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bechdel taser: sapphires are diamonds

Four confident women.
Four confident women doing things.
Four confident women supporting each other.
Four confident indigenous women given prime screen time in a well-grossing Australian film.
Four confident indigenous women not allowing anyone to insult them for their race or gender, and never compromising their personalities or identities.

The Sapphires is the most woman-positive film I’ve seen this year.

It’s so much easier to snark when things are negative.

The Sapphires are Gail, Julia, Cynthia and Kay (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens). Yes, there are aspects that look a bit like Dreamgirls. Similar time, women of colour, girl group, male manager, changing of lead singer. It ends there. The changeover of lead is accomplished in one scene and doesn’t linger on its melodrama. The manager, Chris O’Dowd, is more ineffectual than manipulative. As the reviews gloat, it’s a feel-good drama. The songs are covers, but the stories feel original.

Some critics have argued The Sapphires glosses over or simplifies serious social issues. In every case, this gives more screen time to the four leads, each imbued with layers of humour, emotion and talent. They travel to Vietnam, to perform for troops. There are some public briefs a-twisted that we are not reminded Vietnam was a questionable war with crimes against civilians, protests and conscripting. This movie isn’t a story of Vietnam, the gist of which we all know, it’s The Sapphires, a story that hasn’t been told. It’s a story that cares about its female characters more than the social conflict around them. I don’t have a problem with movies focussing on social conflict, but those developing rich female identities are rare.

There are some details down here you may not want to see if you haven’t seen the film. OR MAYBE YOU DO, I’M NOT YOUR BOSS.

Julie’s identity is focused mainly around her voice. She is the youngest member, and precociously talented. “Too young” is the argument thrown at her inclusion by her sisters, but even when left at home as they travel to their Melbourne audition, Julie follows. She holds together through a war zone and gets some choice lines.

Cynthia is sexual. Unapologetically so. Unapologetic both for the character and filmmakers. And it’s not exoticised. In her first adult scene, she is having a sex dream. Like all of the girls, she knows she is beautiful, and happily eyes off the film’s military men. When Gail mentions the men probably have wives, it doesn’t work to shame Cynthia. She wasn’t privy to that information and none of the men volunteered it to her.

Gail was given responsibility as a child for keeping her sisters and cousin safe. She still feels that responsibility. It was especially relevant to her relationship with Kay, who was light-skinned enough to be taken away and taught to pass as white. There is a sensitive exposition of back-story ensuring Gail is not laden with the full guilt of personal failure around this incident. When protection was her immediate responsibility, she succeeded in hiding Kay from the authorities—it was when they, and an adult, went to see Kay’s mother in hospital, that Kay was taken. Because of this, the layers of guilt and anger Gail and Kay feel over the stolen generation and Kay’s decade-long assumption of white identity, make both women survivors, rather than subjecting Gail to character-martyrdom at the altar of failing women. Because of the systematic racism, Kay’s indigenous identity is more conflicted than those of her cousins, but by the film’s end is fully embraced.

Chris O’Dowd’s character is more contentious than the Sapphires’. He first supports them for their talent, not the promise of money, but the character is more ambiguous. As mentioned earlier, he’s not as manipulative as Jamie Foxx in Dreamgirls, but does play a significant role in the girls’ success. Though Julie first sees the advertisement for entertainers in Vietnam, he is instrumental in securing their audition, training them in soul music, and suggesting Julie take over from Gail as lead singer. It can be seen as a product of the time that the girls wouldn’t be able to do this without a man behind the scenes. His authority is never a given, and is challenged at every step.

Although O’Dowd is a veteran of The IT Crowd and Bridesmaids, he isn’t given all of the funny lines. However, although his drunken and stupid antics are criticised in isolation, the character as a whole is let off with greater character flaws than any of the women. In retrospect, some of the plotting clunks. He proposes marriage to Gail by letter, and they are immediately shelled. By being physically injured, he is redeemed for his behaviour. In my head, he works hard following the film to be a better man, and deserve her, because the film itself did not convince me.

There’s an African American stereotype called a “sapphire”. The character is loud, rude, malicious, and over-bearing. Sassy black mammies. The Sapphires is a wonderful inversion of this—rather than the negative connotations implied when a woman is loud, confident or stubborn, these are positive characteristics of the film’s unique women. That’s the film’s greatest achievement – making character traits elsewhere seen as flaws in all women, and especially those of colour, crucial and good.

You know what? The Sapphires wasn’t even written or directed by women. Other scripting and filming folk, lady and non-lady alike, have really run out of excuses.

 (Image credit)

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