Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles, dir. Chantal Akerman

Putting Women Back in the House

How women reclaim and reject domestic spaces in film. 

By Myka Greene


“Home” is an imagined, socialized concept—the Home of the housewife, an idea defined by male authors of western society, is a violent space. It relies on the repression of the woman forced within it. We are taught that she does not own it, but is captive to it and serves the men and children within it. In this sense, women and houses are both objects made to shelter others. The respectability and the identity of a woman (this is specifically related white, middle-class women; women of color who have historically been forced out of their homes and thus their identities should have much deeper analysis) is synonymous with their relationship to their homespace. Enter the various feminist narratives that subvert the expectations of domestic femininity.

Jeanne and Beatrix

(Beatrix, Czernovsky, Kraxner)

In a seminal feminist text, Virginia Woolf claimed that every woman reserves a right to “a room of one’s own” to create and, in a broader sense, exist. Whether women find that physical space in their homes or beyond it, the basic necessity for all women is the agency to maneuver and manipulate a space of their own. In Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) and Beatrix (2021), we as viewers are suffocatingly close to two women who use their homes as the grounds of their control and autonomy. When that space is intruded upon, the women react in surprising ways.

There is something galvanizing about watching the banalities of someone else’s life. In the genre of “slow cinema,” we can bear witness to the mundanity of home life, a life defined by the running wax of a slowly burning candle. When we watch “slow cinema,” we are presented with a routine and anticipate something to break it. The tension of these films is the audience’s expectation of a shift to remind us that our lives are not so boring or oppressive as they seem; showcasing common life is a subtle activation for more radical thoughts about our own lives. Jeanne Dielman is a three-hour portrait of a single stay-at-home mother and sex worker who spends each day repeating household chores, including sleeping with male clients. Nothing “happens” until the last twenty minutes, when Jeanne stabs one of the men after sleeping with him. She then sits at the dining room table in the dark, covered in the man’s blood. This moment is an attempt to reset herself before returning to her chores, which now include cleaning up the residue of a dead man.

Margaret Atwood, another connoisseur of writing achingly relatable tales of womanhood, once wrote that women have “the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman.” This complicates what Virginia Woolf says of having a room of one’s own. Is it possible, then, to ever be liberated from the male gaze we carry with us? What does it look like when someone is not monitoring us? Beatrix attempts to answer this. Beatrix is an honest woman, the way most women are when not policed by the man that lives in our heads. She bares all most of the time, which is easy in an existence of intentional solitude (this is also why her most insecure moments come from being around other people). There's something mesmerizing about such an unassuming life, cushioned by the order of time and a dedication to isolated home life. But the film subverts typical domesticity. Beatrix is a series of vignettes, showcasing her days and nights with motifs of eating and playing and making a mess and cleaning it up and talking to loved ones on the phone and undressing and sleeping. The shift comes when someone moves into a spare room, and Beatrix must readjust her relationship to the space.

In both films, the introduction of new people to the home tests the main characters’ impulse and agency. Beatrix acclimates to the new housemate, an English-speaking woman, and befriends her. Jeanne is similarly faced with a person who she invited in her home, a man, but when she is discomfited by his presence, she kills him. The only option for her to combat the perceived threat is by eradicating its source.

But, you might be asking, how are these two outcomes similar? Beatrix, like Jeanne, is very particular about the people she allows into her home, and she is easily annoyed by guests, especially if they are men. The funniest scenes in Beatrix are when she has a male visitor. In one scene, her friend brings her boyfriend over for dinner. When Beatrix talks with her friend, she is radiant and open to conversation. The moment the friend leaves to use the bathroom, Beatrix is stuck with the boyfriend and becomes completely disinterested. She barely looks at him and stares at her phone to avoid conversation; when he keeps trying to talk to her, she ends up showing him a dick pic that a romantic interest sent her. Later, when Beatrix invites the guy in the dick pic over, she is equally stand-offish. While Beatrix does not physically stab, her eyes are like daggers, piercing the men that dare to come into her humble abode. Both films show that harmony is maintained when one is either by themselves or around other women.

Men (husbands, political leaders, and media producers) have weaponized the Home as a perverse psychological torture chamber masquerading as a safe space—Home is not where the heart is, it is a representation of a woman’s body as a social object. People, predominantly men and children, enter and leave as they please while women are forced to remain stagnant. Even when there is no one present, they are expected to tend to the house so that it is presentable for the man’s return. The daily life of a conventional housewife is absurd. In this Sisyphean punishment, the housewife has the voice of a man following her constantly like a ghost in the house. Seeing a woman in her own home with complete autonomy, performing for no one, is a reclamation. Confines become comfort. In Jeanne Dielman and Beatrix, we see the lives of women managing homes, and we’re able to see dissent and an autarky (with that being said, to do this, you either must hone an abrasive personality or be someone who can tolerate being alone with themselves, which may be less innate to many of us). A sacrosanct that Beatrix repeats is the cleaning out of holes—the sink drain, the vacuum cleaner, the stove, the washing machine. If the Home is a way of conceptualizing a woman’s body, seeing Beatrix remove dirt from things that visually cue ideas of penetration is cathartic. It also reminds me of the end of our friend Jeanne Dielman—she is the one who penetrates the man atop of her, removing the knife and carrying it with her to the dining room table.

