[This post includes some MINOR SPOILERS, though I’ve tried to be as vague as possible.
Also, CONTENT WARNING: this post acknowledges gender-based violence and misogyny.]
With the storefront closed for the winter months, I have been catching up on all of the cultural morsels I missed in 2022. After all of the hype, I was excited to finally watch The Banshees of Inisherin, and I am happy to say it did not disappoint! There is much to say about the writer/director Martin McDonagh’s unique blend of comedy and tragedy, and the film’s incredibly nuanced and skillful performances. I, however, have found myself mulling over a brief but vital moment in the film: Mrs. McCormick’s foretelling of the future.
While never overtly straying into the realm of magical realism (indeed, characters state that there are no banshees on the island), a uniquely Irish culture steeped in both folklore and tragedy permeates Mconagh’s film. The resident banshee Mrs. McCormick, played to scene-stealing perfection by Sheila Flitton, is introduced early on as an unpleasant guest at the home of siblings Pádraic and Siobhán Súilleabháin (played by Colin Ferrel and Kerry Condon, respectively). With McDonagh’s typically dark humor, Mrs. McCormick is painted as a harbinger of doom, so unwelcome that, in a later scene, spotting her ahead on the road inspires Pádraic to hide. His attempt is unsuccessful, however, and Mrs. McCormick uses the encounter to portend two deaths on the island (accurately, I might add, but more on that later). Upset by her prophecy, the kindhearted Pádraic tells Mrs. McCormick it isn’t “nice,” to which the old woman replies, “I wasn’t trying to be nice. I was trying to be accurate.”
The scene is played for a grim laugh, and Flitton’s bone-dry delivery is nothing short of iconic, but I have since found myself repeatedly mulling over this moment. (I mean, what a MOOD™️, right?) While Pádraic’s loss of innocence is indeed heartbreaking (his intoxicated speech about the lasting impact of niceness had me on the edge of tears), I believe many women have experienced real harm as a result of social expectations to be nice. (For clarity, I will be using the word “women” to include trans-women and femme-identifying individuals. TERFS can fuck off.)
In their 2019 book Burnout, writers Emily Nagoski, PhD, and Amerlia Nagoski, DMA, rely heavily on “philosopher Kate Manne[‘s work describing] …a system in which one class of people, the ‘human givers,’ are expected to offer their time, attention, affection, and bodies willingly, placidly, to the other class of people, the ‘human beings.’ …Human givers must, at all times, be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others, which means they must never be ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to their own needs.” These expectations, along with suppression of the “stress cycle,” can lead to burnout, or an experience of chronic depletion/exhaustion.
Simply put, women are expected to be nice at our own expense.
This theory will come as shocking to exactly ZERO of the women I know. To be a woman and to not be nice is to navigate a minefield. It can even be a literal matter of life or death: gender-based violence is a global epidemic, and it is important to acknowledge the fact that “being nice,” whatever that may mean in an individual situation, can in fact be a survival skill in the face of trauma. In my own experience, oftentimes expectations and admonishments to “be nice” could simply have been translated to: “Overlook something harmful done to you/others so that a) someone(s) else is/are not held accountable, and b) others involved need not address this harm.”
Without sharing too much of my personal life, I’ll say that not long ago I had an experience which echoed Reductress’ satiric headline “Man Who Hurt You Upset You Told People He Hurt You”, and for some time after I found myself going out of my way to smooth things over for everyone else involved. I soon realized that the anxiety I was experiencing was rooted in a desire to be perceived as nice, and was in fact at my own expense (thank you, therapy!). I was expending a lot of my emotional energy to gain approval in the eyes of people from whom, quite frankly, I would not seek validation otherwise. Why then was I investing my energy in their opinion? Why was I trying to be nice, when accuracy would have served me better?
What happens when we do address the harm? Think of some of the words used to describe women who are not “at all times… pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others,” women who are, in fact, “ugly, angry, upset, ambitious, or attentive to their own needs.” There are quite literally lists of words for women who upset gendered expectations, from the old-standby “bossy” to the now-iconic “nasty woman” to…
…you guessed it, BANSHEE.
As explored by the absolutely fabulous podcast Blúiríní Béaloidis, “In origin a patron goddess caring for the fortunes of her people, the banshee of folk belief is usually considered to be a harbinger of death, being said to follow certain families from generation to generation. ” (source)
It is not surprising that a supernatural entity that foretells death and doom would be unwelcome. However, I believe it is specifically the gendered nature of the banshee that has led to the use of this misogynist slur. Like calling a woman shrill or hysterical, it operates as a form of tone policing, dismissing the accuracy of a woman’s position on the grounds that her delivery wasn’t nice.
By the end of The Banshees of Inisherin, we find that Mrs. McCormick’s prediction was, in fact, accurate. There is no joy to be found in her accuracy, and I imagine many women can sympathize the sort of bitter resignation that comes with being validated after the fact. But there is also a sort of brilliance in Mrs. McCormick’s directness, an attitude that may be read as grim and unpleasant, but also speaks to a sort of hard-won wisdom. It’s clear that this character understands that it doesn’t matter how nice you are, if the person listening doesn’t want to accept your truth, your words may be easily dismissed as the shrieking of a banshee.
And so I find myself asking, why not reclaim the moniker? Here’s to declaring Mrs. McCormick an inspiration, and 2023 my banshee year— I look forward to all it may bring. 😉
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