The mention of sexual harassment, rape, and abuse may be triggering for some readers. Please exercise personal care when reading.

Disclaimer: Sexual harassment and violence also affect men, transgender, and non-binary individuals. The intention of this piece is not to minimize their struggles or imply that their stories are less important. However, due to the content of the films and books discussed here, the focus of this article is on cisgender women who have endured these situations.

Like many American public schools, the first-floor girls’ restroom of my high school was covered in graffiti. Etched across the stalls in everything from Sharpie to pencil were the thoughts, rants, and obscenities of young women just trying to survive adolescence. However, there was one message on the wall of the center stall that I’ve never forgotten. At some point in time, a girl sat on the toilet and carved the words “I was raped” into the plastic partition. The carved strokes were so uneven I wondered if she used her fingernails.

That singular confession haunted me. It had been there for as long as I was a student. Even when the stall was repainted, I could still see the indentations of the letters. I couldn’t imagine the sheer loneliness of that anonymous young woman, for her to feel so alone that she decided to share her pain only with a half-broken lavatory. I don’t know if she ever shared her story, if she got help, or even finished high school. If only I could have talked to her, listened to her, and lightened the burden she carried. For all I knew, she could have been one of my friends.

While I may never know what became of that girl, I’m proud that she, in some small way, took control of her narrative. She chose to speak her truth, and her words carried immense power. Perhaps her message inspired other young women to come forward with their stories.

In instances of sexual harassment and assault, women are disproportionately victimized, and very few are able to seek justice against their perpetrators. When justice at large is denied, when pervasive rape culture blames the victim and protects the criminal, women often find solace in their communities, specifically sisterhoods. When women are given the opportunity to talk to one another, to rage and grieve and cry together, to empower one another and raise their voices, that is when the healing begins.

In this article, we will look at some recent book-to-film adaptations based on true events and discuss how the narrative voice and stylistic choices reinforce the importance of female connection and community in the aftermath of trauma.

Women Talking: Patriarchy in Microcosm

The Academy Award-winning film written and directed by Sarah Polley shares its name with the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews. The story features a group of women in an isolated Mennonite community who have been raped by the men in their community. These women are left traumatized, bruised, with some pregnant or infected as a result of the assaults. When the rapists are arrested, the remaining men in the community go into jail to post their bail. While the men are gone, the women hold a secret meeting in a barn to discuss what they should do in response to the crimes committed against them. Will they stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave?

From left to right, Emily Mitchell, Claire Foy, and Rooney Mara play Mennonite women in 'Women Talking.'

Both the book and film are based on the true story of the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, a Mennonite community in which a group of men used cattle tranquilizers to incapacitate women and rape them at night. For years, when the women woke up and realized something happened to them, the men in their communities claimed a “ghost” or “demon” attacked them while they slept.

The men were caught in 2009 when a woman woke up during an assault. They were punished by the community until they were arrested by Bolivian police. Seven out of eight defendants in the trial were found guilty, while a ninth perpetrator was never captured.

The Book

In the novel, the narrative is framed as transcripts from the titular meeting in the barn as recorded by August, the narrator and only man in attendance. Since the women do not know how to write and do not speak English, August records the minutes and translates their conversation, occasionally adding his own thoughts to the discussion. While August is a man sitting in on the women’s debate, he is trusted by them because his family was formerly excommunicated due to his mother’s independent spirit, and August only recently returned to the community to teach the boys.

The cover of Women Talking by Miriam Toews.

August is a quiet and thoughtful character throughout the story, but a major critique of the novel is that the women’s story is told through his words. While he may be sympathetic to their plight, he does not have firsthand knowledge of the trauma and pain these women have endured in a society determined to keep them subservient. After all, he is only there in the first place because the men in the community forbade the women from becoming literate.

The Film

The film adaptation remedies this by featuring Autje (Kate Hallett), one of the teenage girls that was attacked, as the narrator, recounting the story of the barn meeting to Ona’s (Rooney Mara) unborn child. August (Ben Whishaw) is still present in the film, but takes a lesser role as the women take control of their own stories. The film also features a transgender man named Melvin (August Winter), who is selectively mute as a result of his assault and only speaks to the young children he looks after.

The Blu-Ray cover of Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley.

With a wordy, philosophical script that feels like a stage play, the women in the barn, most of them related to one another, discuss and argue their options. They touch on topics of the subjugation of women, the nature of forgiveness, the natural feelings of wrath, the nuances of their faith versus how the men practice their faith, and whether or not the young boys in their community will one day turn into their fathers.

