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The Movie “Lion’s Den” by Pablo Trapero Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 26th, 2020

Introduction

Lesbians played a major role in the development of the feminist movement in many countries. As a community that was not only oppressed based on gender but also marginalized as a so-called sexual minority, the lesbian community was particularly active in advocating for women’s rights. Later, however, the feminist movement tried to deny the connection to lesbianism to avoid the harmful stereotype that a feminist is necessarily a lesbian. Today, many theorists, including Yuderkys Espinosa Miñoso, try to restore the link between feminism and lesbianism and explore the relationship between them.

This relationship can be analyzed in modern Latin American movies; an example is Lion’s Den (the original title in Spanish is Leonera), a 2008 Argentine movie directed by Pablo Trapero (“Lion’s Den”). This is a story of a young woman named Julia who is sent to prison while she is pregnant and placed in a cell block with inmates who have young children. Her trial takes several years; she gives birth and raises her son while in prison, develops a relationship with another inmate named Marta, and goes through a significant transformation. To analyze the feminism-lesbianism relationship in the movie, it is necessary to choose analysis methods, describe the theoretical approach, explore the historical context, and describe how the two themes are interconnected in Julia’s story.

Methodology

The primary method that was employed to examine the link between feminism and lesbianism in Lion’s Den is theme analysis. From the perspective of this method, a movie consists of not only a narrative—the story that is being told—but also themes referred to in the narrative (Barsam and Monahan 89). Full-length movies normally touch upon many themes, thus providing a wide range of topics to discuss. When analyzing a theme explored in a movie, it is important to pay attention to details and to the context; while some filmmakers have a point to make, an initial meaning they promote and stress it in the way they narrate the plot of the movie, other filmmakers may abstain from taking a position and, instead, deliver images that reflect real-life without any judgment or opinion.

In Lion’s Den, Trapero acts as a representative of the latter category of filmmakers, as he is focused on narrating the story of the main character and not on making the viewer experience certain emotions or commit to a certain view on the situation. Therefore, themes to be analyzed are presented in a neutral way, and this can make it easier to link them to the general context; e.g., to the exploration of those themes in other media and in the academic literature. Theme analysis is expected to reveal what connections between feminism and lesbianism can be suggested based on the movie.

Another instrument that can be employed is the analysis of symbolism used in the movie. The story is explicitly realistic, and the creators seemingly try to emphasize that they do not exaggerate anything, prettify anything, or try to make anything look more horrible than it is. These attempts of the creators are expressed in the way the camerawork and postproduction are carried out: there are no heavy manipulations with the depiction of events (close-ups are rare, and the cinematic techniques are rather plain), and there almost no special effects or background music that would guide the viewer’s emotions throughout the plot. It can be assumed, therefore, that the creators strive to distance themselves from symbolism; however, certain aspects of the story and certain things shown in the movie, sometimes without emphasis, may be interpreted as agents of subtle or alternative meanings; i.e., as symbols.

Moreover, the analysis of characters can suggest that they represent not only real individuals whose fate or behaviors are similar to those of the fictitious characters but also symbolic figures, such as archetypes (Chang et al. 99). If this perspective is adopted, the main character can be regarded as not only a prisoner or a victim but also as a mother, which is one of the essential archetypes. It is noteworthy that an archetype, similar to the movie’s narration style, cannot be essentially negative or essentially positive; although neutral in this sense, it can be linked to various themes.

Importantly, composing a synopsis of Lion’s Den would be challenging and would not be helpful in the attempt to analyze the movie. As a neutral narrative, the movie delivers meanings by showing events only partially, leaving it to the viewer to make conclusions. For example, one of the inmates is shown walking around the cell block with blood on her hands, and the viewer can only try to guess or figure out what happened based on what was happening before. The creators of the movie preferred to hint at many things that are important for understanding the story and not to show or explain them explicitly.

An important role is played by intonations and the way the characters look and look at each other when they say certain things; without seeing it (e.g., by only reading the script), it is impossible to grasp many things. For example, when Romero, the lover of Julia’s murdered boyfriend Nahuel, asks her if she is sure that Nahuel is the father of her child, the way they look at one another allows understanding that they were lovers, too (while the question itself may not suggest it). There are many such things in the movie, and much remains unexplained or subtle, which is why the analysis of these subtle things will constitute an important part of the methodology as well.

