Les Miserables’ Fantine, Women’s Suffering, and Female Migrant Labor by Gina Messina-Dysert
Upon the recommendation of several friends and colleagues I decided to see the film Les Miserables. It is rare these days that I make it to the movies. My life is generally over scheduled and spare time is nonexistent. So with just a few days left until the start of the semester and with a pile of work on my desk, I decided to throw caution to the wind and head to the theater last-minute to see Victor Hugo’s masterpiece on the big screen.
First, can I say what a brilliant surprise the film itself was? I wondered if Hollywood could do justice to Hugo; from the moment of the opening scene I was in absolute awe. I left the theater experiencing a momentary resurrection.
While the entire film was amazing, I would have seen it for nothing else but Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine. I felt her suffering in the depths of my soul and wept along with her. In Fantine we see the suffering of Everywoman. She represents the thin line between those virtuous and those fallen and mirrors women’s imprisonment within this dichotomy.
In Fantine we also recognize the suffering of female migrant workers. Although Fantine is not a migrant worker, we see many parallels between her plight and the plight of women today who are forced to “choose” sex work as a means of survival for themselves and their children.
Fantine is a caucasian woman and that may make it difficult for some to connect her character to female migrant workers. Although there are caucasian migrant women, there are also many migrant women of varying ethnic and racial identities. However, Hugo’s story is also about class struggle and Fantine’s character has a parallel position and struggle in society shared by many female migrant workers today.
Female migrants are certainly not the only women in the sex trade. However, in the age of globalization women from poor nations are taking up a global commute to embrace work others have refused. Today the sex trade is flooded with Third World women. This sometimes occurs by “choice” and sometimes by being manipulated into crossing boarders with promises of jobs, only to have their passports stolen and to become imprisoned in foreign lands as merchandise.
In fact, women are often encouraged by their home countries to cross borders to find work because women are more likely than men to send their earnings home. Barbara Ehrenreich explains that women send half to nearly all of what they earn back to their families. This is hugely significant for poor nations and makes a strong impact on those economies as well as the lives of these women’s children and relatives.
We live in a society – a rape culture – where migrant women are left with little economic opportunity and sex work becomes a means – sometimes the only means – of survival for themselves and their children. The torment mothers endure watching their own children suffer is unbearable. Although we learn from an early age that to be worthy of God is to be pure, women are forced into choosing their own damnation in favor of their children’s salvation.
In rape culture violence is perpetrated against women in many forms. Economic injustice, lack of employment opportunities, and the sex trade offered up as a means of survival are certainly forms of violence. In Fantine’s story we recognize the unjust economic conditions for female migrant workers and the injustice of being condemned by society for “choosing” the sex trade. How many Fantine’s must be sentenced to a life of “hell” before we address such injustice?
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D. is a Feminist theologian, ethicist, and activist. She is Director of the Center for Women’s Interdisciplinary Research and Education at Claremont Graduate University, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics at Loyola Marymount University, and Co-founder and Project Weaver of Feminism and Religion. Gina has authored multiple articles and the forthcoming book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence. She is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the forthcoming anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century and is a contributor to the Rock and Theology project sponsored by the Liturgical Press. Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.