The Power of Weakness, Womanhood, and Empathy in Midsommar

Written by Michaela Lavelle.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.

After three hours of processing and a phone call to my mom, Midsommar became one of my favorite movies, maybe ever. The plot follows Dani, a young woman grieving the loss of her parents and sister, Christian, Dani’s terrible boyfriend, and Christian’s friends as they embark on a trip to the Swedish commune Hårga to experience a special midsommar celebration. The movie is classified as folk horror, and I’m not too big to admit that I closed my eyes a few times, but the power of this movie goes beyond Ari Aster’s burned-in-the-back-of-your-eyelids imagery. Here is what the plot summary on Wikipedia is missing: 

Midsommar is not a movie with a strong female protagonist, and that’s amazing. Thankfully, movies have mostly moved past the “Damsel in Distress” trope for female characters, but the consequent emergence of the “Strong Woman” trope can also have damaging long-term impacts. Often movies with women coded as “strong female characters” are given masculine traits which we as a patriarchal culture read as “strong.” These characters are still one-dimensional and not a true reflection of womanhood. Women are not split into a neat binary of strong or weak. We are both. 

A note on the concept of women expressing negative emotion: The beauty of Dani’s character has to do with how unhinged she was allowed to be on screen, something rare in how media portrays female protagonists. Dani’s whiteness is critical to audience’s positive reception to her emotionality. Stereotypes of women of color exhibiting strong emotions, such as the angry Latina and angry Black woman, would not allow the complex portrayal of womanhood enabled by Dani’s whiteness. As the film industry continues to support work done by women and stories centered on characters like Dani, it is important to not be complacent with slices of representation. The power of movies lies in their ability to be mirrors (but mirrors with a cool soundtrack in the back), so until mainstream stories reflect the rich diversity of people and experiences, there will always be stories to fight for.

Women are not allowed to publicly grieve or be angry and we see Dani struggle with that. When triggered, Dani goes away alone and attempts to console herself, not wanting to burden others with her grief. Media often doesn’t touch the ugly and raw way we witness Dani grieving. It’s intimate and powerful. Dani is suffering, struggling to cope, and feeling isolated. Midsommar catches Dani at her weakest and doesn’t romanticize her struggle into her being “strong.” She is a hurting, weak, and dynamic protagonist. 

The slow leaning into the support of the women around her is what finally frees Dani to feel and grieve the way she needed to. After being crowned May Queen and being surrounded by loving and supportive women, Dani catches her boyfriend Christian cheating on her. As she stumbles back to throw up the aforementioned group of Hårga women are immediately at her side, leading her away. When Dani collapses to the floor, the Hårga women don’t shush her or tell her everything will be okay. They just put their arms around Dani and sob with her, their every motion and scream of anguish aligned with hers. The betrayal Dani goes through is theirs too; they don’t let her go through it alone. The empathetic catharsis depicted is like nothing I’ve ever seen on screen before. 

I watched the movie for the first time with women who mean a lot to me and more or less sobbed from the aforementioned crying scene to the end. I am so lucky to have a group of Hårga-esque women who laugh, cry, scream, and go through it all with me — women who never alienize my experiences and give me unconditional support. The expectations placed on women regarding in what ways and in what spaces we are allowed to exist are exhausting to live against, and watching Midsommar was like watching a triumph of female solidarity. The way women align themselves with each other against the inherent violence of womanhood is something intrinsic that I didn’t know film could capture, but Midsommar did. 

My recommendation is this: Gather your favorite women, watch this movie, and prepare for a roller coaster that ends with you walking into places like Target and thinking “Yeah, I feel held here.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: