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Ever since its creation, cinematography served as a mirror of society. Through the representation of different opinions, norms, and traditions in cinema, it is possible to make an impression about the social and cultural tendencies of the time period as a whole. The representation of women and sexuality has been steadily shifting ever since the beginning of the 20th century and well into the 21st century. Bit by bit, women claimed their liberty for social and sexual representation in films. The views on women in cinema are evolving along with the society. Acceptance of women as individuals and as independent characters comes hand in hand with acceptance and normalization of different sexual identities. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on the image of women and homosexuality in modern cinema by analyzing the film titled “Pariah” (2011) by Dee Rees and compare it with the standard staples of the Production Code films, aired in the 1930s-1960s.
Women, Homosexuals, and the Society in the 1930s-1960s
Before we talk about “Pariah,” it is necessary to talk about the Motion Picture Production Code. It was developed by Will H. Hays in the 1930s, and its purpose was to protect the society from “disruptive influences” and susceptibility to low moral standards (Halberstram, 2017). In other words, the Production Code was a censorship tool. Among the most frequent offenders of the Code were scenes of murder, open sexuality, homosexuality, and rebellions against racial and gender norms. The majority of the movies featuring gay characters or women trying to lodge their way into independence or push away from traditional gender roles were usually set up for a tragedy or failure (Smelik, 2016).
This trend reflected the views of the society towards women and homosexuals in the 1930s – 1960s – homosexuality was considered a hard taboo, whereas women who did not wish to comply with their roles were perceived as morally weak and unworthy (Rudy, 2016). One of the examples of vilification of homosexuality can be found in the 1941 film titled “The Maltese Falcon,” which depicted one of the characters, Cairo, as morally bankrupt, in order to avoid persecution by the followers of the Hay’s code. The Code was officially abandoned in 1968, which heralded the gradual return of women and themes of female sexuality into the American cinematography.
Racial Undertones in Pariah
“Pariah” is a unique film. The majority of the motion pictures involving the descriptions of black communities typically revolve around crime, gangsters, and the so-called truths of “thug life” (Cooper, 2016). Alike is a break from the norm in that it refuses to reinforce the negative stereotypes regarding her race. She is a girl from a middle-class family, with her father and mother being respectful members of society. Alike is good at school and is an aspiring poet. Her choice of friends and companionship revolves around her interests and preferences, and she is not a part of any gang. This perspective helps the audience perceive her as a real person rather than a combination of staples and stereotypes typical to modern cinematography.
A pariah in Social, Political, and Historical Contexts
“Pariah” is centered on the coming-of-age. This particular genre focuses on teenagers, their growing pains, and facing the challenges of maturity for the first time. While the subject of teen love has been explored in various pictures before, the number of films dedicated to coming-out and openly declaring homosexuality is slim. Another particular trait of this movie is that the main hero – Alike, is portrayed by a black actress, which further tests the viewers in their acceptance of race, gender, and sexuality.
Despite having been filmed relatively recently, “Pariah” can be considered an old movie. American society had changed for the better since 2011. In 2015, the White House was colored rainbow to celebrate the acceptance of the same-sex marriage ruling. In 2017, male dominance over cinematography has been finally shattered with a cascade of scandals, rape allegations, and the #MeToo movement (Smelik, 2016). In 2011, the society was different. While not nearly as radical and restrictive in its views as it was in the 1960s, the issues of acceptance, one’s own sexual identity, and familial ties are present here.
Alike, the main hero of the film is a black teenage lesbian girl who seeks to find someone who would love her for who she is. Her parents are oblivious to their daughter’s obvious sexual identity and remain as antagonists towards her choices for the remainder of the movie. “Pariah” dismantles the images of a well-off family as well as highlights the hypocrisy of moralistic churchgoers by including Bina as the “traitor” among their mist – a perfect little church girl who turns out to be a closet lesbian.
“Pariah” puts an emphasis on three major themes throughout the movie. The first theme is the theme of conflict between members of the old and the young generation. Although this theme is present throughout the film, it is magnified in the coming-out scene, where Alike tries to tell their parents about herself being a lesbian, which leads to a confrontation (Rees, 2016, 00:43:30). Although the father is not as critical and vocal in his opinions when compared to the mother, they are more or less in agreement regarding their daughter. This attitude illustrates the transcending homophobia that is present in the American society – the generation taught by films of the 1930s -1960s is critical and unaccepting of Alike’s homosexuality, while she, having been raised in the atmosphere of gradually-increasing freedom of the 2000s, does not share her parents’ views (McLearen, 2016).
The second major theme of the film is the realistic portrayal of homosexual relationships and sexuality in general. Many modern movies fall into the trap of rewriting Romeo and Juliette, only with a gay pairing involved. “Pariah” features no such thing – Alike’s first sexual experience with another woman leaves her heartbroken (Rees, 2016, 00:40:00). What seems to be a sensual and heartfelt scene with Bina turns out to be only a one-night fling. It also demonstrates the strength of the character, as instead of being ruined for life, she recovers from the ordeal and stays faithful to who she is. Alike treats it as a lesson of life and later reconciles with Laura, who had been by her side all along.
The third, and, perhaps, the most powerful message of the movie is illustrated in the last scene, where Alike reconciles with her father and attempts to reconcile with her mother as well, before leaving home in order to pursue her own life (Rees, 2016, 01:02:00). This scene is especially poignant, as it represents Alike’s choice to go not as a retreat or an attempt to run from her problems. The girl states that it is not an attempt to run – it is her choice, which speaks volumes about the maturity of her character. In so doing, Alike formally declares herself as an independent adult, who, while still wanting and longing for acceptance on her family’s part, does not depend on it for survival or even functioning. She puts her own happiness and identity before the ideals of her family. The father accepts it while the mother does not, meaning that the rift between generations could never be fully mended. Alike leaves home on a journey to the west, which is also described by her poem, to signify the power of her decision further.
“Pariah” is, perhaps, one of the few modern movies to realistically portray the coming-of-age as well as the gripes with the sexuality of a typical teenage girl without overly simplifying the issue, idealizing one side or the other, or painting the story in black-and-white rather than in shades of gray. It avoids the stereotypes not only about the black community but also about the subject of female homosexuality in cinema in general. It portrays a realistic story about a young girl with her own worries, desires, and vulnerabilities, overcoming the obstacles of her own naiveté, prejudices of her family, and issues of personal independence. The main point of this movie is that we choose who we want to be. Individuality is not to be sacrificed to accommodate anyone. Although it can be inconvenient and sometimes even hurtful, staying true to oneself is a better option than lying and trying to please everyone. As Alike said in her final words to her father, she is not running but choosing.
Cooper, B. C. (2016). But some of us are brave: Black women’s studies (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Feminist Press.
Halberstram, J. (2017). Trigger-happy: From content warning to censorship. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(2), 536-542.
McLearen, C. (2016). Homophobia in film. Web.
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Rees, D. (2016, December 16). Pariah – full movie. [Video file]. Web.
Rudy, R. (2016). The depiction of homosexuality in American movies. Humaniora, 28(1), 59-68.
Smelik, A. (2016). Feminist film theory. New York, NY: Wiley.