Women: pure, wholesome caregivers or agents of change in social contract theory?

Picture Charlotte AmroucheThis is the fourth in a series of blogposts on the film 2014 Russian film, Leviathan, written by students in the Politics module, Individuals and the State, who were asked to reflect on the connections between the film and the ideas of Hobbes or other social contract theories. 

Charlotte Amrouche writes:

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film portrays the struggles of a working-class family in remote Russia against the powerful, belligerent mayor, as he extends his power over them to buy their land. Within this context it is easy to distinguish elements of the power-play which contractarians such as Hobbes and Locke outlined in their social contract theories. However what is most interesting to focus on is how the power of women is played out in Leviathan. Do they stick to the roles and notions of women in social contract as outlined by Hobbes and Locke?

In analysing any society within social contract theories it is first necessary to inspect what notions of individuals exist in the society. Much of the time individuals are idealised and reduced in order to be able to create a social contract theory – disregarding the vast array of individuals and the accordingly different relationships they hold within society. Although Hobbes and Locke do go into detail about what elements create the free man, what rights and what faculties he has, what is often excluded, or skimmed over, is the nature of women in social contract theory. Therefore we cannot begin to look at Leviathan and how this society reflects on these theories without assessing how the role of women in the film may differ from the expected roles as elaborated by Hobbes or Locke.

Much of the work by Hobbes and Locke describe women as integral part of the marriage contract, a supporting role to that of the men who run and rule the societies and sovereignties. Within Leviathan the leading woman, Lilya, is seen at the beginning to have an integral yet silent role to the wellbeing of the family. Through her job at the fish farm, to how much less she drank in comparison to her husband, to the care of the child in the home, all portray her as a caring, responsible, motherly figure. And to begin with her role starts and ends here. In the work of Hobbes and Locke this is also where their explanation of women in the social contract ends.

These themes of subordination to the men of the society continue throughout, from the representation of women in Church as silent witnesses: covered and modest. Even in their role within government and in power they may be called “sweetheart”, a vocal way men continue to assert their control over women. However I would argue that, although these issues of subordination are apparent and relevant to the story of women in social contract, it is not the full story. What classical contractarianism fails to recognise is that women are agents of control and power in society. Despite the continuous attempt to subordinate women they will continuously prove to not be silent witnesses to men as they carry out and control social life, but instead active agents of their own destinies, and the destiny of their society and its members. The decisions that Lilya made throughout the film led to the destruction of her husband. Simplistically we can suggest that in her role as caregiver in the family domain she maintained an importance balance in the lives of the other family members. When this balance was removed destruction ensued. This approach continues to place the main role of women as caregivers within the social contract. However unlike Hobbes and Locke who end their role for women here, we see in Leviathan that the role of women expands and that without them the men become shells of their powerful active roles. After Lilya’s death her husband becomes easy to manipulate by the authorities of corrupt power, which is where on the outset the power appears to lie. However the subtle power of Lilya, and women like her, should not easily be forgotten or dismissed.

What is fascinating throughout this evaluation of women in social contract is how women are idealised. The notions of emphasised femininity which have been fed through Western media and society can easily be mirrored in the Leviathan’s society. When Lilya’s best friend exclaims that “[all men] think that you’re pretty and then want to kill you” we see how men’s violence against women can cross cultures and societal systems with no regard to any other social differences. The manipulation by the state of Lilya’s death show how even in death women are not seen as individuals, instead as objects to use in the path to one’s own objective.

These themes of subordination, power and exclusion of women all run throughout the work of Hobbes and Locke. And we can plainly see through this film and in our own society today that these are sadly parts of women’s lives today. However what we can see from films such as Leviathan is that the story does not end here. Despite the excluding depiction of women in social contract by Hobbes and Locke, reality shows that women rise above and outside of these exclusions. Like any individual you cannot assume one role, one image, one norm of women, but instead must be ready for any multitude of representations.

I am currently in second year studying Sociology and Politics & International Relations. My main areas of interests in this degree are social justice, human rights, feminism and gender studies. On completing this degree at UCD I hope to continue studying gender studies.

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