Culture

Independent Polish Woman

Katarzyna Kazimierowska · 19 March 2013
Women’s Day (Polish title: Dzień kobiet) is on the one hand a cinema that is socially engaged in the struggle against unjust capitalism, on the other – a beautiful story about the power of female solidarity. For her feature-length debut, Maria Sadowska, a Polish singer and director, chose a story of a provincial, strong woman who from her own mistakes learns to fight for her rights. Fear not, this is not a feministic morality play, but rather a universal story of the poor and the oppressed….

I am really glad that Women’s Day opened in cinemas exactly on the 8th of March, on the occasion of such a significant, although heavily underplayed holiday. Long gone are declarations of fostering women-friendly initiatives, mass offerings of carnations (a popular custom in Poland under communism) and introducing rights that in principle were  supposed to help us fulfil our roles as mothers, partners or workers. On the other hand, the holiday hasn’t evolved into a nationwide movement of female solidarity – although this would have probably been the wish of the organizers of the feminist manifestations that take place in Poland in March every year. I am also guessing that the message from the movie appeals to the mass female imagination more that the slogan of this year’s manifestation (“Independent Polish Woman”) – a slogan which is not necessarily equally clear and in the same way interpreted by all of Polish women. What we need, on the other hand, is a little effort so that its objective can begin to include the women from small towns and villages who will finally become empowered enough to address their problems and to stand for their rights.

From ‘Nazi’ to the ‘Righteous Woman’

The struggle for one’s independence is the theme that links the slogan from this year’s manifestation to Sadowska’s Women’s Day. Those who remember from several years ago the much talked-about lawsuit filed by several female workers against their employer Biedronka (low-cost supermarket chain), practically know already the whole plot of the movie. The case started with a suit filed by Bożena Łopacka, a former Biedronka employee – her victory in court has paved the way for subsequent former victims, and Łopacka herself became a symbol of fighting for employees’ rights inside big companies. The director sought for inspiration also in the press reporting, in order to present the wide spectrum of the event. As a consequence, the movie sees a number of intertwining threads. In the epicenter, the protagonist: Halina, an employee of Motylek chain working the till. From the moment she gets promoted onto the position of store manager, gradually her position changes. On the one hand – and this has been emphasized by Sadowska – the promotion becomes her means to independence. Halina takes a loan and buys an apartment, noting (in what could be read out with Virginia’s Wolf voice) “for the first time I will have a room of my own.” On the other hand, the promotion puts her in a position of power she has never experienced before. Her boss teaches her step by step how to use this power over other female employees, now former friends. From a person full of empathy, she becomes a tryant (the employees start calling her ‘the Nazi’) and she forces on her subordinates to work in inhumane, degrading work conditions.

But Halina’s transformation is nothing more than simply a result of the corporate dominance over her weak personality. She becomes a puppet in the hands of her employer. Like an Amway employee, she undergoes a process of brainwashing that aims at convining her of the importance of productivity. Alas, she does not become a perfect cog in the machinery. Out of fear of losing her job and even more so of losing her newly acquired independence, she simply allows others to manipulate her. The tragic irony is, that in all her struggle for independence, it is her true independence that she loses first. Moreover, in the spiral of stress and sexual manipulation on the side of her superior, having no possibility of seeking support from family or colleagues, Halina has no-one to turn to. Slowly, she starts realizing that her laborious struggle for independence is turning into a struggle to keep the job – and to avoid, at any price, going back to the point of departure. To prevent this from happening, Halina is ready to put at stake everything that was dear to her  – the time for her family, the relationship with her daughter, the friendship with other women from work.

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She begins acting the way she was taught in the corporation: if you want to succeed, solidarity with others is not an option. She despises her boss, but at what she sees as a point of no return, she begins to become just like him. This is an issue repeatedly raised by feminism – that by allowing women to play at a men’s turf, capitalism forces them to play along manly rules. There is no place for solidarity, because the people in the corporation are evaluated according to their productivity numbers. Instead, what prevails is mobbing, exploitation and the abuse of employee rights.