Theoretical Approach

The theoretical approach to analyzing Lion’s Den is largely based on the ideas of the importance of the connection between feminism and lesbianism proposed by Espinosa Miñoso (401). A prominent feminist, the author describes a specific development in the feminist movement of recent decades: the movement was initiated and promoted in many parts of Latin America by openly homosexual female activists, but it has been drifting away and trying to deny its inherent association with lesbianism since then. Espinosa Miñoso thinks that this development is negative both for the feminist movement and for the lesbian community.

In fact, there is an ongoing effort made by the supporters of different types of feminism aimed at struggling the perception that a feminist is necessarily (and exclusively) a lesbian (Bastian Duarte 153). A particular reason for this effort is the recognition that feminism addresses a wide scope of issues, such as attaining gender equality, eliminating discrimination against women, and promoting women’s liberation. Therefore, the reduction of it to mere issues of sexual preference is a stereotype that undermines the general public’s perception of the importance of feminism. From this perspective, imagining a feminist as necessarily a lesbian who possibly dislikes men means failing to acknowledge that a feminist—i.e., a person who, first of all, supports the idea of equal rights for women—can also be a heterosexual woman, a man of whatever sexuality, and a bearer of any other identity.

However, Espinosa Miñoso suggests that the feminist movement in many countries originated in lesbian communities for a reason, and it remains closely linked to lesbianism. For example, the author states that “obligatory heterosexuality [is] a social institution responsible for the production of a feminine subject whose desire and identity ensure dependency on the male” (Espinosa Miñoso 403). It means that sustaining heterosexuality as normal and socially acceptable (while marginalizing homosexuality) is an instrument for protecting male domination and oppression of women’s rights. This is why outspoken homosexuals are exactly the people who destroy this instrument and allow the feminist movement to develop and promote its values by changing norms and ensuring respect and fulfillment of equal rights.

However, in this context, Espinosa Miñoso does not refer to homosexuals collectively and distinguishes between gay men and lesbians. The author states that “lesbianism, in frank opposition to feminism oppressive to lesbians, transformed its proposal into a mere addendum to a gay politics focused on the demand for rights and recognition, attractive to financing agents” (Espinosa Miñoso 404). It suggests that, while homosexual women were the most prominent advocates of feminism at some point, they ended up gaining the smallest number of benefits from the defeat (or weakening) of the concept of obligatory heterosexuality. Therefore, the theoretical approach will focus on linking feminism not as much to homosexuality as to lesbianism specifically.

Speculating on the relationship between gender and sexuality, Butler referred to the idea that sexual practices may be a stronger aspect of one’s identity (therefore, something that is more important grounds for the feeling of unity and community for people) than gender (27). However, the author doubts that this idea is correct, as the same sexual practices will be experienced differently depending on gender. Therefore, it can be argued that lesbianism may be more strongly connected to the female identity than it is to homosexuality in a general sense. This particular perspective will be used in identifying the connection between lesbianism and feminism in Lion’s Den.

Historical Context

As it was established above, lesbian activists played an important role in the development of the feminist movement. Bastian Duarte also stresses that lesbians made a contribution to the struggle with male domination and the oppression of women’s rights by opposing Latin American military dictatorships (155-156). The author suggests that the community that was strengthened not only by gender bonds but also the bonds of sexuality and fighting against marginalization and oppression became a powerful force that delivered feminist values to the general public, ultimately achieving the recognition of these values shared by many people today in different countries, including the countries of Latin America specifically.

In the context of the analyzed movie, it is particularly important to avoid overlooking imprisonment as a factor in the development of a homosexual relationship between the heroine and another woman, a fellow inmate. From the historical perspective, it is noteworthy that there are the women in prison genre that were particularly popular in the past due to the eroticized images of inmates engaging in homosexual contacts; e.g., during shower scenes (Schwan 477). Movies of this genre can be described as exploitation movies because they heavily rely on erotic imagery and often fail to feature elaborate plots or skillful performances.

It can be assumed that the genre was popular due to the especial eroticism of incarceration as a state of helplessness and submission. The sexual appeal of a prisoner is a widespread phenomenon in popular culture, and an example is the iconic image of Princess Leia leashed by a villain in one of the Star Wars movies (LeBlanc 16). As the feminist movement developed and delivered messages about its values to various audiences, the women in prison genre as a category of exploitation movies virtually ceased to exist.

