The Fall of Eve: Female Sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

eves bayou poster

Yes, I know; I have exhausted the topic of Eve’s Bayou beyond repair, but allow me to add another element to the conversation, one that makes this film extremely relevant in a way I’d never considered before.

My initial reaction to Kasi Lemmons’s stellar directorial debut was something like gratitude. Here was a story about a little black girl, told by a little black girl, that had nothing to do with her blackness. Representation in film is no small thing, especially when almost twenty years later, films from the perspective of African-American girls remain a novelty. Much later I discovered The Color Purple (1985) and Crooklyn (1994), but it wasn’t until 2012 with the arrival of Beasts of the Southern Wild that a film even remotely rivaled the affect Eve Batiste’s story had on me.  That’s largely due to the bottomless implications of the tale Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) spins for us.

“The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old,” she says in voice-over narration, and we witness how, deep in small town-Louisiana, circa 1963, Eve’s innocence is lost. It all starts when she wakes in the carriage house one night to find her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) having sex with a woman (Lisa Nicole Carson) not her mother (Lynn Whitfield). This event precipitates not just Eve’s “fall” but that of her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good).  

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve's Bayou

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

I often came close, but one thing I’ve never deeply examined is how closely the film mimics the Fall of Man, framed in a distinctly feminist context. Our main character isn’t called Eve for nothing. Technically, her namesake is a slave ancestor who healed a cholera-stricken general and then proceeded to bear him sixteen children. But the film’s many Biblical references connect our Eve more strongly to her Biblical counterpart. Of course, we all know the original: God made Adam and Eve, and they lived together in innocent bliss til a serpent tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve took a bite before offering it to Adam, and thus was born Original Sin, culminating in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the film, there’s a recurring snake motif. Eve and her brother play down by the bayou and stumble across a snake they believe is dead. Eve–and it’s important that it’s Eve–picks it up only to discover that it’s very much alive. In another scene, in order to abate her boredom, Eve places a toy snake on her brother’s pillow beside his head to scare him when he wakes up. Finally, at Eve’s behest, voodoo woman Elzora feeds Louis’s hair to a snake in order to bring about his death.  Eve does her part, too, by hinting heavily to family friend Mr. Meraux that his wife and Louis are having an affair, in a shot set up so that behind Smollett, all that can be seen is a stand stacked with bright red apples.

Historically, culturally, women are regularly portrayed as “seducers” who wield their sexuality like a weapon against men, helpless to resist.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason we as a society can’t seem to wrap our heads around the concept that when a woman’s body is violated it is never, not ever, her fault. In the female-dominated Eve’s Bayou the women are sexually autonomous, not only welcoming but often initiating acts of passion. But considering this is a film placed firmly in the hands of children, a Gothic coming-of-age tale what’s more,  this theme takes on an altogether different, grotesque tone.

The incident that becomes the catalyst for Louis’s death as caused by Eve, is a not very filial kiss between him and Cisely, his clear favorite among his children. The film never gives us a precise answer as to who initiates the kiss, but no matter; it still suggests that black girls are not allowed to explore their sexuality in  a healthy, safe way. Eve, too, certainly suffers a massive blow to her development by witnessing her father with another woman, in what is likely to be her first encounter with sex. I’ve mentioned before in this post the parallels between Eve’s Bayou and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Most importantly both works, astounding debuts from African-American women writers, feature the victimization of young black American girls, whose innocence, traditionally, has neither been protected nor valued in a way that other cultures protect the girlhood of their children. Feminist scholar bell hooks has spoken at length over the years about the fetishization of the abused black female body, especially as it relates to big screen imagery, and this was one of her chief complaints about Beasts and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

This element of the film is not unimportant given recent cases like Amber Cole and Dylan Farrow, and the way girls (women, of course, but most importantly even girls) are still viewed as somehow responsible for being taken advantage of.

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TRIGGER – WARNING: On Dylan Farrow’s sexual abuse allegations…

This has been a rather depressing weekend. Firstly, I would like to send my condolences to the family and friends of Philip Seymour Hoffman, an incredible talent and lovable guy who will be sorely missed.

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Yesterday, Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, repeated allegations of sexual assault suffered at the hands of Allen in an open letter in The New York TimesNow, this is hardly brand new information.  Dylan was first silenced precisely 21 years ago, when Connecticut State Attorney Frank Maco decided to save the young child the trauma of testifying in open court. This, even though he had “probable cause” to prosecute Allen. She was ignored again as recently as November 2013 when Mia and her children gave an interview to Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth. Mia and Dylan both detail the abuse and the aftermath for almost half the article, only to be overshadowed by a brief, throwaway line about how Ronan Farrow, Mia and Woody’s youngest son, might biologically be Frank Sinatra’s son. It’s only now that people seem to be paying attention to these allegations and yet still desperately seek to silence her.

