“Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Miss Martha.” (Focus Features)

The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “The Beguiled,” click here.

Nearly every time I write about patriarchy, I get pushback reminding me that not all men are misogynistic creepers who believe that “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a how-to guide to establishing a government. Well, duh.

Here’s the fun thing about patriarchy: It doesn’t always come in male form, as “The Beguiled” neatly proves.
A group of women in Civil War-era Virginia are living in an all-but-abandoned school for ladies, the kind where lessons in penmanship and French are the order of the day. Led by headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), they range in age from around 12 to the fully grown but heavily sheltered teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). When wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) stumbles into their world, they decide to nurse him back to health before sending him off to a prison camp. While there, he plays the women against one another to win their affections and, presumably, a ticket out of that camp.

Except that’s not exactly what happens. McBurney doesn’t cause the rifts that start to splinter the school; he simply reveals them.

The Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies should have been what we’d now call a “safe space.” It’s a gated community inhabited entirely by smart, educated women who, in Martha, have a strong leader. This is a world of “us.” There is no “them.” This should be the Themyscira of the South.

But the lessons of the outside world have already gotten in. Those lessons have brought about body-shaming in the guise of modesty (don’t show too much shoulder!), plenty of guidance on the appropriate role of women (mostly decoration) and a continued, unnecessary adherence to the rules of the outside world (no one in Themyscira wore a corset, because no one cared about the proper waist-to-hip ratio).

One of the gravest lessons the patriarchy teaches is that women are not to be trusted, especially by other women. The women of the Farnsworth school have, like so many other women, internalized this — you can see it in Sofia Coppola’s subtle direction even before McBurney arrives. Edwina thinks Martha is a tyrant; Martha thinks Edwina needs to know her place. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is all but literally an outcast — she’s the only one who wears her hair down and tousled, and you know what they say about girls like that.

McBurney’s arrival at the school is a problem, but it’s not the problem. “The Beguiled” is not some extended catfight over a boy; it’s an exploration of how women can be both users and tools of a system that teaches, in part, that the only way to win is to make other women lose.

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