Another important historical consideration is the ways lesbianism, according to Espinosa Miñoso, was oppressed by certain versions of feminism (404). Some lesbian feminists were accused by other feminists (some of the accusers were lesbians as well) for speaking openly and publicly about their sexuality in the context of their political views and about their feminist views in the context of their lesbianism. Espinosa Miñoso refers to this criticized position as “feminist lesbian politics” (402). According to the accusers, sustaining the link between lesbianism and feminism prevented further development and spread of feminist values, while some feminists (including Espinosa Miñoso) consider the link necessary until today.

Feminism-Lesbianism Relationship

First of all, it can be argued that lesbianism is not the central theme of Lion’s Den; however, identifying the one central theme of the movie would be rather challenging. This is a story of a woman’s transformation and the transformation of her values under the pressuring and disturbing circumstances of being in prison, albeit a cell block for pregnant inmates and inmates with young children—the conditions in it are much less strict than in other parts of the penitentiary facility, which is why Marta, Julia’s eventual partner, says that the cell block is not prison (Trapero). An element of this transformation is Julia’s relationship with Marta, although it does not constitute the main change that happens to the heroine during several years that she spends in prison.

Little is known about this relationship. Marta is the first person who is nice to Julia in prison; she later protects her from harassment in the common shower and repeatedly helps her cope with the difficulties of living in the cell block. At some point, when comforting Julia who is upset by the progress of her court case, Marta makes an advance and tries to kiss Julia, but Julia resists and rejects her. Later, however, the viewer sees the two women share kisses that rather indicate sexual relationships; it is also known that they sleep in the same bed. Julia had a boyfriend, but it is unknown whether she had had relationships with women before she was imprisoned. Evidently, the movie does not focus on the sexual aspect of the two women’s relationship; they are shown to passionately kiss three times throughout the movie (the last kiss occurs when Marta leaves the prison), but their sexual encounters are not shown

In fact, female inmates often develop sexual relationships under the conditions of imprisonment; according to Einat and Chen, a widespread opinion among inmates themselves is that, if such relationships are long-term, they are based on “love and companionship” (25). This contrasts with another opinion, according to which such relationships (regardless of inmates’ sexuality) are forced and caused by the restrictions of being in prison. Therefore, some people think that lesbian relationships among inmates are not genuine and are based on desperation, while inmates themselves (who observe such relationships or engage in them) tend to disagree.

The sexual aspect is evidently less important in the relationship between Julia and Marta than their connection as companions; specifically than Marta’s role as a protector. She helps Julia fit in the group of inmates, helps her with her pregnancy, and later assists in raising Julia’s newly born son Tomás. Although it can be speculated that the fact that Julia ultimately yields to Marta’s advances is a form of gratitude, Julia is later seen to be actually deeply attached to Marta and frustrated when Marta leaves the prison. The frustration is apparently due not to Julia’s loss of protector but rather to being separated from a loved one.

Marta turns out to be the only person Julia can trust: it is Marta whom Julia asks for help when Tomás is taken away from her, and it is Marta who finds a new lawyer for Julia and provides her with forged documents needed to leave the country when Julia escapes from prison. The viewer does not know anything about Marta’s situation outside the prison: it is possible that Marta is in a different relationship. However, she stays committed to helping Julia even though they are not planning to be together because, at the end of the movie, Julia and Tomás cross the border and leave their past, including Marta, behind.

To examine the connection of interest—the link between lesbianism and feminism—it is also necessary to explore the story of Julia’s transformation from the feminist perspective as well as to explore the theme of feminism in the movie in general. From the very beginning, Julia is shown as a strong woman, although her strength is significantly undermined by the mysterious murder of her boyfriend and the experience of being pregnant and being sent to prison at the same time. The moment at which Julia’s readiness to fight against perceived injustice and to protect her rights—these are important indicators of feminist values—is shown with the most striking vividness is the prison upheaval caused by Julia’s mother’s unwillingness to return Tomás to prison.

