Movie review: Sex as a Power Tool

North Country (2005) starring Charlize Theron is about sex as a power tool.

Set in the 1980s, the movie is based on the first-ever successful class-action lawsuit opposing workplace sexual harassment. The lawsuit that inspired this film was settled in 1998, 10 years after it was first filed and over 20 years after the harassment began.

Sexual harassment is about power, of course. It is a form of bullying. In North Country, when women begin working in the coal mines, their male coworkers bring out this weapon. They force their resentment on the women by groping, fondling, insulting, and threatening them. The resentment is so intense and the men are so small that they masturbate on the women's clothing in their lockers; write sexual, derogatory words on the women's room walls; and even upturn a portable toilet while one of their female coworkers is inside of it.

When Josey Aimes (Theron) has had enough public humiliation, she initiates a lawsuit in her own name that becomes a class-action suit. Initially, few of Josey's colleagues demonstrate the moral courage to stand with their friend. Aimes has had a troubled past--she has been raped and impregnated by her high school social studies teacher; had a second child out of wedlock; endured the beatings of her lover; suffered poverty; and navigated a strained relationship with her father, who also works in the mine. At first, standing with a woman whose detractors are quick to suggest she is responsible for the sexual attention she receives is not so clear cut in this community. Rumor, gossip, and innuendo have muddied what is, ultimately, a clear situation of ritual abuse by power brokers who don't want to share their stake in a livelihood persons they perceive as lesser life forms.

All of this take place in a hard-talking, heavy-drinking, working-class community where survival is a luxury unto itself. This typecasts the problem. It is not behavior typical of the Pabst Blue Ribbon set, necessarily. Sex as Power wears suits to work, goes to church in upscale communities, runs for office, and otherwise looks the part of Monied Decency itself. Sex as Power,which is often female, turns a blind eye to the helpless if it stands a chance of getting away with it. There are no zoning regulations fencing it in.

Theron delivers a powerful performance as a woman under considerable pressure in every part of her life. She experiences those pressures in large part because she is pretty and vulnerable and tender-hearted in a world that resents and even shuns these qualities. Leave it to the vulnerable and tender to do the fighting for others. Seems to me that it always comes to that.

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