When the “Dream House” Collapses

Barbie, dir. Greta Gerwig (right) and Don’t Worry Darling, dir. Olivia Wilde (left)

Transformation is used in many feminist narratives because liberation demands change for the oppressed subject to go from one state of being (dehumanized) to another (free or having identity consciousness). Some women can find freedom in self-determination within their Homes. Other women seek an escape from the space, and the transformation is made outside of the Home. When we turn away from small-budget, arthouse films and look at two massive Hollywood productions, it’s interesting to see how these blockbusters promote feminist narratives that retaliate against domesticity. In Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, the titular characters (both beautiful, blonde white women) walk into a world outside their homes, which they previously considered havens. Barbie shows the American cultural emblem leaving her cloistered world, including her Dream House; this experience leads to self-meaning beyond the identity assigned to her. One of the first teasers for the film came last summer and showed Barbie (played by Margot Robbie) looking over a large, empty desert, which proves symbolic of the future that she has yet to cultivate. Not only does this image create an illuminating pastiche of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968),1 affectionately poking fun at pretentious film bros, but it also represents a theme that is foundational to the film. Barbie leaving her home to venture into a new world is at first out of necessity (her home starts to malfunction, and she must find a reason why) but matures into a rejection of the previous home. Her room with a view grows defunct, leading her to seek realities beyond her formulaic existence. However, Barbie is not a revolutionary feminist work, and for many reasons, I don’t view it as feminist at all. One must carefully consider how radical media produced by a major corporation that has manufactured plastic ideals of womanhood for over sixty years can truly be (Mattel, the blood of female adolescent discontent is on your hands!). But it tries, and it uses social ideals of the Home as a vessel for empowering enlightenment. Barbie says that the traditional confines of her Dream House no longer sustain her, and perhaps you, the viewer, should question whether the confines of your home and social life profit you, too.

Don’t Worry Darling is another blockbuster that attempts feminist transformation. Sigh. When I think of this film, I feel a sense of grief for a narrative that it could have been. The film is an obvious homage to The Stepford Wives, a 1975 film adaptation of a novel where the women of an idyllic suburbia are programmed to serve their husbands and children as inhuman robots. The heroine discovers that the men of Stepford are psychologically manipulating the women in their town. She too succumbs to the same sentence as the women around her—surrendering to a socialized poison that confiscates humanity from women to turn them into the domesticated tools for male pleasure. Wilde's iteration of this tale is theoretically similar: a woman named Alice uncovers the truth about the perfect town she lives in, learning that it's a front for a social experiment orchestrated by the men to create docile housewives who curb their insecurities in the real world. Regardless of the madness that surrounded the film’s production and release, I gave it a chance—it is helpful to reimagine and decontextualize social critique of the past, as it can help us understand current struggles for liberation. But with this particular work, there are multiple disconnects that make it not as radical as its source material. Specifically, the agency attributed to the female protagonist, or lack thereof, creates a stark contrast from the aforementioned films. We see Alice escape her home shortly before the film ends, and the film leaves the audience not knowing if Alice has become a freed woman. Jeanne and Beatrix found certain freedoms in their homes, and Barbie found freedom beyond it, but our titular darling, Alice, is never untangled from her confines.

In the 1970s, Jeanne utilizes her agency as a single mother in rhythmic homemaking and routine sex work. In the 2020s, Beatrix unapologetically loves her domestic solitude, opening up to only other women who are also untethered to men or children. Barbie is…Barbie. She's a woman who leaves the fragile stasis of her constructed world to understand what exists beyond it and in turn experiences growth. For a movie with a budget of $145 million, Barbie at least has something more interesting to say than Don’t Worry Darling. Alice does not have the same fate as the other women: she learns about her imprisonment, but finds no transformation or satisfaction. Her storyline is cut at the crux of self-reclamation.

Beyond Barbie’s Dream House, there are many popular examples of contemporary western films with feminist narratives that focus on reclaiming choice (Plan B, Promising Young Woman, Women Talking, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, etc.). We want to see women with independence and agency as our abilities to choose what we do with our bodies is in constant flux. In America, we live in the aftermath of the recently overturned Roe v. Wade, the pogrom against Transwomen, the increasing limits on sexual education and health access for young women, and the prevalent uptick in domestic violence since the pandemic forced women and children to remain in unsafe homes. Agency in and out of the Home is what we crave. What is exciting is exploring the tangible means of freedom in an omnipresent and towering patriarchal hell. And for that, I love the jovial joy in one’s home and body that is celebrated in Beatrix, and if Barbie was not made by the hands of a corporate overlord, I would support its saccharine portrayal of female empowerment, too. To this day, Chantal Ackerman’s portrayal of a woman’s relationship to the Home through Jeanne Dielman reclaims it as a space for women to truly own and protect, developing an allegory of our bodies that we too have the right to own.

(Beatrix, Czernovsky, Kraxner)

* The conversation between these films is a fascinating tangent on it’s own: for one, Kubrick’s
2001: A Space Odyssey is about explorative voyeurism in search of intellectual transformation, and a prominent conflict in the film shows an explorer stuck in his living quarters under the helm of a dominating force, a disembodied voice (“HAL”) controlling his actions—it feels like a very timely take on domination and control within shelter. On a second note, when thinking of Kubrick’s expansive filmography, one instinctively remembers his most infamous film, The Shining, which depicts Wendy, a mother and neglected wife, who is haunted in the hotel her abusive husband forces her and her son to stay in as he focuses on professional development. Wendy's story begins as a housewife in the kitchen of the Torrance’s small apartment home. Her story ends with the image of a battered wife and child escaping the throes of a violent man, leaving a domestic space after being trapped by a winter storm. Wendy too looks into a great expanse, the deafening white snow as it melts, marking her liberation from stagnant cycles of abuse and domestication with her son next to her.