Halina is an average Polish woman from a small town: she is an attractive, if slightly unkempt, 40-year-old single mother of a teenager, who is facing alone the difficulties. Her life is an accumulation of every Polish woman’s problems: shortage of finances, fear of losing a job, fear of losing control over her adolescent daughter. She is longing for a man in her bed and in her life. Not to mention, she knows how to fix her own car without a man’s help. The world in Women’s Day could be the world without men, so brave and skilled are the women in it. If Sadowska’s movie is feministic, it is so its most colloquial sense: that the men who appear in it are either always absent, or they damage the work, or they strip women of their dignity. Both their presence as well as their absence causes difficulties. Apart from Halina’s good-natured lawyer, they represent all that is evil and negative: the cult of macho, infidelity, sexism, cynicism, and most of all, the exploitative, manipulative capitalism.

Women’s Day has been also proclaimed ‘the Western of feminism’. Although it is far from being a genre cinema, if we apply to it the Western-like dichotomy where the good forces of Motylek employees face the evil Red Skins from the corporation, then Halina appears as the good sheriff who takes up the fight in the name of law, while the evil players try to sabotage her daring mission. Sadowska deserves recognition for not turning her character into a victim, but rather into a heroic character. Halina’s attitude, when she decides to sue Motylek, resembles the courage and refusal of any compromise of the main protagonists in Sylwia Chutnik’s book Cwaniary (“Slyboots”).

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The author, using a vocabulary reminiscent of that used by the Polish resistance movement during World War II, takes revenge on a fraudulent developer and women are the ones who administer justice. For a very long time, Halina is alone in her struggle. Making her way through all stages of judiciary hell, she begins to lose faith. This is when the female solidarity enters the stage, like in a drama movie from Hollywood. Be sure to shed a few tears when the female employees of Motylek march into the court – a scene that is a rare image for Polish reality, where co-workers who are bullied and intimidated would rather bite off their tongue than stand up for a colleague who is harassed or sexually abused by the employer. In an especially interesting way, Sadowska presents the stories of a few female employees of Motylek and what motivated each of them to take a stand against the company, despite the fear of losing a job.

Each of those women – simple and yet so distinctive – is like the heroine of Chutnik’s book or of a superhero comic. They are loud, saucy, daring and very down-to-earth but their strength comes from collective action. Together they form a colorful pageant of faces – faces that serve us at tills in supermarkets, grocery stores, beauty salons.  The Western character of the movie is especially alive in the earlier mentioned courtroom scene, when two groups have to face one another: the oppressed and the oppressors, the humiliated and the humiliating.

Although Women’s Day is not a feministic picture per se – the director herself avoids that label, emphasizing first and foremost the struggle for one’s rights and for the rights of an employee – one aspect is especially striking: it is mostly women who work the tills in the supermarkets. The job is not easy nor interesting, neither highly respected  in the society. It is the job of a human machine that shuffles around the stock and gives change at the till. The human inside it is invisible and should remain so. How many occupations are there, that we do not notice? Cashiers, cleaners, the women working at the assembly line –an entire group of invisible people that we fail to notice and whose exploitation does not occupy our minds. The women from Biedronka have proved that this does not have to be the case. Sadowska has raised the bar: uninteresting, low-paid jobs are assigned to women, providing a room for all kind of abuse by  big corporations.

Girl power

This is the topic that the March feminist manifestation should address more. We know already that there is no single feminism – what we see and hear during the annual demonstrations is the single perspective of young, educated representatives of female middle class from big cities. You won’t meet ther Halinka from Motylek superstore. Perhaps she was there, when they joined forces with demonstrating nurses. But it has been a long time since she has been to a manifestation, because feminism, although popular, overlooks her little provincial reality. We keep forgetting that Independent Polish woman is also her, Halina from Motylek. During her struggle not once was she supported by feminist organizations. Perhaps it is time to change that. The slogans advocating the right to abortion and civil unions are popular and necessary, but they rarely concern the women working as cashiers in the supermarket. On the other hand, the problem of low-paid, ‘invisible’ jobs is more relevant to them than anything else. Perhaps it is about time that the manifestations joined the ‘common people’ and began educating ordinary women about their rights and why it is important to fight for them. This is what Sadowska tries to show us in her movie, because we, women, still lack this solidarity.

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Movie:

Women’s Day,dir. Maria Sadowska, Polska 2013.