Doubt

I’m a bit behind on my movie watching (and by “a bit” I think I probably mean “hopelessly”). However, I’m spending the week with my parents, who actually use their Netflix membership to get as many movies per month as Netflix will send them. So tonight we watched Doubt. I was left, at the end, unsure what we were meant to believe about the characters, which I think was part of the point of the movie. For me the movie raised the question of whether it is enough to be personally convicted of a man’s wrongdoing even if you cannot prove it. It’s a tricky question, actually, and one where my own answers are certainly biased heavily by my own experiences. Of course in some sense it’s not a relevant question when the institutional structures at hand mean that even with some amount of proof those in power are still presumed to be innocent. In Doubt there’s a very strong gender story to the power structure, but I think the same sorts of dynamics play out in all sorts of institutional hierarchies, not just the very male-dominated example of the Catholic Church.

I have to admit that in some ways this was a very hard movie for me to watch even though the abuse of the student was never made explicit (nor was it ever demonstrated unequivocally that it even happened). As a high school student I was sexually harassed by a teacher (only touched inappropriately once–and in a way that he might have been able to claim was accidental though it clearly wasn’t–but habitually the recipient of unwanted attention). I fought to avoid it in my own ways, which did not include officially reporting any of the incidents. In part this was because the ickiest of the behavior took place before their was a specific policy in place for the reporting of inappropriate behavior. In part it was because the teacher in question was extremely popular and I knew standing up to him would leave me even more ostracized than I already was. In part it was because even though his behavior was clearly inappropriate and intentional to me, it would have been trivial for him to argue that his behavior was accidental or being misinterpreted. I resisted where I could but mostly spent four years of my life with my arms crossed tightly across my chest taking one step back for every step he took into my space, mentally scanning the space behind me lest he back me into a trophy case.

And I think it is that question of institutional reception of complaints that made Doubt so hard for me to watch. In some sense I ultimately didn’t really care if Father Flynn was guilty in the movie, because the figure of Sister Aloysius so dead set in her conviction, and her willingness to use what small power she has however she can to get him out, is so gripping. There were plenty of people who could have been that sort of institutional advocate for me. For the most part I don’t blame them for not doing so.* But I do sometimes wonder what would have happened had there been someone willing to take up the fight on my behalf. I’m not entirely sure that it would have made a wit of difference. I’m not sure I would have been able to bring myself to put myself through the sort of fight that would have been required. And I’m not entirely convinced that the end results would have been worth the effort. Of course Doubt doesn’t exactly leave one feeling that such interventions are guaranteed to be useful anyway.

The movie is interesting in its character development, though I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure I believed any of the interactions. I also wasn’t quite sure I liked being left at the end of the movie with no solid answers. I suspect that the writers’ intent in the titling of the movie was not to describe the feelings one might feel when asked if they liked it. Then again maybe my annoyances with the film were rooted more in the subject matter than the telling of the story itself.

* The exception to this is the guidance counselor who, when I started trying to talk about some of what had happened in the previous years said “unless you want to file a formal complaint, I don’t want to hear it.” Certainly I understand that the statement likely stemmed from the frustration of having a teacher who was widely known as a dirty old man allowed to remain because no one had the courage to deal with it. But I was 16 years old. Trying to bully me into action was hardly the right way to deal with the problem.

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