Toronto, Sep 12: A lazy, banal, sexist question almost always gets asked of women, especially successful women — How do you balance your family and work?
The question casts a patronising eye on women’s personal ambition, drive, goals, achievements, and seeks to slot them essentially as homemakers, nurturers who also dare to go out to work.
It also knows the answer it wants — a daunting, inspiring list of daily chores that needs to get done first, beginning with kids’ school, husband’s needs, the daily menu, entertaining friends, family time and only then, finally, her own job.
The idea is to show other women how it is done and to inspire them to sign up for a life of exhaustion, provided they always put family, others first.
But take a few seconds and listen to that question again — How do you balance your family and work? — and then close your eyes.
Chances are that if you are or ever were a working woman, a film will slowly start playing in your head. A sequence of clips, a montage, of your life, about those stressful days, about highs, lows, juggling, the family stuff you missed. And, if you stay with the thought long enough, the stuff that you pushed away, ignored will slowly begin to appear — the minor infractions, the insulting comments, the sexist remarks, the power games, the sexual harassment, the guilt.
Israeli director Michal Aviad’s brutally accurate and compassionate Working Woman asks that question and then provides the complete answer.
Aviad says that through the film, whose script she began researching in 2011, she wanted to explore the “grey areas around sexual harassment” — the small trespasses, micro aggressions that the law doesn’t acknowledge, and our convoluted, complex relationships. “I really wanted to understand how does it happen. I wanted to find out when there is a smart woman, how does it happen to her?”
Working Woman tells the story of an ambitious woman, Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) whose adorable husband Ofer (Oshri Cohen) is struggling to set up his own restaurant. Orna and Ofer have three young kids, and crackling emotional and sexual intimacy.
So when Orna goes to work with a real estate developer, Benny (Menashe Noy), on a high-rise residential project on the Israeli beach front, more money is very welcome. but, though Ofer is very hands-on with the kids, it’s also understood that his work comes first.
The story of what happens to Orna at work, says Aviad, is based on the testimonies she read on social media of women who had been sexually harassed.
First there are compliments, adulation, hints of what looks good — leave your hair open, wear a skirt -- some warm, considerate gestures, and then the first hit.
“If I was in the position of the heroine of the film, like her I too would feel that I can handle it. That I can continue working and keep him at a distance. But that’s not always true… In some ways, we feel that we have enough power to sort of handle… And since in most of our life we handle men — trying to understand all the time where they are at, and be careful, she does the same. But she fails. And that’s how sexual harassment happens, I think,” says Aviad.
“Because sexual harassment is so prevalent, both the actor and I, and most of us know men, in our lives, in films, where we work, who harass women. They are not all villain. They are not allllll blaaack. Like all of us, they have many different shades, features, and they have a blind spot — first of all, they are blind to how much power they have and that’s really dangerous, because we abuse power very easily when we don’t understand that we have it. And number two, he just doesn’t see that she doesn’t want him because he doesn’t take into consideration that she needs to want him in order to be with him…”
“The only way things can change is if we renegotiate everything, the relationship between men and women, between those with more power and those with very little,” says Aviad.
Working Woman, which premiered at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival on Tuesday, also explores the aftermath. It shows how sexual harassment at work affects everything, whether you report it or don’t — family, relationships, life, future prospects. It shows how vicious power can get, and how women can reclaim some power -- by standing up for themselves, and their right to work.