Gran Torino, continued: A woman’s world?

I’ve dealt with the obvious issue of race, now on to gender.

This entire post is very SPOILER heavy, so I don’t recommend you click on the link below unless you already know what happens in Gran Torino, or if you don’t mind finding out.

Sue (Ahney Her) is the first of the family to actively befriend Walt, after he rescues her from some black gangsters when her white psuedo-date lets her down (yeah, it’s a loaded scene, no question about that). He shares several scenes with her, until the film suddenly shifts when her brother Thao (Bee Vang) is sent by his fatherless family to do manual labor in order to atone for his attempted robbery of Walt’s titular vehicle.

Vang is definitely less charismatic than Her, partly by design, but also less stilted, and in any case, the somewhat familiar “mentorship in masculinity” plot (variations on exhortations to “be a man” and not “a pussy”) sweeps Sue aside entirely. Walt’s ideas about masculinity are not completely endorsed by the film. His first attempt to drive off the gangsters who pushed Thao towards crime (driven entirely by self interest) succeeds, but his later attempt, when he viscously beats an obese gangster in a bid to convince the gang to stop harassing Thao, by this point gainfully employed, backfires horrifically when the gang carries out a drive-by on his home (no serious casualties), and rapes Sue off-screen (some or all of them are her cousins).

Walt immediately recognizes his tremendous error, and although he never admits it to the family, he ultimately atones for it in an overblown, yet apparently successfully, gesture of sacrifice. But the inclusion of rape still rankles for two reasons. One is that, early on, the guests at one of the Hmong family’s frequent gatherings complains that Thao is being feminized by his pushy mother and sister.

Sue later, in referring to her deceased father, repudiates Hmong masculinity and the scenes with the gangsters fulfill the same role, while holding up Walt’s American masculinity as comparatively enlightened (much to his confusion, as he of course doesn’t view himself in this way at all). Thao is shown to clearly need a savior (Walt) from overbearing matriarchal rule, and as he is schooled in the ways of normative American masculinity, the plot’s punishment of Sue can easily be read as a further repudiation of her earlier power over Thao (certainly, this couldn’t have been intentional on the part of the filmmakers)

The second problem is that Sue’s rape is shown to be important only insofar as it affects the male leads, Walt and Thao. We never hear her reaction to it, in fact we never hear explicit verbal confirmation that it occurred until Walt’s final showdown with the gangsters. Rape is just a motivation for the two men to avenge her honor, or at least want to (Walt resorts to trickery to keep Thao out of the fray). Considering that Sue was, earlier, a major voice in the film, rape seems to be the final even that eradicates any sense of her self-presentation, as she barely speaks in the last part of the film. To make matters worse, Eastwood ends the film with a scene of Thao smiling while driving the Gran Torino, Sue nowhere in sight. The audience is supposed to be content with this as a resolution, something sufficient to make us forget about Sue’s unimaginable trauma.


8 thoughts on “Gran Torino, continued: A woman’s world?

    1. Yeah, me too! Hmm, I’m not even sure which film of the two has the worst gender politics. I wanna say Slumdog, but I’m not sure if I can defend it.

  1. You do see Sue after that scene… I think the last time is at the funeral with her brother.

    Also she conspires with Walt to have Thao locked up – I think she later fetches him once Walt’s plans are already in place.

    Her reaction was to side with Walt and to let him do his brand of revenge.

  2. Thanks for this post – you confirm my misgivings about Gran Torino. I remember watching the film with my family & feeling frustrated and let down when Sue (virtually) disappeared from the movie after being raped. She gets raped so that her brother & male neighbour can get ‘really’ mad & finally take action to avenge her rape and all the other wrongs committed by the gang.

    Sue is portrayed as a complex and interesting character in the first half of the movie (she is portrayed as friendly, quirky, funny & brave). Then she gets raped and that’s it – the plot becomes all about the boys getting ‘revenge’. Sue is portrayed a few times after the rape, but merely to look miserable (she has little to say). The message I got from the film was that “rape is the end of a girl’s life”. Rape will destroy a girl’s happiness & future, and will become the defining moment in her life (and in her family’s life).

    In my opinion, a movie that cared more about it’s female character would show Sue’s life AFTER the rape. Sue is a strong & interesting character – I wanted to see her get on with life after the rape. I wanted to see some of her old personality (and positive, strong spirit) re-emerging.

    As for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE… I was even more unimpressed by the lead female character. She was so boring, and she was so passive throughout the movie. The little dark-skinned Indian girl who played her when she was young was fun, brave & cheeky. When she grows up a bit she suddenly becomes pale-skinned, and turns into a sweet, passive girl. There is no trace of her former feistiness or cleverness. She seems to turn into a ‘beauty’ that has no real substance, her main purpose is to be rescued by the male lead character.
    My main problem with Slumdog Millionaire, though, was racial. How did the cute little dark-skinned girl inexplicably become light-skinned as she grew up? The reality of the social situation in India is that the large majority of slum-people (the ‘untouchables’) are very dark-skinned, and the large majority of wealthy people are very light-skinned.
    The slum girl having dark skin was realistic; her suddenly becoming a light-skinned ‘beauty’ as she grew up was not. There’s a strong idea in Indian culture that only light-skinned Indian women are attractive/beautiful, and unfortunately this idea was not challenged in the film.

    1. Amelia, thank you so much for your kind reply! Judging by the search stats on my sadly-neglected blog, this is one of the most popular posts on my blog,* but it still means a lot more to have someone intelligently confirm and add to what I was saying. I also appreciate your two cents on Slumdog, the second worst Best Picture-winner of the previous decade (Crash being the worst, not-so-coincidentally another film with a facile and misguided take on race). I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice this utterly inexplicable “transformation,” as I guess it didn’t register for me being a white dude and all. Thanks again!

      *Although some of the queries worry me, specifically the “was Sue raped?” one. I saw it two years ago now but I clearly remember Clint stating it at the end, as if it wasn’t clear even before!).

    2. Again, Sue did conspire with Walt to have Thao locked up. And she appears at the funeral. She was also present when Thao arrived at the scene of Walt’s murder. So I wouldn’t say she disappeared from the movie.

    1. Thanks for your remarks! Although I don’t totally agree with you (but it’s been too long for me to really argue cogently), that wasn’t why you were in “moderation hell” (as I’ve heard it called) for so long; rather, I just had to get around to resetting my WordPress password. Lame, I know.

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