Les Miserables’ Fantine, Women’s Suffering, and Female Migrant Labor by Gina Messina-Dysert

Gina Messina-Dysert profileUpon 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.

Anne Hathaway / Les Misérables: © Universal Pictures.

Anne Hathaway / Les Misérables: © Universal Pictures.

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.

Categories: Rape Culture, Sex Work, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Violence Against Women, Women's Suffering

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Trafficked women have been brought into Greece for over 20 years now, since the “fall of the iron curtain.” Many are lured with promises of work in bars, only to have their passports taken and to be raped until they submit to lives as prostitutes here. CNN has documented this worldwide problem for over a year now. Sadly governments turn a blind eye to the suffering of prostitutes and men continue to “use the services” of trafficked women, many of them underage as well. Anston Kircher started a campaign with the slogan, “real men don’t sleep with girls.” And again, sadly, he is right, there would be no trafficking in women and girls if men did not “require” or “make use of” “the services” of women and girls.

    By the way prostitution is not the oldest profession. Before patriarchy women could sleep with whomever they chose and men were not deprived of sex. Sorry, but this is the truth.


    • Thanks for this comment, Carol. Yes, trafficking continues to be a very serious issue and that is because there is demand. We live in a culture that continues to objectify women and refuse reasonable economic opportunities causing women to be forced into the sex industry. There is so much to be considered here – I don’t think we can talk about the sex industry as empowering as long as a culture exists that objectifies women.


    • Ashton Kutcher’s Real Men Don’t Buy Girls campaign is really interesting to analyze. I use the ads as a case study when I teach community organizing. My students usually have widely divergent opinions on it.


  2. 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.

    Do you believe that women who engage in sex work are literally damned by God?


    • Hi Doxy, Thanks for your question. Let me be clear – certainly this is not my thought but rather a critique of many theological ideas that shame women around issues of sexuality. We live in a culture that does the same and women in the sex trade are wounded by this culture. Thus, I don’t think that women are empowered by the sex trade but rather are forced into the sex trade because of little economic opportunity. Engaging in this kind of work by “choice” or by force leads to self esteem issues – this is directly because of the problematic ideas that are enforced by the culture. So, this statement was acknowledging that – but not agreeing with it. So no, women in the sex trade are not damned by God – but may feel that way. Thanks for your question – certainly an important discussion to have.


  3. Very perceptive review! I’ve seen Les Miz on stage several times–the first touring company in 1988, at the Hollywood Bowl, the new 25th anniversary production (twice, this is the production without the turntable)–and love the music. I’ve always thought of it in the context of musical theater. You just gave me a whole new viewpoint. Brava. Hugo was of course writing about what are called “the wretched of the earth.” This has always included women with no choices in their lives.


  4. Don’t want to seem like a pain to my cousins across the pond, but Les Mis the movie cannot be described as ‘Hollywood’ (upper case H) in any way shape or form: its a British film (British director, filmed at Pinewood Studios England and on locations in the UK and in France produced by Working Title Films, London), based on a British musical which in turn is based on a French novel .The principal actors are British, American, and Australian.

    I’m sorry, folks: its just this hegemony thing……..

    (its like your spell check won’t accept British English)

    Bright Blessings J


    • June,
      Take it from someone who viewed the screener well before its release date and knowns individuals who worked on the film and in Hollywood, this movie is Hollywood with a capital H. The big movie, big budget, film that they roll around to get the awards season abuzz.


