My sister had this shirt when we were younger that baffled me. With Dot, the brave young ant princess from A Bug's Life in the corner, the words GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING were emblazoned across the front. The message was suppose to be encouraging, inspiring — but for me it was just confusing. Girls couldn't teleport or live underwater, so the shirt wasn't terribly literal, but other than that, of course, girls could do anything. Who was saying that we couldn't?
From the time I started watching TV and movies through middle school, I saw almost exclusively media created for children and preteens, and this colored the way I viewed women in the world. In the olden days, as movies like Mulan and Anne of Green Gables taught me, women were underestimated and relegated to certain tasks. But even in this far-away backward time, the power and intelligence of women could be overlooked for only about 90 minutes before the men saw the error of their ways.
North Country was the first movie that ever made me angry, but more than that, throughout, I was incredulous. The title cards proclaimed it has been based on a true story, specifically "the first major successful sexual-harassment case in the United States," which was argued in 1984.
I could understand the opening narrative. Josie, played by Charlize Theron, is beaten by her husband. She takes her children and goes to the safety of her parents' home. But when her father sees the bruises on her face, he asks if her husband beat her because she was with another man. Later, her mother, though more loving and not looking to lay blame on her daughter, looked toward a reconciliation between Josie and her abuser. Later on, a family friend jokes with Josie's father about the entire situation. The narrative shifted abruptly from one I understood from childhood narratives — bad person commits bad acts, victim flees to be protected by good people — to one I had never seen onscreen before — bad person commits bad acts, everyone is bizarrely okay with it.
Some of the film's darkest moments were not the loudest, the most terrifying, such as the explicit abuse Josie and the other women suffered as they worked within the predominately male workforce at the iron mine. They were the moments when the abuse was completely accepted by an entire social group, or quietly covered up under the guise of professionalism. When Josie goes to speak with the company board members, they don't yell, they don't call her names. In fact, the man in charge keeps a pleasant tone and smile almost the entire time.
Another scene, directly after Josie is assaulted at work, creates a clear picture of why the culture of sexual assault and sexual harassment is so terrifying. It's not that all men would commit assault. It's the fact that when presented with a woman who has been assaulted, it's all too easy for the "good guys" to side with the attacker. And it's often safer for other women to keep their heads down rather than stand up for the victim.
North Country came out in 2005. It depicts real events that occurred in the '80s. But according to a survey conducted by Cosmopolitian in 2015, one in three women between the ages of 18 and 24 reports experiencing sexual harassment at work — women who would have been born years after that "landmark" court case. A University of North Dakota study recently found almost one in three male college students would force a woman to have sex if he knew he wouldn't get in trouble. Films can be a powerful way to learn hard lessons. North Country was an important movie for me to watch when I was a teenager, and it's still something that should be watched by teens today.