A Feminist Reviews Dunkirk, and Says Exactly What You’d Expect

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk (Photo: Warner Bros.)
What good is a beach movie without girls? Marie Claire wants to know.

It was sophomore year of college when Absurd Feminist burst into our English-department seminar room with steam puffing out her ears. “Are there any WOMEN in this book?” she demanded, to no one in particular, slamming a paperback on the table. I happened to be nearest to her blast zone of accusation, so I replied: “Not really.” The book in question was Dispatches, Michael Herr’s account of life among infantry grunts in Vietnam. “Then I CAN’T GET INTO IT!” she exclaimed.

In a moment of clarity I understood what the two main imperatives of higher education were to Absurd Feminist and to so many of her peers: First, instead of broadening her horizons and taking her outside herself to discover the world, she demanded the educators filter all knowledge through her own experience to make it relatable to her. Second, all learning was to be valued in proportion to how effectively it could be made into a cudgel in the identity-politics war. Dispatches, with its virtually all-male cast, represented a pernicious advance for the patriarchy, even if it was about the agonies suffered by men.

Fast forward a few years, and another absurd feminist is here to tell us what’s wrong with Dunkirk: It’s about men. Why couldn’t it have been about women? No, really, Marie Claire’s reviewer wants to know:

Dunkirk felt like an excuse for men to celebrate maleness — which apparently they don’t get to do enough. Fine, great, go forth, but if [director Christopher] Nolan’s entire purpose is breaking the established war movie mold and doing something different — why not make a movie about women in World War II? Or — because I know that will illicit [sic] cries of “ugh, not everything has to be about feminism, ugh!” — how about any other marginalized group? These stories shouldn’t be relegated to indie films and Oscar season. It’s up to giant powerhouse directors like Nolan to tell them, which is why Dunkirk feels so basic.

“Basic,” you may or may not know, is the current term of derision used by young women and gay men to indicate feeble, unimaginative taste. Oh, you’re wearing a Ralph Lauren Polo shirt? You’re so basic.

It seems unlikely that Marie Claire’s reviewer, Mehera Bonner, has before her an exceptionally bright career of writing about film. As for a career of writing about feminism, though, the sky, for Bonner, is the limit. Her essay could plausibly have appeared on any number of bristling feminist sites. What is her reasoning except feminism taken to its logical extreme? Feminists often declare to the world that they stand merely for an entirely reasonable proposition — say, that women’s lives are as important as men’s. Who would dispute that? Yet feminist writing usually continues far past this point into a need to prove women and men have been equally important in every context, even in history. If women turn out to be mostly irrelevant to an incident, then it is the moral duty of socially conscious creative artists to ignore the matter. They should retrain their sights on something that will give absurd feminists something they can relate to, something that will advance the cause of feminism in general.

Feminists have a habit of obsessively dividing the world into teams us, them.

Feminists have a habit of obsessively dividing the world into teams — us, them. Ideas and even facts get considered in the light of whether they are good for Team Woman or not. Instead of seeing men and women as close collaborators in the human project, feminists often suppose that the sexes are rivals, opponents. This is sheer tribalism. Bonner looks at Dunkirk and is irritated that men like the film. She sees it as a celebration of manly courage and bravado, or at least manly endurance and grit, and this repulses her. Feminism means constant maintenance of an imaginary set of scales, and she fears Dunkirk adds weight to the masculine side, tipping the culture away from women. If Dunkirk — “Christopher Nolan’s new directorial gift to men,” she calls it — shows men at their best, it must therefore be bad for women.

The reason we can’t have a Dunkirk that’s about women and “marginalized” people is because there weren’t a lot of them on the beach in June 1940. The only Dunkirk that would satisfy Bonner would be a Dunkirk that simply didn’t exist. Can’t men just shut up about all the stuff men have done? Their sense of history is so . . . basic.


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