      • John, than you for your response: but my point was entirely other. Outside of the USA, the word ‘Hollywood’ means ‘American’ – especially with a capital ‘H’, and, of course, especially American film.
        Now, countries all over the world have fine, long traditions of cinema: the majority of European countries, and also Russia, India, Japan and many South American countries have fascinating cinema histories. France and Britain pioneered early cinema; the contributions of Indian, Russian and Japanese directors are simply too many to list and so on.Most recently, African filmmakers have been finding their voice. Moreover, many of these traditions, whilst having enormous respect for American film, believe that US directors have sometimes been hostage to excessive commercial pressure.
        It is, in fact, precisely because of the huge commercial success of American film, that the popular film industry in India refers to itself as ‘Bollywood’, and in Nigeria as ‘Nollywood’ . But these tags are ironic: they convey the meaning – ‘look, here in India we have the largest film industry in the world, together with a fine tradition which includes directors of genius like Sanjit Ray, yet people still refer to any ‘big’ movie as Hollywood, meaning ‘American’. OK, so we are Bollywood!’
        People outside of America make movies! They make big commercial movies !! And they have extremely ambivalent responses to their films being labeled American.
        Perhaps you will think I am over-reacting: but the clash between ‘Islamic’ and ‘Western’ civilization is only one example of ways in which different cultures utterly fail to understand one another. We can begin to remedy this by exploring the language (and the assumptions embedded within it ) by which we explore traditions other than our own.


  5. Carol – thank you for your post, but I’m not at all sure about this ‘Before Patriarchy’ (BP) idea.
    BP of necessity means ancient history, ie non-literate history, as all our surviving records, no matter how old, are from literate and (though this may be anachronistic) seemingly patriarchal societies.
    The fact is, we simply don’t know if there was ever, anywhere, a truly non-patriarchal society. That doesn’t in any way shape or form discredit feminism: on the contrary, perhaps it is our destiny to boldly go where no women has gone before, but whatever the case we can know nothing about the relationships between men and women in a matriarchal utopia for which no written evidence survives. Gumbatus’ theories were, of course, based on the archaeological record, and, as such, highly interpretative.

    The curiously pre-lapsarian concept of BP (once upon a time there was a golden age ….) is a powerful heuristic device, but is is not, and cannot be, subject to the kind of factual analysis which would tell us about sexual practice PB – or even if PB ever exited in the first place.
    Blessings J


    • I think Societies of Peace makes a very good case that non patriarchal societies exist today, which gives credence to the idea that they existed in the past as welll. In my research in ancient Crete I have not come across a single image that celebrates domination. Images of domination are generally larger than life (see kings in Assyria, pharoahs in Egypt). Even in the so-called and misnamed palaces al of the rooms are small, suggesting intimacy not domination, and no images of warriors or kings have been found there either. My hypothesis is that domination must be symbolized for people to accept it. Gimbutas’s theories have been questioned, but so have a lot of ideas that are true. Would we really expect a still male-dominated academy to accept a theory that tells us that men have not always been dominant, and that war is not inevitable, and that the alleged originators of culture and reason, the beloved male classical Greeks, were not the epitome of either? To do so would require rethinking absolutely everything.


      • Yes, I’ve read Gimbuta’s work and even Rosemary comments on her s-t-r-e-t-c-h to argue the non-written acheological record. I have argued, however, that how often has the male written record been mistaken and no one seems to be bent out of shape about their errors of thinking and judgment, which this forum does in order to cause the change needed in academia and on a global scale to change the circular thinking that what patriarchy claims is normative truth. This presupposed normative truth is what has caused women to be raped and pillaged over the ages without a second thought. We nee to be second thinking all this because that’s how the change in the system WILL take place. Gimbuta’s theories may not be perfect, but she raises the questions and that’s all we need to create the curiosity that a society did exist in some way shape or form that may have been matriarchal or at the least/best more egalitarian in its treatment of women.
        Many Native American tribes are more egalitarian that what we discuss here, so these things need to be studied in a broader way and this knowledge will eventually level the inequality that exists, especially when it comes to rape and violence aimed at women in whatever way it happens. Ladies, as always provacative and thank you all for raising these issues.


  6. Typos abound !!! In the last sentence of my response to Carol ‘PB’ (twice) should, of course read ‘BP’ ! J


  7. As a religious woman myself, and a leading of traditional Bible Study I just want to applaud you for this overwhelmingly new, but insightful, view into Les Miz. Wow.

    I have spent my life studying the women of the Old Testament, and am looking forward to posing this issue as a topic for discussion in my next session.

    Thank you for in-depth look into this concerning matter – you have opened my eyes to something entirely new.

    Rita Kroon @ womanhoodbyrita.com



  1. Les Miserables’ Fantine, Women’s Suffering, and Female Migrant Labor by Gina Messina-Dysert « dmariesings

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