Despite coming from different backgrounds and mindsets, the women learn to listen and understand each other’s viewpoints and eventually come to a decision that honors both their faith and themselves. The religious themes of the film might turn off some viewers, but Polley’s script is very clearly feminist and empowering to the amazing women at the heart of this story. While the film ends on a more positive note than the book, both versions highlight the importance of women coming together to share their pain, laughter, and love as they learn that their desires matter and they deserve to make their own way to peace and forgiveness.

She Said: Wielding The Almighty Pen

This 2022 film starring Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan derives its name from the 2019 memoir She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. The film and novel both detail the true story of The New York Times investigation into Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer who harassed women in the film industry for decades, ranging from “bullying to sexual assault.”

Cover of She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey.

Over the course of several years, investigative reporters Kantor and Twohey interviewed women who had negative encounters with Weinstein, including high-profile actresses like Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, and Gwyneth Paltrow. However, the key to Weinstein’s downfall was found in the testimonies of three of his former assistants in the London office of Miramax: Zelda Perkins, Rowena Chiu, and Laura Madden.

The Women of the London Office

After Weinstein reportedly tried to force himself on Chiu, Perkins and Chiu attempted to report his behavior to the police and higher-ups within the company. Unfortunately, they were told that no one would believe them and were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement which prevented them from speaking about the assault to anyone. Despite not being allowed to keep a copy of the NDA, Perkins made a copy and gave it to Kantor and Twohey, thus creating their first big break in their investigation.

The Thames River and Big Ben in London, England.

As for Laura Madden, she was interviewed by Kantor about Weinstein reportedly sexually assaulting her but initially refused to have her interview used in the article. Since Madden was not bound by an NDA, her testimony would have been the focus of the NYT article against Weinstein. In a dramatic turn of events, Madden contacted the journalists and agreed to go on the record with her story shortly before undergoing breast cancer reconstruction surgery. According to Madden, after talking to her daughters about the assault and seeing how eager they were for their mother to help make a positive change, she became the first woman to go on the record.

Ashley Judd (who plays herself in the film) also agreed to go on the record, and the NYT article (in conjunction with another article on Weinstein by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow) helped expose Weinstein’s crimes, the industry’s cover-ups, and encouraged dozens of survivors to speak out against their perpetrators. In other words, this article helped kickstart the #MeToo movement of the late 2010s.

As of this writing, Harvey Weinstein is sentenced to 23 years of prison in New York for rape and sexual assault and an additional 16 years in Los Angeles on the same charges. He is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The Film

The film adaptation of the memoir is fairly accurate to real events, focusing on the intelligent and detail-oriented journalism that led to the downfall of a film mogul and the system of wealth and privilege that protected him. However, the heart of the story is with Kantor and Twohey, the female reporters who diligently sought out and listened to the women who were told their stories didn’t matter and gave them a voice.

Film poster of 'She Said,' directed by Maria Schrader.

While many of the actresses Weinstein reportedly assaulted already had platforms to share their experiences, the former employees who were also abused did not have the same luxury until they were interviewed for the article. By listening, caring, and encouraging one another, these brave women were able to take down one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Despite what seems like the dwindling efficacy of the #MeToo movement today, She Said highlights a historical victory for gender equality while acknowledging there is still a long way to go to ensure a safe workplace for all.

In Praise Of Subtle Filmmaking

Arguably one of the best qualities of both film adaptations is that the assaults occur offscreen. The opening scene of Women Talking features a woman waking up in bed, covered in bruises and injuries consistent with rape. During the interviews in She Said, the camera either stays on the woman describing the experience or stays on representative images like an empty hotel hallway or a running shower.

A hotel hallway is lit by chandeliers.

This creative choice gives the survivors their agency and prevents the viewer from indulging in the so-called “trauma porn” of sensationalized sexual violence. It is a subtle yet subversive means of refusing to give the rapist more power than necessary, and considering both stories are based on real events, a wise move with a significant payoff. The viewer must rely on the survivor’s testimony and fully believe them to become invested in the narrative. It might be a small step toward believing assault survivors in real life, but a sign of progress nonetheless.

Final Thoughts

Every woman has a story. If she doesn’t have firsthand experience, she knows someone who does. Many stay silent because they were told no one would believe them. Some carve their pain into bathroom stalls because no one else will listen.

Four women hold hands as they run through a field.

As these stories prove, when women band together, listen to one another, and share in their trials and triumphs, they’re more likely to come away from their trauma stronger. With empathy comes understanding and a renewed sense of self-worth. And what happens when women stand together against injustice? The world will hear them roar.

If you or a loved one have been impacted by sexual harassment or assault, there is help available at the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

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