Woman vs. Man vs. Patriarchy in JFK

JFK is two stories: the story of the only case ever brought to trial relating to the JFK assassination, and the story of Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who brought it. There’s a tremendous controversy about Garrison’s version of events, which I’m not touching in this post. I will say, however, that I read Garrison’s book and the other book the movie is based on a few years ago, and found Oliver Stone had no problem diverging from facts and Garrison’s story when it suited him, particularly in portraying Garrison’s disrupted home life. Therefore, like a work of pure fiction, JFK is directed by someone who does not consider his story bound by fact. Stone’s choices of what to portray and how must be regarded as his own.

As Garrison becomes obsessed with the JFK conspiracy, devoting more and more time to his investigation, his wife and five children feel understandably neglected, though Liz is portrayed more as a harpy nagging her husband for “Saturday night dates” than a woman asserting justly that a husband-father ought to see his wife and kids once in a while. He breaks a family lunch date on Easter Sunday. At one point, one of his grade school daughters gets a call at home from a man claiming to want to register her for a beauty pageant. This is clearly someone’s way of letting Garrison know they can get to his child if he continues: Liz is deeply concerned, but Jim just shrugs it off, saying they get crank calls down at the office all the time. Liz understandably blows up on him, and for the first time the movie allows her to make solid arguments about how far his neglect has gone.

For a minute there, you might think the movie is going to recognize that Jim’s been a lousy husband and father, no matter what good he may be doing. But you’d be wrong. A hint: look at how emotional and over the top Liz is in that scene, even though she’s making sense, while Jim handles it all so calmly.

Guess how this gets resolved later. Does Jim apologize and beg for understanding? Does Jim change? No, Liz is still angry when Jim’s about to start his trial of Clay Shaw, and says she won’t attend. But when Robert Kennedy gets assassinated, Liz becomes a convert to Jim’s point of view, and shows up to court with his older son (the rest of the kids have ceased to exist for the film at this point). At the end we see patriarchy restored in the form of the happy family, or at least the members that count – Jim, Liz, and the son Jim has counseled to take care of himself so he might live to see the last of the assassination documents unsealed – walking off from the courtroom.

Let’s break this down. It’s patriotic for Jim to challenge the government, the central patriarchal authority in his life, when he believes it’s letting the country down. It’s betrayal when Liz challenges the central patriarchal authority in her life – her husband – when she believes he’s letting the family down.

It’s such a stark irony, one I doubt Stone was even conscious of. Why would he be? Men have the privilege of seeing patriarchy (leadership of the father) as something different from family. The patriarchy they rule over naturally seems different to them from the patriarchy that rules them. When you’re the gender that is never expected to rule either, the irony is more obvious. Garrison thinks somehow that getting justice for Kennedy is essential for his children. That’s a nice lofty argument, but let’s face it: tracking down assassins is a lot less mundane and in some ways easier than raising another human being to adulthood. Fatherhood is a lot scarier than conspiracies.

Before anyone argues that maybe Stone was just sticking to the emotional truth (as he claims) and Liz really did come to realize her husband’s work was more important than their family: Stone didn’t have to include anything about Jim’s family. I’ve watched the movie several times where I skipped through all those scenes – the movie makes complete sense without them, and it’s better paced. Also, that brings it much closer to the standard two hour time time limit movie makers are strongly encouraged to stick to. In fact Stone had every incentive to cut out this family story that had nothing to do with the Clay Shaw case. He included it for a reason: to show Liz convert and realize the folly of her ways. If one of her kids had to die to enable their father to save the country, well… ask not what your country can do for you, I guess.

In real life:

Patricia Lambert, False Witness (New York: M. Evans and Co., 1998), p. 226. As Lambert notes, Garrison’s mistreatment of his wife, Elizabeth, was widely reported, and ranged from throwing a drink in her face in a restaurant to reports that he abused her physically. (Lambert, p. 231.) “I did get mad at my wife one time in public,” Garrison admitted to journalist Art Kevin. “Doesn’t every husband and wife get that way sometime?” (Art Kevin, “The Jolly Green Giant: A Look Back at the Case against Clay Shaw by DA Jim Garrison,” Kennedy Assassination Chronicles, Vol. 3, No. 2.)

The couple divorced in 1978.

Liz is not the only woman in the film, and in subtle ways the other portrayals are perhaps even more disturbing. The film’s opening scene (after a brief montage of footage under narration and Eisenhower’s speech) opens with prostitute Rose Charamie being thrown out of a car. A woman harmed is one of Hollywood’s stock images to let us know there are bad men afoot. Shortly thereafter, Rose is in a hospital bed, moaning and crying way over the top as she tries to convince someone that the men who did this to her are serious about killing the president. The next time we see Charamie, she’s dead alongside another road, like so many other witnesses who died violently within a few years of the assassination.

This sets the stage for the witnesses. Garrison interviews many male and female witnesses, most of which end up dead. The only ones willing to testify are women and a gay male prostitute. Out heterosexual male leadership is failing, putting the men who run the country ahead of the country itself. But will Garrison call the women who are willing to step forward and save the country at risk to their own lives? No; they might get hurt, so he denies them the right to serve justice as they see fit. When the staff disagrees, insisting Julianne Mercer is the best witness they have, Garrison says, “I just don’t want to do it.”

So he’ll protect grown women from laying down their own lives, but he won’t hear his wife when she’s concerned about his neglect of the children. Why? Again, I’m talking about the movie characters and not the real people when I say: vanity. The movie Garrison is flattered by someone threatening his daughter to get to him. It’s all about him. As for the rest of his familial neglect, that’s a common trope in movies: wives and children who come to realize that what Daddy does for the business world or government is far more important than they are, and they must sacrifice so that Daddy may do his work.

If it’s right for Jim to question his patriarchy, then it’s right for Liz to question hers. If it’s right for Jim to chivalrously protect grown women who volunteer to testify, then he must chivalrously protect his family from the emotional damage of being rejected by Daddy in favor of something more entertaining. But not according to these male filmmakers. No, somehow they’re able to compartmentalize macro and micro patriarchies into two completely different animals.

Most importantly, if patriarchal government can’t function when the individuals who run it can’t be trusted, then a patriarchal family can’t function when the father-husband can’t be relied upon. This is the essential truth Stone completely misses.


  1. SunlessNick says

    If it’s right for Jim to question his patriarchy, then it’s right for Liz to question hers. If it’s right for Jim to chivalrously protect grown women who volunteer to testify, then he must chivalrously protect his family from the emotional damage of being rejected by Daddy in favor of something more entertaining.

    If I was in a very cynical mood, I might suggest that these are not inconsistent at all, but rooted in the single idea that it’s the business of men to take charge of power, and to contest it when abused – these female witnesses aren’t stepping up – they’re trespassing.

  2. Gategrrl says

    Perhaps Stone thought that Sissy Spacek was still playing Lorretta Lynn in “Coal Miners Daughter”, singing ‘Stand By Your Man’?

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