North Country (2005) one of Hollywood’s most rousing statements on sexual harassment in the workplace, is now on Netflix. Is the movie a chance for Hollywood - #MeToo’s shrillest voice - to introspect? Can Hollywood carry off-screen some of its most compelling on-screen lessons on sexual violence?
The year 2021 marks a year since Harvey Weinstein’s conviction. It marks 30 years since Anita Hill’s landmark testimony against a US Supreme Court nominee. It also marks 30 years since a US District Court granted America’s first ever class-action status to the suit that inspired North Country.
What started it all? A two-decade real-life saga involving women fighting sexual harassment at the Minnesota mining company that hired them.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, do. This piece contains more than a few spoilers. Since the movie was released as far back as 2005, plot and scene disclosure here don’t feel as sinful.
Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co. was America’s first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit.
One woman, Lois Jenson, against an institution. That’s how it starts, doesn’t it?
It took years for the justice system to catch up with her crusade. Eventually it did. And she and her fellow-survivors won millions in damages.
They weren’t well off. Many were widows or single mothers. Some supported drunken or abusive husbands. Others cared for siblings or aged parents. They lived in fear of destitution or violent reprisal. They had a lot - if not everything - to lose if they spoke up.
Jenson? She didn’t just “speak up”. She led a campaign. She filed complaint after complaint with supervisors, workers union and the Minnesota Human Rights Commission. When the state awarded damages, the company refused to pay. She and her peers endured years of painful and public prying into their private lives and sexual histories before they were compensated.
Jenson was no Hollywood starlet in LA with a mansion and a Merc. One of the few “luxuries” she probably enjoyed was minimum wage! It helped that the mines paid better than other hirers. But she realised two things. It wasn’t her fight alone. It wouldn’t be her defeat - or victory - alone.
Crucially, Jenson showed the court that sexual harassment was unwelcome and that she and others had protested - loudly, repeatedly, informally, formally, individually, collectively and finally, publicly.
Listen to Jenson’s language. Her simple but fierce intent. None of the self-aggrandisement, self-pity and victimhood of Hollywood’s #MeToo.
“I did not set out to change the world, the company, the union or the workplace, or to make a statement for the feminist movement,” said Jenson....“I didn’t want to file charges, report these things or even talk about them. I wanted a job where I didn’t have to go to work every day wondering what was going to happen next. I didn’t want special treatment, I wanted the harassment to stop.” - One of the first Silence Breakers, Jerry Burnes & Leah Ryan, 9 December 2017, Mesabi Daily News.
I wanted the harassment to stop.
What's interesting is Jenson's response when the harassment didn't stop. She went against all her instincts to keep her head down in self-preservation.
Charlize Theron’s heroic on-screen portrayal of a beleaguered but battling Jenson may have done more for the cause of women than anything she’s done off-screen. Theron played Josey Aimes, reportedly a character composite of Jenson and other women.
Sure the movie loses some of that power because, like all movies, it’s meant to entertain, to dramatise. But it retains a lot of that power because it delivers real-life lessons for real-life women without degenerating into a how-to documentary. Thanks to Michael Seitzman's superlative writing. And director Niki Caro is yet to match her incredible achievement so many years ago.
Now, contrast Josey’s persistent and public campaign with #MeToo’s shrillest crusaders - many of Hollywood's women. With all the comms-on-steroids channels and ridiculously varied livelihood options open to them as educated, articulate, attractive women, have they done anything remotely close?
Why are many of Hollywood’s #MeToo women cheerleaders losing credibility? They’ve invested so much energy in calling out offences - as Josey did - that they haven’t - as Josey also did - paused and asked the question: what else am I doing about it?
Actresses speaking up, #MeToo megaphones included, are simply too late – some confessions coming 20 years after an offence or series of offences. When they finally speak it’s usually to draw attention to themselves – as victims: this happened to me. It rarely involves clearly and publicly naming the offender or predator: he’s the one who did it and he should be held to account. Either way, they rarely bother filing police complaints or launching legal proceedings in a court.
They aren’t calling out hypocrisies within the sisterhood. Loud, dramatic but ultimately feeble cries surrounding ancient incidents catapult these actresses to #MeToo’s frontlines, lavishing their new film or TV projects with a haze of monetized attention and sympathy. But these DIY launch-pad confessions do nothing much for hundreds of actresses who are yet to be traumatized, by these or different men. And potential victims aren’t holding these “testimonial” actresses, these “microwave-a-#Metoo” stars to account for their calculated cowardice. Instead, they’re celebrating them as courageous #MeToo champions.
To be counted, all that matters is shared victimhood.
Or the next best thing. Solidarity!
Stand, sit, speak, shout, smile, sashay, selfie in solidarity.
Clap, cheer, cry in sisterhood (or brotherhood). That’ll do.
Critique #MeToo and you’ll be trolled as misogynist or anti-feminist or conservative or Far Right.
