Sorry, Carmen Jones Is Not a Feminist Icon
This article was originally inspired by another article I stumbled across last year (can't find it now), in which the writer claimed the character Carmen Jones was a feminist icon. Needless to say, I was baffled and typed up this rant on my personal computer, which I am now posting here, months later, for your reading pleasure.
Before I go any further, let me first make it clear that I actually adore most classic film from this era, even though -- unfortunately -- most classic film from this era happens to be highly problematic (*sigh* sorry for that buzzword).
I love Carmen Jones for what it is, flaws and all. If I'm criticizing the film, it is with the utmost affection. And I do believe I'm in love with Dorothy Dandridge (*wolf whistle*). But I can't see what's feminist about this film.
So what's the issue? Carmen Jones is a beautiful, spirited, vivacious woman who fully embraces her sexuality, is independent, and lives the way she desires without shame. Sounds good so far, right? Brace yourself. It gets bad.
While it's great that Carmen is allowed to express herself sexually and have agency and all that neat stuff, she is still punished for it with death by the end of the movie.
This is what disqualifies the movie from being feminist.
Killing women who are sexually confident, have multiple lovers, and have the gall to command their own bodies and their own destiny is a common (and unfortunate) theme in fiction.
The message is always loud and clear: women who don't conform to predefined gender expectations must die.
The thing about Carmen Jones is that the film tries to manipulate you into pitying all the wrong people.
Cindy Lou is presented as a good woman who we are supposed to pity because she is meek and submissive, soft and forgiving. She is also blindly loyal, to the detriment of her own emotional well-being. She stands beside Joe and tries to help him after he has stood her up on their wedding day, cheated on her, and left her for another woman.
I didn't pity Cindy Lou at all. If she had any sense, she would have moved on with her life and forgotten Joe, not hung around trying to save him from his own actions -- for which he was responsible.
Meanwhile, we are expected to pity Joe as if Carmen had destroyed his life and he was oh so helpless. But Joe was in full control of himself, his actions, and his destiny every step of the way.
Joe could have caught the train and taken Carmen to jail like he was supposed to. Instead, Joe chose to have sex with Carmen and fall asleep at her house, allowing her to escape.
Joe was not seduced. Joe was not helpless. Men are not the hapless victims of their libidos. Either women are weak, inferior, wilting flowers or domineering succubi. You can't have it both ways.
Joe could have said no, taken Carmen to jail, and married Cindy Lou that evening. He chose not to.
Joe later chooses to attack his superior, which sends him on the run, digging the hole deeper. Yet somehow, this is presented as Carmen's fault because she was mocking him.
I'm a veteran, so take it from me: to attack a superior officer is completely insane.
I won't pretend the sergeant wasn't a scumbag. He sent Carmen to jail because she had the audacity to -- gasp! -- say no when he asked her out. Then he made Joe drive Carmen so he could hit on Cindy Lou while Joe was gone. Then he tried to get with Carmen again.
The sergeant was clearly a villain and depicted as one so we would hate him as a bad guy and pity Joe -- as if Joe weren't just another bad guy.
We also have to remember that Joe is a character, not an omnipresent god. Joe wasn't aware of all this. Joe doesn't know the sergeant hit on Cindy and probably never made the connection between Carmen going to jail and the sergeant trying to punish Carmen for exercising some good ol' agency.
When the sergeant was ridiculing Joe and tugging on his shirt, the correct response was to stand there and take it in stony silence. Every soldier who's been through basic training knows this. You allow your superiors to mock you and you don't say anything because it will ruin your life.
The sergeant isn't physically attacking Joe. He's gently tugging on his shirt and laughing at him. This could have easily been ignored. Joe lost his temper because he was being humiliated in front of Carmen. This is a huge red flag from a man so insecure, he's prone to violence.
That Joe makes the choice to attack his superior, even though he has already been rigorously trained to take the worst abuse from an officer, shows that Joe is not only a jerk himself but also an undisciplined soldier.
Joe's predicament is his own damn fault, and yet it is presented as Carmen's fault, while Joe is always supposed to be someone we pity.
We are encouraged to feel more pity for Joe when Carmen won't leave him the heck alone.
This is literally sexual harassment.
Carmen respectfully flirts with Joe early in the film, which is fine. But once Joe said the polite equivalent of "No, thanks," Carmen should have stopped. Instead, she continues to forcefully pursue Joe, hanging all over him in the car, taking him back to her house for dinner, toying with his belt to get him out of his clothing, and -- probably the worst part -- having sex with him even though he told her about Cindy Lou.
Carmen didn't care who got hurt, so long as she avoided jail.
Later, Carmen discovers that Joe isn't a nice guy but a Nice Guy. Because she is beautiful -- and because he is an insecure jerk -- he is insanely jealous and possessive. He believes all the time that Carmen is cheating on him simply because she is beautiful. His abusive, controlling behavior pushes her away, and the film becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when she leaves him for another man.
This other man is a boxer and yet another man who sees Carmen as a possession and not a person. He has no respect for her and thinks she can be bought with jewelry. It doesn't matter that she keeps saying she isn't interested in him: he keeps trying. This, again, is sexual harassment and is a bit ironic considering the way Carmen treated Joe at the beginning of the film.
Meanwhile, Carmen doesn't actually like the boxer. She is with him to survive. She is with him because he can protect her from Joe.
When Joe finds Carmen with the boxer, he never stops to register that maybe his crap behavior pushed Carmen away. Instead, he immediately calls Carmen a slur and attacks.
Carmen Jones is not a feminist film. It is yet another story that shames and punishes its female lead for showing agency and sexual independence.
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© 2018 Ash Gray