Orlando as a feminist film

To depict Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992) as a feminist film and its protagonist Orlando played by Tilda Swinton as “a time-traveling feminist observer” requires us, in the first place, to have a close look at the definition of feminism. According to the Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories: feminism means “general respect for women’s own perspectives and authority, its persistent attention to the workings of power structures which privilege men, …. concerned with women’s flourishing – women controlling adequate resources, of all sorts, to live well.” It also means “enduring tendencies among women to resistance, rebellion, and creative alternative world-making.”

In the epic journey through the heyday of England to the modern times, the androgynous Orlando, within seven episodes, survives the universal human trials of death, love, sex and birth, tries to make his/her way through poetry, politics and society, wakes up one day with a female body and leads an independent and joyful life with her daughter in the end.

The film starts with Orlando as a feminine nobleman who fascinates Queen Elizabeth I and is bestowed a large area of land on the condition that “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” At the time, his value is based on his handsome look and all he needs to do is to obey and please the authority. He is then waken by love. The impossible future of Orlando and Sasha, the daughter of the Russian ambassador glooms him and Sasha’s decided departure stimulates him to write poetry. “The sad young man” identity, however, does not support his willing to be a poet. Hurt and frustrated, he goes to Constantinople as British ambassador, nearly killed in a battle. Though in the possession of various properties, the male Orlando, “a casualty of love” has been sensitive and helpless.

The overnight transformation from Lord Orlando to Lady Orlando disqualifies his/her right to own the properties and seems to be a “social misfit” in the literature salon. The previous Orlando is presented as a feminist trapped in a male body, liberated at once when turning into a woman. Faced with the mocks from the poets, she criticizes their disrespect towards the female in a mild but convincing way as if her female body empowers and illuminates her (“respect for women’s own perspectives and authority”), bidding farewell to the past dependent and clueless male Orlando. This is further shown when she resists the other Lord’s proposal, and interestingly enough, the reasons she says sounds almost the same as Sasha’s departing words that adoring is not sufficient for togetherness and that a woman has the right to decide her own fate.

Her ephemeral affair with an exotic lover delivers her a daughter – the strongest indication that this film is a feminist film as the director changed Virginia Woolf’s original ending to the opposite by giving Orlando a daughter: this “gives birth to” a modern, mindful, caring and daring (she rides a motorcycle, a symbol of freedom and masculinity) mother in control of her own life in the modern era, independent of the ambiguous blessings from a noble title and numerous properties (things do not define her). The final shots of Orlando and her daughter, bathed in the sunshine, smiling and silent, is a confirmation that out of the chaos of consumerism, the overflow of commoditization of the female, the overemphasis of sexual difference, there is a possibility that women are not defined by the power, wealth and status of their fathers or husbands: opposite sex and that women’s values come from their own identity, rather than from her possessions.

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