But if speaking up is heroism are they still heroes if they delayed speaking until it couldn’t really harm their careers?
If speaking up now is bravery, wasn’t silence all this while cowardice?
Look at Josey.
Josey speaks. First on behalf of another woman. Second on her own behalf. Third on behalf of the entire cohort of women miners.
She lobbies for support. First with women survivors, then with her parents, then other male co-workers, then her immediate supervisor, then the company boss, then her lawyer, then the workers union and finally in open court before witnesses and a judge.
She quits her workplace. Not because she’s a coward but because she values her sexual privacy and freedom more than the chance to hang on as if it’s the only job in the world. Even with no support from her father and her violent partner, she has the courage, confidence and conviction to jump, without sight of a safety net. Even with kids to feed and care for, she takes the risk.
She finds that “sharing” her experience, complaining to peers and bosses has its uses. But to break systemic abuse you need more: guts, persistence, strategy, individual and collective legal action.
She knows it isn’t about her as one woman but about all women. They’re being harassed because they’re women. They’re a class of people and it’s their class that defines their discrimination.
During one courtroom scene a rival lawyer rubbishes the demand for class-action - the plaintiff is just the lone woman railing against a heap of company-sponsored affidavits confirming absence of abuse. Josey rises in fury, slams her hand on the desk and snaps “That is not true!” She’s so spontaneous and passionate, she has to be shushed by her lawyer, forced to sit so she doesn’t upset the judge and ruin her case.
No coincidence that the filmmakers chose in one scene to have a TV set on, broadcasting Anita Hill’s world-famous testimony on sexual harassment against a US Supreme Court nominee.
No melodramatic commentary on whether Hill was right or wrong, success or failure; merely quiet witness to her speaking up - naming the man.
Hill is on TV for all of three seconds and the scene isn’t implied to be inspiring Josey, either - she’s watching absent-mindedly, not even paying serious attention. But Hill is definitely there, quietly but firmly talking to those guilty of selective silences, including Hollywood’s cunningly delayed cries of #MeToo.
Did Josey face odds? You bet. Obstruction from every quarter. Her sullen father for most of her life, her bitter adolescent son, female co-workers who argued that jobs and livelihoods were at stake, lecherous male co-workers, callous company men.
Even her lawyer, Bill White (played humanely by Woody Harrelson), comes at her with a reality-check on legal recourse.
White: look Josey, the illusion is that all your problems are solved in a courtroom. The reality is that even when you win, you lose. You don’t win.
Josey: I know. But I’m right!
White (sympathetically): I’m sure you are. But ‘right’ has nothing to do with the real world. Look at Anita Hill. She’s you…...wait till you get to a courtroom. It’s called the ‘nuts and sluts’ defense. You’re either nuts and you imagined it or a slut and you asked for it. Either way, it’s not pleasant. Take my advice. Find another job. Start over.
Josey (in despair): I don’t have any start over left.
Another scene. This time with two men.
Kyle (played by Sean Bean), husband of Josey’s co-worker Glory (played with earthiness by Frances McDormand) and Josey’s lawyer, White.
At the risk of upsetting his friendship with Kyle, White goes to Glory’s hospital bedside to persuade her to testify in favour of Josey’s claims.
Kyle snaps - Glory's convalescing. Leave her alone.
White snaps back - it isn’t his decision but Glory’s; her silence harms not just Josey (whom Glory is briefly sore at) but every woman at the plant.
Hollywood’s women often take public pride in their sisterhood: I’ve always wanted to work with her, I’m a lifelong fan, she’s so awesome, she’s the reason I became an actress, we had a blast together in that film, she’s such an inspiration to all of us young actresses.
Hollywood’s women love to be seen in public as sisters, friends. They hold hands, give speeches alongside each other, blow kisses, announce each other’s Awards, warn about climate change, fuss over forest fires, sport ambassadorial roles for the UN, champion causes especially those involving sexual identity and choice rights.
How come they're so scared and scattered when it comes to mobilising voices from within this sisterhood?
How come they’re so timid on themes that are more 24x7 for them than other themes - their sexual privacy, their sexual freedom?
How come they were persuaded so easily for so long to meekly obey sundry individuals who told them to “keep quiet”, “let it go”, “go with the flow”.
How come their #MeToo cries are so recent? So rare?
Either most of Hollywood’s men are innocent of committing these crimes or most of Hollywood’s women are ignorant of them being committed. Take your pick.
White (in court): It’s not just one or two bad guys. It takes a village to do what’s being done here. I’m not saying all of them. But enough of them.
In one of the most moving scenes from 21st century Hollywood, Josey gathers courage to storm into a packed workers-union meeting.
To co-workers, she’s a ‘rat’.
Uninvited, she takes the stage and speaks her piece.
Union leaders try to shut her up.
As men heckle, abuse and shout her down with lewd remarks and gestures, it is her miner father Hank Aimes (the inimitable Richard Jenkins) who speaks up.
