Op-Ed: Evaluating the Feminism of “Woman Walks Ahead”
How Susanna White's new biopic both deconstructs and is subverted by the trope of the "white savior."
During Woman Walks Ahead, I shook my head when Catherine Weldon (Jessica Chastain) stood at the center of a congregation of Sioux people and began to speak against a treaty that would displace their people as the Lakota leader, Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), sits by like a subordinate. It appeared that director Susanna White and writer Steven Knight were setting up Weldon to be a “white savior.” Luckily, the filmmakers were more conscious than that and (much to my relief) Weldon’s limited ability to speak Sioux befuddles her audience. At this, Weldon defers to Sitting Bull to speak. When she attempts to pass Sitting Bull advice, he tells her, "I cannot be seen taking orders from you." He might agree with her advice, but no matter her good intentions, he takes the precaution to not appear as if he’s deferring to her in front of his people.
Weldon may be his confidant in navigating the US democracy, but she’s also just a practical tool for his cause, not a white savior who speaks for his people. This scene serves as a synecdoche of the larger movie: As a historical biopic, Woman Walks Ahead is an effective, but still muddled, deconstruction of the problems of telling a story of white savior-hood within a marginalized community.
Set in the North Dakota frontier of the late 1800s, Woman Walks Ahead is about Brooklyn artist Catherine Weldon, an upper-class widow who doesn’t miss the constraints of marriage. She is eager to stretch her feminist muscles and further her painting career. Whereas her historical counterpart was an experienced activist for Native American rights by the time she painted her famous portrait of Sitting Bull, Chastain’s fictionalized Weldon does not walk into Sitting Bull’s impoverished camp with activist intentions — she’s only there to paint. Shocked by the squalor of the Native American camp — a problem perpetuated by the local military base — Weldon joins Sitting Bull’s cause. And Sitting Bull, in turn, utilizes Weldon’s white privilege to help his community.
Part of Weldon’s arc is realizing that her suffering isn’t symmetrical to Sitting Bull’s. Knight’s script avoids drawing false equivalencies between Sitting Bull and Weldon’s struggles. In one scene, Weldon voices an epiphany to Sitting Bull: “The only battle I’ve ever fought against is insignificance.” Here she acknowledges that her battle against misogyny, as a somewhat sheltered upper-class woman, isn’t identical to Sitting Bull’s aim for independence from a bloodthirsty and racist American government attempting to seize his tribe’s homeland.
But White’s and Knight’s efforts fall short in several ways. When Sitting Bull attempts to tell his own story to Weldon, the filmmakers seem unaware of how disingenuous her condolences sound: “You lived all this [violence],” she says, “and turned it into something beautiful.” Inadvertently, in complementing Sitting Bull, she also complements his suffering as something “useful.” Framing the Sioux people’s pain as something that can be turned into art for a white woman, like Weldon, to consume, is a dangerous generalization of the historical plight of the Sioux people.
While the film explores the misogyny that plagues Weldon’s journey, it only scratches the surface of the plight of Native American women, who, in the movie, seem to exist as set decoration to accentuate the poverty in the Sioux camp. When they speak to Weldon, the men do the translating for them. The Sioux woman who speaks most prominently (and in English) is Susan McLaughlin (Rulan Tangen). As a Sioux woman who is married to a white colonel, she translates back-and-forth between the white troops and the Sioux, while remaining insistent that her native language is a relic that should never be spoken again. Her actions imply that McLaughlin is married not for love but for self-preservation. However, her story comes full circle when she translates Sitting Bull's treaty speech for the colonel, and thereby reconnecting to her heritage, and amplifying the tribe leader’s rallying cry of hope. It’s important to note that in this scene Weldon stands by and does what a white ally should be doing in this situation: Listening. But even while placing a focus on McLaughlin’s struggle, the film fails to further explore the stories and trials of the Native American women.
It’s this lack of other female voices that exacerbates Woman Walks Ahead’s unwitting reverance for Weldon’s white womanhood. Sitting Bull’s male comrades rib him to take Weldon as his mistress. In a scene of sexual tension, Sitting Bull and Weldon seek shelter in a tent, undress, and gaze at each other uneasily; there is an atmosphere of unspoken attraction that spans racial and class inequalities. Though the film wisely averts the Hollywood sex scene, I wonder if this fictionalized version of Sitting Bull would look at a Native American woman in the same way he does at Weldon. After all, to shine a light on Weldon’s and Sitting Bull’s romantic tension, Sitting Bull’s real-life wives are erased completely from Woman Walks Ahead. However pragmatic this decision was from a story perspective, their excision accentuates the centralization of the white woman’s part in this slice of history.
If there is a lesson to learn from Woman Walks Ahead, it’s that a perspective of intersectionality is useful in interrogating inherent problems in any story or concept. However, treating a white figure as the relatable focal point for a mostly white audience comes with its own set of problems. It’s a pattern that dates back to the white-person-meets-Native-American-person of films like Dances with Wolves. At least the climax of Woman Walks Ahead speaks to the issue of Weldon’s white feminism: While allies such as Weldon can be a useful tool for a marginalized community to help its cause, white feminism does not have an intimate place in that marginalized community. In other words, Weldon has the privilege of crying her tears from a distance, while Sitting Bull bleeds in the snow, surrounded by his mourning people.
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