The value of subtitles…

The value of subtitles…


Marie-Lorna Vaconsin and Pierre Bénézit in the film “Oppressed Majority.” CreditEléonore Pourriat

PARIS — The main character is a harried parent just trying to slog through the routine of the day: dropping off the toddler at day care, picking up the mail, running errands.

But in “Oppressed Majority” (“Majorité Opprimée”), a provocative short film by the French screenwriter and director Eléonore Pourriat, the parent doing the chores is a man, and all the gender roles are reversed, creating a world in which men confront what it would be like to face the daily indignities, compromises and risks that women often face because of their appearance, second-class status in the workplace and gender bias.

The 11-minute film was originally released online four years ago to little notice. In February, Ms. Pourriat added English subtitles, and viewership on YouTube took off, attracting nearly 8.5 million hits within less than a month of its release. With the new attention came the conversation about sexism that Ms. Pourriat (pronounced poo-ree-AH) had hoped to provoke when she first released the film.

The comments ranged from Twitter messages like “Watch this film” or “Try doubting sexism after watching this video” to longer discussions on news and feminist sites. The Guardian featured it on its Women’s Blog, where it prompted talk about what women should do about everyday sexism. “What’s happened to my film is fantastic,” Ms. Pourriat said. “I don’t know if it’s just the subject or the buzz.”

One question that neither Ms. Pourriat nor French social critics have a clear answer for is why “Oppressed Majority” seems to have had so much more resonance outside France. For the first three years that the film was posted in French, it had only about 20,000 views. Now, after widespread attention on mostly English-language social media, that number has reached 700,000, still far less than the 8.96 million views, and counting, of the version with English subtitles.

Although several French social critics said that they thought the subject matter was one that French audiences generally were open to, they noted that other films on sexism have done far better here. One explanation offered by French feminists is that the film is uncompromising and fearless in confronting French attitudes toward gender and ethnicity. The film unfolds in a series of brief vignettes that follow a frumpy house husband, named Pierre. They are in part parody: Women jog past him bare-chested. But then the film takes on a menacing turn. The man is accosted and molested by an armed gang of young women. When he goes to the police station, it is almost entirely staffed by women. The female officer hearing his account of the attack interrupts the interview to send her young male assistant for coffee; as he leaves, she comments on how attractive the assistant looks in his new jeans. When Pierre, humiliated at having to describe the attack, finishes explaining how the women accosted him and how one of them bit his penis, the policewoman looks at him skeptically and says: “It’s absurd. Broad daylight, and there were no witnesses?”

At the end, his wife comes to pick him up, but she is late because she’s been at a business meeting. “Oppressed Majority” is Ms. Pourriat’s first short film; she previously worked as a screenwriter and actress, often with her husband, Benoit Cohen, who is also a filmmaker.

“I was raised with the idea that men and women were equal,” said Ms. Pourriat, 42, who considers the work of the New Zealand director Jane Campion as an inspiration. “And when I grew up, I saw that they weren’t, even if there are laws saying they are.

“When I issued the film in 2010 and said I was a feminist, people would look at me as if there was no point to this, as if it was not the most important thing to fight about and to talk about. In France, nothing was in danger.”

“Today there’s been a debate about gay marriage, about abortion,” she continued, “and this makes people more conscious and engaged.”

While the response to the film abroad has been mostly positive, as shown in the comments and the growing number of viewers. The still relatively small number of French viewers and their more skeptical critiques, Ms. Pourriat argues, is another sign of how deeply sexism remains embedded in French society.

Many French feminists do see the film as an incisive commentary. Michèle Horlaville, a member of La Barbe, a group that advocates for more women in public life, said in an interview that France was “a country of male domination,” adding, “It is a Latin country, and there’s a lot to be done when it comes to gender.”

She said that the movie may have struck people as violent because of its bluntness and its direct “appeal to conscience,” forcing men to put themselves in women’s shoes. “The struggle for social rights for women does not always go with the struggle for human rights. We are the country that does not speak of ‘human rights’ but of ‘the rights of man,’ ” Ms. Horlaville said.

The film has found plenty of critics in France, both male and female. “The gender inversion was interesting and unusual, but I was not enthusiastic about the movie,” Eric Fasson, a sociologist in Paris, said by telephone. “It ridicules men.”

Mr. Fasson said he did not like a scene in which the French couple’s babysitter, a Muslim man, is shown dressed as a woman wearing an abbaya and hijab at the request of the babysitter’s wife. Mr. Fasson objected to the depiction of Muslim women as subservient. “It’s a cliché about veiled women,” he said. “They aren’t necessarily submissive and stupid.”

But Ms. Pourriat’s point, or one of them, is that gender trumps religious faith and ethnicity.

Some women in France disagreed with their male counterparts and said they liked that scene but objected to others. Michèle Fitoussi, a French writer and former columnist for Elle magazine, found fault with the way the man was depicted as “a victim of everyone.”

“It’s too much,” she said.

Ms. Fitoussi also suggested that although it has become acceptable for women to act like men at work, to be bosses, even to become the president of France, the opposite is not true of men. “We do not feel comfortable with the idea of a man feminizing himself,” she said.

Beyond the political, Ms. Pourriat said she had a personal motivation for making the film as well: As the mother of a 15-year-old daughter (she also has a 13-year-old son), she said, she is all too aware of the vulnerability of adolescent girls to male peer pressure.

“I can see that in her generation boys try to impose their point of view on girls,” she said.


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