Noah: A win for animals but misses the mark on feminism and race
- Published: 26 April 2014
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The biblical blockbuster movie is to be applauded for its strong vegan message, but the filmmakers’ inability or refusal to apply their apparent concern for animals to historically marginalised groups of people is disappointing, writes Ruby Hamad.
28 April 2014
Initially, I had no intention of watching Noah. Apart from my general lack of interest in ancient biblical tales of heroism and religious preaching, I couldn’t suppress an eye-roll at the casting of yet another white actor in the role of a man from a decidedly non-white part of the world.
Then I read that director Darren Aronofksy served only vegan food at party for the cast in New York And that he used only CGI animals in the making of the film, because as we all should know by now, those “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimers at the end of the credits are almost always bunk.
And then this article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed. In ‘Yes, Noah Is Totally Vegan Propaganda,’ Vance Lehmkuhl writes:
“The vegan imperative is artfully woven into other themes – this isn't the only message in the film, just the predominant one…Aronofsky makes clear that the first step, not the last, to balancing our relationship with the world is to address our relationship to animals and to seek justice there just as we seek it among ourselves.”
Now it’s not often us vegans get to see a fully-fledged blockbuster spreading our message. I had to see for myself.
And yes, Aronofsky’s Noah is certainly an environmentally conscious vegan. Our eponymous character and his family eat only what plants they can forage (and never more than they need) with Noah explaining to his sons that other humans eat animals because “they (mistakenly) think it makes them stronger”.
This not a review on the artistic and narrative achievements of the film but the vegan in me loved Noah, simply for the fact that it exists.
I couldn’t help but be sympathetic to his perhaps misguided and eventually misanthropic mission to ensure humanity didn’t survive the flood. After all, we’ve shown ourselves to cause untold death and destruction at almost every opportunity.
It was certainly refreshing to watch a film in which I didn’t have to switch off that part of me that is so concerned with the plight of animals, something us vegans have to do pretty much every day, in a world that uses animals from everything to food to clothing to entertainment.
But because my veganism is informed by my feminism and by my intersectional perspective on race and other social issues, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the filmmakers’ inability or refusal to apply their apparent concern for animals to historically marginalised groups of people.
Women ‘ruin’ everything
The feminist in me was somewhere between very irritated and mildly aghast at the roles of Noah’s wife Naamah and daughter-in-law Ila.
Look, this is a mild spoiler, but I have to say it to get the point across. Noah’s mission is to rid the earth of the humans that he believes “The Creator” had informed him have abdicated their right to exist.
Although initially intending to find wives for his three sons, Noah decides the human race will die out with his own family whose task is to ensure the survivals of “the innocent…the animals”.
And everything goes according to plan…until everything comes undone by his short-sighted wife.
Devastated, and as all women seem to be accused of doing, acting on emotion rather than reason, Naamah enlists a little sorcery to try and ensure at least one of her sons has an heir – an act that Noah, in no uncertain terms tells her ruins everything.
“Do you have any idea what you have done?” He yells at her, as the rest of the human race die outside the safe confines of the Ark. “All those people…for nothing!”
It’s the ‘Fall’ all over again. Everything ruined by a woman. Whereas Noah is a man of action and rationality – he does what he does, however unpalatable because “it needs to be done”, Naamah is just a silly woman with too many feelings.
Whitewashing the cast
And I hope I don’t have to explain why casting all white actors in these roles of ancient Semitic peoples is so wrong.
I’ve already written a great deal on whitewashing in films, and how it not only deprives actors from minority backgrounds from all too rare roles, but contributes to the ongoing erasure of people of colour and culturally diverse backgrounds.
Films that erase or marginalise people of colour cement the idea of the centrality of whiteness – that everything revolves around the white race, and that subsequently whiteness is seen as the default human status. White people are simply human. Everyone else is a variation thereof.
Aronfosky and his co-writer Ari Handel have certainly copped some flak about this. Handel’s response to the valid criticism is rather breathtaking in its cluelessness:
“From the beginning, we were concerned about casting, the issue of race. What we realized is that this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people. You either try to put everything in there, which just calls attention to it, or you just say, ‘Let’s make that not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman.’”
It is astounding that Handel does not seem to grasp that the idea of the white man as “everyman” is exactly the problem.
That he can say with, I presume, a straight face that race doesn’t matter, and then proceed to include only white people perpetuates the unspoken idea that whiteness is not a race, that European Caucasian is not an ethnicity but the default state of being.
Whiteness is neutral; it is the absence of race, so white people – men in particular – can represent us all. Of course what this means is that whiteness can represent everything, but blacks will only ever be black, Arabs are only Arab and so on.
When I discussed all this recently with the Team Earthling podcast, I was asked if I thought Noah undermines the intersectional vegan message.
I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t think we should lose sight of how extraordinary it is that veganism is a strong enough force in today’s world that a major Hollywood studio is willing to fund a blockbuster of this magnitude with such a strong vegan message.
It is disappointing that Aronofsky couldn’t extend this same consideration for animals to women and people of colour – and that is why we have to point out the film’s shortcomings and hope that they will take the criticism on board.
But we do need to celebrate all our successes, however small and flawed. I can’t discount the thrill it gave me to see such a major film so strongly advocating for animals and making that all-important link between how we treat animals and our violence towards each other.
We can only get bigger and better from here.
Ruby Hamad is Associate Editor at The Scavenger.
Images via the official Noah the Movie site.