Deprived of her only source of support, her young son, Julia becomes furious and violent. After spending some time in the punishment cell, she goes back to the cell block, where other women learn that Tomás was taken away by Julia’s mother. As the inmates are mothers themselves and understand the experience of raising a child under prison conditions, they become enraged, too, and start a violent riot to support Julia. These inmates, some of whom, like Julia, are in relationships with other inmates, highly respect and appreciate their community. What they fight for in this example is their right to be recognized as capable women who can raise their own children despite being in prison. What they protest against is the idea that, since they are in prison, which is not always the result of their actual crimes but rather the result of injustice or a mistake, they are inferior and can be neglected; e.g., by being deprived of their young children.

The movie shows that women in prison can be aggressive and violent toward one another, but they can also stick together and support one another based on the common identity. When Julia, pregnant at the time, is briefly taken to a common cell before the hearing of her case, there are many women in the cell and several men in the opposite cell. One of these women teases the men and insults them in a comical way, which even made Julia laugh. It is hot in the cell, and this woman is shown to fan Julia, later reprimanding a guard for making a pregnant woman wait for so long. This combination of supporting a woman and confronting men symbolizes the way female inmates view their oppressed position and perceive the way they should address and improve it.

In fact, a significant role in the connection between feminism and lesbianism is played by men. Before going to prison, Julia lived with two men; although she says that Nahuel was her boyfriend, and Ramiro was his lover, she apparently had a sexual relationship with Ramiro, too. During her trial, Ramiro acts meanly, as he openly tells her Julia that he needs to protect himself and not her, which is why he lies in his statement, and later lies in front of a judge and Julia during the confrontation procedure. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Ramiro’s behavior causes Julia’s disappointment in all men, but it is evident that, in a situation of despair and confusion, she is supported by fellow inmates and is not supported by the only close man who could support her. From this perspective, there may be a symbolic meaning behind the fact that Julia ultimately goes from a male lawyer (her mother’s lawyer) to a female lawyer found for Julia by Marta.

Espinosa Miñoso stresses that women’s liberation is connected to the revision of relationships between men and women “on all levels, and…this [revision] has led many women to develop forms of sexuality and relationships that exclude or marginalize the presence of men in their lives” (404). In Lion’s Den, the exclusion of men is demonstrated quite literally: Julia is imprisoned, which virtually deprives her of physical opportunities for having men in her life in whatever quality. The development of a lesbian relationship pushes her further away from the context of male domination. In the context of patriarchy, her identity of a woman and a mother would be criticized due to her lesbianism, but in the context of a critique of patriarchy, she can preserve the identity.

Conclusion

If the connection between feminism and lesbianism is understood as a connection between sexuality and beliefs (or attitudes and activism), Julia’s story illustrates the connection. She fights for her right to be seen as capable and not inferior, and she is supported by fellow inmates. The identity of a mother is crucial for her, and the attempt to take her child away faces Julia’s fierce resistance. Although little is known about her sexuality (it is unrevealed whether Julia had sexual relationships with women before prison or whether she will have such relationships after her escape), the fact that she had a female partner in prison whom she loved adds an important element to her transformation. From the anti-feminist position of male domination, Julia’s lesbianism undermines her identities of a woman and a mother, but her lesbian experience enables the feministic framework, in which Julia finds herself more empowered.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. 5th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Bastian Duarte, Ángela Ixkic. “From the Margins of Latin American Feminism: Indigenous and Lesbian Feminisms.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 38, no. 1, 2012, pp. 153-178.

Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1993, pp. 18-31.

Chang, Huang-Ming, et al. “From Mythology to Psychology: Identifying Archetypal Symbols in Movies.” Technoetic Arts, vol. 11, no. 2, 2013, pp. 99-113.

Einat, Tomer, and Gila Chen. “Female Inmates’ Perspectives toward Consensual Same-Sex Sexual Relationships in an Israeli Prison.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, vol. 36, no. 1, 2012, pp. 25-44.

Espinosa Miñoso, Yuderkys. “The Feminism-Lesbianism Relationship in Latin America: A Necessary Link.” Translated by Joan Flores, The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights, edited by Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, pp. 401-405.

LeBlanc, Sarah Symonds. “Taking Back the ‘P-Word’: Princess Leia Feminism, an Autoethnography.” The Popular Culture Studies Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 2017, pp. 5-23.

IMDb, Web.

Schwan, Anne. “Postfeminism Meets the Women in Prison Genre: Privilege and Spectatorship in Orange Is the New Black.” Television & New Media, vol. 17, no. 6, 2016, pp. 473-490.

Trapero, Pablo, director. Leonera. Buena Vista International, 2008.

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