I’m delaying my second post on the needlework picture by Olevia Rebecca Parker until next month because I’d like to continue the conversation from posts by Ben Wright and Andy Lang on the usefulness of the new film 12 Years a Slave in the U.S. history classroom.
This semester I’m teaching U.S. women’s history to 1865, which I teach knowing that we cannot understand womanhood and femininity without also understanding concurrent ideologies of manhood and masculinity. My women’s history courses also highlight issues of intersections of identity, such as being black, female, and enslaved or of being white, male, and poor, and beginning to explore how identity politics impact one’s life experiences. I offered my students the extra credit assignment below:
Comment upon the representation and performance of gender (as well as other aspects of identity such as race and class) for the following characters in the film 12 Years a Slave:
You may respond with a paragraph on each, or weave your analysis of all of these characters into a single essay. In addition, write one paragraph explaining your assessment of the overall success of the film at conveying the importance of gender dynamics in this time period. You will be evaluated on the content of your answers as well as writing style and grammar.
Many of the students had interesting comments about the portrayal of these characters, and I noticed some intriguing patterns across the overall group response to some aspects of the film.
The students had surprisingly little to say about Solomon Northup’s masculinity considering this is his story. Many focused on his loss of freedom and seemed to understand his status and his wealth as a freeman as greater than it was in reality. They described his life in New York as quite charmed, a reflection on the rather one-dimensional and inaccurate picture of the antebellum North given in the film. One student stated, “Northup is represented as a strong-willed, masculine, brave individual” who draws upon “his intellect to survive through his time as a slave.” Others focused on the loss he felt for his wife and children, and of losing his ability to be the head of a household.
Others were rather fascinated by Master Ford, the “stereotypical benevolent patriarch that many plantation owners believed themselves to be.” While some felt that his treatment of his slaves vindicated him, others saw it as his true failing. One student’s response was particularly perceptive and is given here at length: “Master Ford is sympathetic, passive, and desires to be fair. Despite these adjectives he is still a slaveholding white male and sells Platt to a plantation slave holder who is known for ‘breaking niggers.’ These actions show Master Ford’s lack of manhood. He does not have the boldness to go against the norm and stand for what he holds true to his heart.” Another student connected scenes in the film to our class discussions about gender and power: “Ford recognizes that slaves are more than property, but he doesn’t actively try to change that because it would hurt his masculinity and his power.”
Almost every student drew upon the scene of Master Epps, Mistress Epps, and Patsey inside the Epps home, which is one of the most masterfully acted scenes in the film. Here it is explained by a student: “Mistress Epps made her claim as a woman by handling Patsey with aggression and no mercy due to the infidelity of her husband. Although Mistress Epps was the authority in the domestic sphere, she still was no more than property to Master Epps. This is shown when Master Epps clearly states that he would send her back to where he picked her up from before he let go of Patsey.” This incredibly tense scene is brilliant in picking up on the complicated subtleties of intersections of race, gender, and power in the Old South. All of my students consented that Mistress Epps “acted high and mighty, but held little real power” in such a patriarchal society.
Several students pointed to Mistress Shaw’s ability to use her status as an enslaved black woman to improve her condition, though she exchanged some control of her sexuality for easy living. This, however, was the only instance any of them saw a black woman portrayed with any sense of agency (aside from a single student who commented that Patsy “had an incredible amount of self-respect for herself despite her place in society”). None of my students noticed that all of the enslaved black female characters in this movie are variations on a theme—the physically and sexually exploited victim.
As someone who daily reads first-hand accounts and evidence from life as an enslaved person in the antebellum South, I have become somewhat desensitized to the atrocities of chattel slavery. While I found many of the scenes in this film difficult to watch, I was never shocked or surprised by any of the brutality. I came away with the feeling that while McQueen’s effort goes far beyond any other attempt at accurately portraying American slavery on film it still falls far short of the historical reality.
I will end this rather rambling post with one final observation from a student, who said that this film “does a better job in conveying the race dynamics than it does the gender dynamics, but aspects such as sexual exploitation, domesticity, and true womanhood are apparent in the movie.” This sentiment was echoed by many others in their overall assessment of the film’s success at portraying gender in the antebellum South. While 12 Years a Slave begins to explore representations of enslaved black women unlike any other movie, it presents them only as victimized and oppressed. I will likely continue to use scenes from this movie in class, or as an extra credit option, but not in its entirety as a graded assignment. Instead, I’m holding out for a cinematic rendering of Harriet Tubman.