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September 25, 2022

Complicated identities

Andrei Kuraev (who was recently involved in a scandal because he publicly denounced the influence of a “gay lobby” within the Russian Orthodox Church, losing his position as professor at the Theological Academy in Moscow as a result) presented several years ago the provocative thesis that the global March 8 holiday has a hidden meaning. That it would seek to celebrate not woman in general but the “revolutionary woman” (the origins of the holiday are undoubtedly socialist), and that its model is allegedly the Jewish holiday of Purim, whose heroine is Esther, a Jewish woman who ended up being queen of the Persians.
The anti-Semitic dimension of this historiographical paper is obvious, attempting to discredit any other festal calendar apart from the traditional Christian one. Nevertheless, whichever its origin, March 8 has become a homage brought to a certain kind of femininity.

Young Alexandru Belc’s documentary titled precisely “March 8” proposes a different perspective. We usually consider (even more so at the start of the spring) that women should be like flowers: beautiful, seductive, delicate. But what happens if they sweep coal dust in a mine, select rocks from a conveyor belt, sort dairy in a plant, sew in sewing workshops or drive tramways? What if they are more corpulent and untrimmed, far from the image imposed by advertisements and by romantic aesthetics. Belc’s documentary can be interpreted in several ways. One is that of a subtle social critique. The tramway driver for instance was a folk music singer in her youth, but marriage with a man of a different type forced her to give that up and dedicate herself to her family and to a less unpredictable line of work. Even now she hums folk songs about idyllic love, but her life is visibly more prosaic. She takes care of her tramway, if need be by being a brute with hooligan passengers. Based on the usual criteria she is partially Virginian.
The problem is not so much discrimination based on professional reasons (human activities being inevitably placed on a hierarchical system as social prestige), as it is penalizing a transgression in relation to certain cultural norms. An involuntary transgression, without being the effect of a real assumption. How many women find themselves in this situation, subtly discriminated because they do not correspond to the image of a “feminine” woman? Another woman observed during her working hours in the documentary is also shown during her lunch break. She opens the package she brought from home and is shown peeling an onion. It’s an extremely transgressive gesture. But in the film, in a minimal frame (a wall, a chair, a table, all white, the woman wearing white overalls with a nylon cap), the suggestion is that of profound solitude, although apparently devoid of lamentation. A conclusion could be: the fight so that every woman is recognized her right to femininity is one thing, and the fight so that a woman with a less canonical femininity is recognized something more than the right to the simple statute of generic human is another thing. Excluding the dimension of motherhood, a woman that is less in line with the dominant canon (of qualities considered characteristic of her gender) is at least implicitly marginalized. Is it inevitable?
Let us look at the issue of more subtle prejudices from another perspective too. An independent candidate for the European Parliament proposes the term “extended family” as the basis of his future political action. More clearly put, he, like many other Europeans, opposes gay marriages and adoptions by gay couples. Let us leave aside the really thorny issue of the influence that a type of relation between “parents” has on the psychological development of a child. Let us assume that the mother is a woman and the father is a man. In his electoral video, the aforementioned candidate stakes on the social virtues of the “extended family” (with its various kinships), encouraging the organization of society starting off from well outlined affective structures. It is good to maintain a role play (father, grandmother, aunt, cousin etc.), the candidate suggests. A remarkable film seems to contradict him. “Like father, like son,” directed by Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, was deservedly awarded the ‘Jury Prize’ at the Cannes Festival. It is, because of its sophisticated aesthetics, a jewel of cinema, which at the same time managed to subtly make an issue out of the “natural” family. Two boys were switched at birth by an ill-intended nurse, without the knowledge of the parents or of the maternity. The parents find out after 6 years, after the affective bonds between them and the children were already strong. And they attempt to switch them, to integrate each of them in their new “true” family. Subtle is the grasping of mentalities, the situation bringing to the surface ambiguous, selfish and conceited affective coils. In the name of what exactly are we rejecting the “artificial” rearrangements of families (that also involve step-parents or adoptive parents)? If we are to return to the Orthodox world, let us mention the similarly remarkable film made by Russia’s Andrey Zvyagintsev (“The Banishment”) which symbolically dismantles the parents’ pretention of being “true”: we are all the children of God, and the human feelings of fatherhood and motherhood should be rendered relative in this regard. In the Japanese film the father that had taken advantage of the “switch” in order to re-launch a pedagogical program meant solely to stoke his ego has a belated revelation: the child that was not “naturally” his had become his after those 6 years. And he had “abandoned” him solely out of cowardice, tempted by a potentially “better” one. Eventually the two families understand that the only chance is to become such an “extended family.” An “artificial” one.
Another example as to how complicated human identity is. In his “My German Children” documentary, Tom Pauer has as main characters the members of an Israeli-German family. An Aryan grandmother that went from Germany to a kibbutz in order to make up for the “German guilt” married a Holocaust survivor but did not convert to Judaism. Her daughters were affected by this difficult cultural duality. And the children of one of the daughters are affected by it in their turn. Having returned to Israel with a teenage boy and a younger daughter, she witnesses a new family split: the son will eventually return to Germany, while the daughter, now grown up, will enjoy the fact that she is an Israeli teenager. The most suggestive image is the visit to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, where she jokingly looks for her statute according to Hitler’s racial laws, which are listed on a panel. The so-called “Mischling” (crossbreed) statute, the mix, in various proportions, between Aryan and Jewish blood. In fact we are all “Mischling.” We are (or we could become) a combination of various ethnicities, cultures, religions. Humanity is larger than some would like.

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