It is true that when this all first came about in the early nineties, it came on the heels of a messy split. Mia discovered naked photos of another adopted child, Soon-Yi, in Woody’s possession. It should be said that even though Allen himself was not legally Soon-Yi’s adopted father, his relationship with Farrow lasted twelve years before they broke up. When his affair with Soon-Yi began, she was about nineteen, maybe twenty, which means he knew and arguably raised her from the time she was seven or eight-years-old. So while it can be argued that not a lot of people were aware of his having abused Dylan, the circumstances of his relationship with Soon-Yi are public knowledge. That alone is indicative of a man who has little, if any, respect for boundaries. 

But perhaps the most disturbing thing to come out of this is the response it has elicited from Allen defenders. And I don’t think it’s too much to say that no one can truly be neutral in a situation like this. You either believe Allen did it or you think Dylan is a liar.  So in order to save you the time and trauma of reading the message boards and the comment sections, let’s  break the bullshit down, shall we:

1.  How do we know she’s telling the truth?

By far the most prevalent and admittedly true argument is that no one was physically there so the only two people who truly know what happened are Dylan and Woody. But isn’t it interesting how, even though none of us is more aware than the other, the knee-jerk reaction is to doubt the victim? Take a look at this very astute Buzzfeed article about five things more likely to happen to you than being accused of rape:   http://www.buzzfeed.com/charlesclymer/5-things-more-likely-to-happen-to-you-than-being-f-fmeu  For the too long; didn’t read crowd, you’re more likely to win the powerball lottery and get hit by asteroid than you are to be falsely accused of raping someone.

Now this is not to say that false accusations never happen. Of course they do. The problem here is that Woody has automatically been extended the benefit of the doubt, and in even worse cases, sympathy, not because we believe “innocent til proven guilty” but simply because power and patriarchy. Here we enter a very nuanced world with uncertain rules: In a select few cases, it is easy to believe, shame, and crucify someone for sexual abuse, provided they look the part. It is no longer difficult to suppose people in honored positions of power–a teacher, a priest, a camp counselor–might be guilty of abusing that power. But more often than not, the abuser is allotted more compassion than the victim. Why is that? Is it because as a society we inherently distrust women? Women are seducers, liars, gold-diggers. She can’t possibly just be sick and tired of seeing her abuser, the man who nearly destroyed her life, continually lauded because what? He made a few watchable films…which brings me to my next point:

2. He’s such a talented filmmaker. You can separate the art from the filmmaker.

This might be possible in any other case EXCEPT Woody Allen’s. He is an inescapable presence in his films. There is no way you don’t know you’re watching a Woody Allen film, a film that glorifies neurotic narcissism as if it’s virtue on the same level as altruism. Not only does Allen write and direct his films, he often stars in them, too. And if that’s not enough, quite a few of his films mimic his real life uncomfortable. Manhattan (1979) deals with a 42-year-old divorcee dating a 17-year-old woman. Blue Jasmine (2013), for which Cate Blanchett is sure to win Best Actress (you can tell by the politely dismissive response she had for Dylan’s open letter), tells the story of a neurotic, selfish middle-aged blonde whose husband wants to leave her for their teenage au pair.

For the record, I don’t think liking Woody Allen films says anything about you other than that you like Woody Allen films. Just don’t use it as an excuse to turn a blind eye to this, and don’t shame Dylan Farrow just because you want to continue watching his films guilt-free.

3. Mia Farrow planted the stories in her head out of spite. 

Allen’s team has sold this blatantly misogynistic narrative to the world, and it’s by far the most beloved argument used to shut down these allegations. Never mind that Mia Farrow was married to Frank Sinatra, and never really stopped seeing him (if you catch my drift), but basically we’re saying that Mia Farrow is a bitter old hag upset that her lover ditched her over twenty years ago for a younger woman. To these people I only say, you’re the worst. And you probably don’t even get why you’re the worst, but you are for being willing to entertain the idea that Mia is bitter with no facts rather than that Allen is just creepy, knowing the fact that he married a woman he had known since she was a child. Well, just because a man married his girlfriend’s daughter who he helped raise from her youth doesn’t mean he is capable of molesting another child…ok, actually read that sentence again.

And finally, 4. He was never convicted.

This one is the worst. Statistically speaking, only 3 percent of rapists will ever serve a day in prison. Yep. So for all those people worrying about being falsely accused of rape, chances are, you damn sure won’t go to prison for it. In this specific situation though, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As I mentioned before, the only real reason they decided not to go to trial was because they feared for Dylan’s mental and emotional health. Yale-New Haven hospital’s team of investigators declared, somehow unequivocally, that Dylan was not molested, even though they didn’t interview her and then proceeded to destroy all their notes on the incident. And the judge saw fit to grant Mia sole custody of Dylan, and what’s more, denied Allen visitation rights to both Dylan and his other adopted child with Mia, Moses. So there’s that.

Again, no one knows what really happened but Allen and Dylan, but think really hard before you defend Allen. There aren’t a lot of good arguments for it. More to the point, I think it’s important that while we don’t lose the pillar of civilization that is “innocent til proven guilty” that we make it easier and safer for victims to speak out.