Thursday, 13 December 2012

The House I Live In: houses no women

I went to a film screening on Tuesday, in an old warehouse in Hackney, feeling unimaginably cool. They served organic popcorn. Arguably, one could even say, more underground than Girls Aloud.

The film was The House I Live In, by Eugene Jarecki. From the website's blurb:
THE HOUSE I LIVE IN captures heart-wrenching stories at all levels of America’s drug war - from the dealer to the grieving mother, the narcotics officer to the senator, the inmate to the federal judge. Together, these stories pose urgent questions: What caused the war? What perpetuates it? And what can be done to stop it?
It is astonishingly good, with a compelling cast of characters; with heartbreaking stories and academic discussion and cutting statistics expertly wielded to argue its point with devastating skill. Imagine The Wire, in documentary form - and fittingly, David Simon is one of its most impressive talking heads.

But I walked out thinking - and I'll be honest, this is possibly my most used phrase - what about the women? How can a film be so intelligent and incisive about the subtle interplay between class and race in the US blithely skim over the third player in the unholy trinity, the Axis of Evil Oppressions that cut through the lives of virtually every person on the planet?

It's not that women are absent from the film - a fair selection are present as academics, commentators, and interviewees sharing their stories. But just filling a quota doesn't mean that you're engaging with the issues that affect women.

There's a moment where two jaded cops are chatting about how to solve The Drug Problem, and one of them goes off on a rant about how addicts should be "spayed". It's a scene which is played for laughs (laughing at them, not with them), but, as I couldn't stop myself from muttering, "That would be hilarious if they didn't actually do that".

There are a number of cases where women convicted of drug charges have been offered reduced sentences if they agree to use contraceptive implants during a probationary period. Chew on that for a second: quite apart from being a violation of their right to a family life, a violation of their right to control their own fertility, and a fairly obvious eugenicsy attempt to stop the 'wrong' people from breeding - it's also imposing an invasive medical treatment on someone against their will. It's not like saying "you must promise to use condoms for three years" - it's saying "you must accept this implant, and the side effects that go with it, for three years - or you will go to jail". (Common side effects include disruption of the menstrual cycle - I know a girl who had one long period for four months straight after getting this implant - along with nausea, weight gain, headaches, mood swings, anxiety, acne, and depression.)

That's just one little way that gender comes into play in the War On Drugs, just one nugget of information I've gleaned from years spent idling my time away on the feminist blogosphere. I'm guessing that there are about a million other ways that it intersects - but this film wasn't interested in exploring them.

Responding to a less coherent version of the above rant on the bus home, the Flat-Boyfriend argued that gender "wasn't the story they were telling" (while conceding that "it never is"). But it is. It's part of your story, whether you tell it or not, because there is no part of our society that isn't touched by the patriarchy in some way. It's just that too many people don't bother to tell it.


  1. Doesn't the War on Drugs disproportionately hurt men, to a fairly staggering degree? I mean when 80% of drug-related arrests are of men it definitely seems like a strongly gendered story that should be told. Wouldn't it be derailing or appropriation to turn the story into being about women, though?

  2. would mentioning how women are affected by the war on drugs be derailing?, she didn't say she wanted the story to be about women, if 80% of drug-related arrests are of men why not mention the other 20% who get arrested and about what happen to them, she even gave an example of something they could have mentioned and left out. 20% is 1 in 5 you know.

  3. No, I'm definitely not saying I want it to be 100% about women, that would indeed be derailing. As the second anonymous says, the female 20% of arrestees deserve a say - and that's not counting the other ways women are affected by the war on drugs: that male 80% is composed of men with mothers, daughters, sisters, partners... plus, for example, the Norplant issue I mentioned in the post, and I'm sure a lot of other ways that the war impacts women.

  4. thanks for this, allama. I hadn't heard of the film. it doesn't look like I can see it yet in the states yet, but I marked it in netflix so i'll get notified when it's available. While i'd definately like to see it, it's disappointing to hear that women were overlooked. that so frustrates me when something is otherwise well done. gender treatment does not have to be either/or. Including women wouldn't change the point of the narrative, it would enrich it. (also, I didn't know about the use of IUDs in sentencing--that is horrifying).

    1. It's SO good, I definitely recommend looking out for it - let me know what you think if you manage to track it down.

      Your comments always make me smile :)