Hank steps on stage and asks for the microphone.
Josey protests: “I’m not done”.
Hank pleads, with his outstretched hand “please”.
A furious Josey moves to walk off.
One hand on the microphone Hank uses his other hand to hold his daughter back on stage, wanting her in public and alongside him as he speaks.
What’s Hank doing? He’s speaking and acting on behalf of silent, hypocritical, weak, unprincipled, cowardly men on - and off - the Mesabi Range. He’s telling all men: my daughter’s thoughts and feelings can’t - shouldn’t - be expressed by her alone. No woman’s call to change is complete, effective or sustainable unless we as men stand with them, speak up with them, show our indignation, our disgust, our intolerance of sexual violence. We needn’t drown their voices. We needn’t take charge of a movement that’s theirs. But we must speak - and act - in solidarity with them. Privately. And publicly. We must also challenge those who are silent - men and women.
Hank speaks to a room stunned into silence.
Hank: I’ve been a ranger all my life. I’ve never been ashamed of it until now…...You know, we take our wives, our daughters to the company barbeque, I don’t ever hear nobody call them those names like bitches and whores and worse. I don’t ever see nobody grab them by their privates or drawing pictures of them on bathroom walls, doing unspeakables. Unspeakables!.........
So what’s changed. She’s still my daughter. Isn’t she?....... It’s a heck of a thing to watch one of your own get treated that way…......
You’re all supposed to be my friends. My brothers……
Right now I don’t have a friend in this room.
In fact, the only one I’m not ashamed of is my daughter.
Later, Josey’s lawyer White bullies Bobby Sharp (played by a convincing Jeremy Renner) into admitting that what happened many years ago between Josey’s school-teacher and Josey wasn’t consensual sex but rape.
White: He was raping her wasn’t he?
Bobby (reluctantly): Yeah
White: And you ran?
Bobby: What was I supposed to do?
White: What are you supposed to do when the ones with all the power are hurting those with none? Well, for starters you stand up. You stand up and tell the truth. You stand up, even when you’re all alone.
Hollywood’s men may well see twisted sense in their cowardly silence - after all, many have offended or tried to at some point. But Hollywood’s women??
At one point, Glory at the back of the courtroom gestures to her husband Kyle.
Of all women, Glory - so ill she’s being fed through a tube, so ill she can’t speak and has to be wheeled around. When not even one woman shows the courage to stand with Josey, Kyle reads out a written statement from Glory (who can’t even stand) that says she stands “with Josey”. Then of course the other women - and some men – follow suit and stand to show the judge their solidarity with Josey.
The movie’s closing credits pay solemn tribute:
The real women of the Mesabi Iron Range won their case in court. They received a modest financial settlement, but more importantly, they got the one thing their management didn’t want to give - a sexual harassment policy that would protect them and all the women who came after them. This film is dedicated to the women who fought this case, to their courage and dignity, and to a landmark victory that began in the North Country and resonated around the world.
The movie was inspired by the book “Class Action: The landmark case that changed sexual harassment law” by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. And Caro won praise for her empathetic, sincere and sensitive cinematic treatment.
North Country is testimony to Hollywood’s ability to get it right, on screen. It’s also an indictment of Hollywood's hypocrisy off-screen: its gleefully waved #MeToo placards and glibly echoed #MeToo punch-lines.
Hollywood’s men who aren’t guilty of sexual violence can do and say far more, to hold guilty men to account. To amplify a woman’s voice even when hers is a lone voice. To ensure that she doesn’t stay a lone voice. Men benefit from an immensely privileged position of power that can make a crucial difference. They must use it. Or they're as guilty as perpetrators.
Hollywood’s women who aren’t survivors can do and say far more, to empower silent survivors to speak up.
Sure Hollywood’s women can reach out to each other to find strength in unity. Far more importantly they need to somehow create what they seem to have in short supply - guts, persistence, strategy, individual and collective legal action.
They can learn from Josey by placing their sexual privacy and sexual freedom above money, glamour, self-interest and selective silence.
They can learn from Josey by dwelling more on naming-shaming offenders and fretting less about victim-shaming.
They can learn from Josey that speaking up isn’t only “this was done to me too” but also “he’s the one who did it”.
They can learn from Josey by filing criminal charges instead of self-servingly slipping knee-rubs and “incidents” from decades ago into media interviews that power their red-hot film and TV projects but do little else.
Josey - like Jenson - didn’t care much for activism. She did care for action. And she was prepared to pay the price. Hollywood’s women needn’t look far for inspiration - one of Hollywood’s finest movies on this theme stares right back at them urging them to learn from braver women who live outside the protection and privilege that Hollywood offers.
Beyond Hollywood? Too many women have fought long, difficult and lonely battles. Sadly, these may stay long and difficult for a while yet. They needn’t be lonely as well.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.